Each winter, some two-thirds of the North Pacific humpback whale population (about 4,000-5,000 animals) migrate over 3,500 mi from the icy Alaska waters to the warm Hawaiian ocean to give birth to and nurse their calves. Recent reports indicate that the whale population is on the upswing—a few years ago one even ventured into the mouth of Hilo Harbor, which marine biologists say is quite rare. Humpbacks are spotted here from early December through the end of April, but other species, like sperm, pilot, and beaked whales, can be seen year-round. Most ocean tour companies offer whale outings during the season, but two owner-operators do it full time. They are much more familiar with whale behavior and you're more likely to have a quality whale-watching experience. If you take the morning cruise, you're likely to see dolphins as well. In addition to the outfitters listed below,Body Glove Cruises offers whale-watching cruises.
Blue Sea Cruises. The 46-foot Makai and the 70-foot Spirit of Kona cruise along the Kona Coast catching sight of dolphins, whales, and manta rays. Both boats have snack bars and restrooms, and the double-decker Spirit of Kona also has a glass bottom. Seasonal humpback whale watches are $84, dolphin cruises are $89, night manta ray cruises are $74, and sunset dinner cruises are $103. Kailua-Kona Pier, 75-5660 Palani Rd., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. Box 2429, Kailua-Kona, HI, 96745. PHONE: 808/331-8875. www.blueseacruisesinc.com.
Captain Dan McSweeney's Whale Watch Learning Adventures. This is probably the most experienced small operation on the island. Captain Dan McSweeney offers three-hour trips on his double-decker, 40-foot cruise boat. In addition to humpbacks (in winter), he'll try to show you dolphins and some of the six other whale species that live off the Kona Coast throughout the year. Tours cost $110, and McSweeney guarantees you'll see whales or he'll take you out again for free. Honokohau Harbor, 74-381 Kealakehe Pkwy., Kailua-Kona, HI, 96740. PHONE: 808/322-0028 or 888/942-5376. www.ilovewhales.com.