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Whale Watching Tips

1.Gear: If you have it, pack a pair of binoculars and a camera with a long, telephoto lens. If you’re going to be making a morning or afternoon of it, remember to throw in sunglasses, sunscreen, hat and snacks.

2. Don’t forget your patience. Humpback whales are, after all, wild animals, and Hawaii isn’t Sea World. Whales do not “perform” at 10:00 a.m. or 2:00 p.m. on the dot. They get busy whenever the fancy strikes—morning, noon or night. They are, after all, 45-ton, 45-foot marine mammals, some of the largest creatures in the sea. They pretty much do whatever they want; whenever they want.

3. Start by scanning the surface of the ocean left to right and right to left, fairly quickly. Humpback whales tend to spend a good portion of their time here in Hawaii near-shore, so they are easy to spot. Look for any ocean disturbance. Then, zero in on that area with your binoculars or telephoto zoom lens. Just don’t get fooled by a boat’s wake or a breaking wave. 

4. Spotting whales is always easier when the water is calm. Get to know the area where you’ll be heading out. Does the wind pick up during the middle of the day? If so, go out early in the morning. Check the weather forecast. Are strong trade-winds predicted? If so, head to the south or west sides—the leeward sides--of the island, which are usually protected by our islands’ interior mountains.

5. Don’t forget your patience. And, more, when you do see a whale—especially a breach or peduncle throw—show your enthusiasm and express your gratitude. The whales may not hear it, but it’s good for your positive mental attitude.

6. If you’re with a group (or on a boat), use the numbers on a clock to call out a whale’s location. If you’re on a boat, use the bow (front) as 12:00.

7. When you do see a whale (or, better yet, a group), take note of the whale direction of travel and try to identify the whale’s behavior. Since humpback whales travel to Hawaii from Alaska to breed and birth, you may likely see a mother with its calf. The best way to discern this is by size and color. A newborn calf is approximately one-third the size of its mother at birth. It is also lighter in color overall, and the underside of its pectoral fins and fluke will be nearly white—its pigmentation develops as it ages. If the whale dives, time its descents, so you can start to determine when it will surface. Depending on its activity, an adult whale can go 15 to 45 minutes before surfacing for a breath of air. Calves, though, need to surface every three to five minutes, approximately.

8. Did we mention patience? How about gratitude?