adult humpback whale breaching near the boat during our maui whale watching tour

Guide: An Epic Experience on a Maui Whale Watching Tour

I love wildlife, specifically whales. Growing up in Arizona, we’re obviously landlocked, and having the chance to go whale watching is nil. So when I discovered Maui has some of the most dense whale populations, I knew I had to go! 

In March 2024, my partner and I traveled to Hawaii for warmth and Maui whale watching. We saw so many whales and even heard their songs while swimming! It was a monumental experience that I’ll never forget. 

Inside, you’ll see incredible photos and learn everything you need about planning a whale watching trip to Maui. 

Your Guide to Whale Watching in Maui

My personal experience whale watching in Maui

During our time on the island, we took two Maui whale watching trips. 

The first was with Pac-Whale, a big (normal-sized, I guess) whale-watching vessel. This was the perfect call because it was incredibly windy, and whitecaps were present. Any other smaller-sized boat would have been uncomfortable. We launched from Maalaea Harbor. 

a humpback whale lands in the water after breaching next to our maui whale watching boat
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

Almost immediately after we left the harbor, a humpback whale breached about as close to us as possible without getting us wet. It was remarkable! The entire boat was jubilant and stoked! 

From there, we continued on our two-hour tour, seeing another half dozen whales, including a calf that breached about five times in succession. It was adorable and put on an awesome show! 

A whale begins a breach out of the water in maui.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

Seeing a breach this close was the one thing on my Maui bucket list, and I left that Maui whale watching tour over the moon.

Two days later, we headed out on a second trip, this one from Kihei on a raft. I wanted to see how the two options would compare. While it’s great to be so close to the water, photographing is incredibly hard as you’re constantly moving with the waves. 

But from a viewer’s perspective, there’s really nothing like it! I mean, you can hear the whale’s breath and even got a “growl-like” sound from one, too. It was gnarly! Unfortunately, it was a quieter day on the water, though a whale did a 45-second tail-slapping display. 

On our final maui whale watching tour, a humpback tail slaps.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

I’d never experienced something like that before! 

Overall, it was a beautiful and memorable time out on the water. Just being there to see the stunning animals live their life is something that will stick with me forever! 

Is whale watching in Maui worth it?

When you go whale watching in Maui during the winter season, you are guaranteed a show. It’s truly a magnificent experience and definitely worth it! We saw a half-dozen whales up close and then even more spread out to the horizon. 

When is the best time to go whale Watching? 

Thousands of humpback whales descend on the Maui Nui Basin between December and April to give birth and mate. This four-month stretch is when Maui whale watching is at its best, and you’ll see more whales than you can imagine.  

What is the best month to see whales in Maui?

While there’s not an exact answer to this, January and February seem to be the best months, as this is when most of the whales have arrived, and few have left. December and March/April are when they are still trickling in or heading back north towards Alaska. 

the back of a humpback whale as it swims through the  maui nui basin
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024
a humpback shoots out of the water during our maui whale watching
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

What part of Maui is best for whale-watching tours?

You’ll want to be on the south and west sides of the island, near Wailea, Kihei, Lahaina, and Kaanapali. These cities border the shallow and warm waters where the Maui humpbacks spend their days. 

How many whales can you see?

This depends on the day and the whale-watching trip, but if you go in peak whale season, you could easily see 6-20 whales on just one trip. 

Why are humpbacks in Maui?

We only have theories (we haven’t talked to them yet!), but they’re good ones. Whales come to Maui in droves because of the warm water and lack of predators. This is the perfect place to give birth and mate.

While the waters are nutrient deficient, they allow baby whales the chance to grow without any risk, and the warmth enables them to stay warm as they add fat to their bodies. 

How long are the tours?

The tours last between 1.5 and two hours, though you can get longer trips. I personally think the Maiu whale-watching trips are a bit short, but I’m used to the Santa Barbara and Seattle trips that are four hours long. 

Because the whales congregate in a smaller area, you don’t need to travel far distances to see them. 

What is it like to see the humpback whales in Maui, Hawaii

Short Answer: It’s impressive and will put the biggest smile on your face! 

Long Answer: It’s a truly humbling experience. These massive creatures are so graceful, powerful, and beautiful. Seeing them glide through the water, breach, snuggle up to mom, or use the power of their fluke to tail slap is a wild sight. 

a fluke of a humpback  easing into the water as seen from one of our maui whale watching trips
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

Raft or Boat: What Maui Whale Watching Trip Should You Take? 

Rafting: 1.5 hours

Check out the trip we took.


  • Closer to the water
  • More intimate
  • Fewer people
  • You experience all the senses
  • You can see almost 360 degrees
  • Quick navigation ability


  • Windy, and you feel all the bumps
  • Not for those with back issues/pregnant
  • Not great for photography (unless the water is calm/you’re not moving)
  • Tight quarters for sitting
  • No bathrooms or snacks/drinks
  • No shade for most of the boat
a fluke raises out of the water in maui
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

Big Boat: 2 hours

Check out the trip we took.


  • Protection from the elements (wind and sun)
  • Snacks/Drinks Available
  • Bathrooms available on this Maui whale watching trip
  • More steady (better for photography, especially when moving)
  • Ability to walk around the boat
  • Whale Naturalist on board (at least we did)


  • Off the water
  • 75-150 people on board

Both options were around the same price point – $85-90 each. 

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How to whale watch for free in Maui

If you want a free Maui whale watching experience, grab a seat on the beach, pull out the binoculars, and set your eyes on the horizon. During our five days on the island, we saw more whales than I can count breaching off in the distance. 

It was an excellent experience, and others were participating in it, too. Hearing everyone’s “oohs” at the same time was super fun! 

A tourist looks out from the Maui shore for whales.
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch

What you need to know about Photographing Whales

Camera Settings

As you’re photographing during your Maui whale watching tour, you’ll want to be on manual. (Not manual focus, but the “M” on your dial.) This will allow you to control your camera settings better.

From here, your focal length will help decide your shutter speed. I have a 600mm lens, so I had my shutter speed between 2000 and 3200. You at least want it to double your focal length. (Ex: 600mm = 1,200+ shutter speed. Or 400mm = 800+ shutter speed.)

But you also have to account for a moving subject AND the fact you’re on a moving boat with waves. Increasing your shutter speed decreases shake and movement, which makes your images crisper. 

Another thing to consider is how bright it is. Luckily, most whale-watching tours in Maui happen during the day, so you won’t have to battle fading light. This means you can get your shutter speed up high without boosting ISO too far. 

a humpback launches itself out of the water in maui
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

My settings were the following:

  • 2,500 shutter speed
  • 6.3 f/stop
  • 200-500 ISO

What Camera and Len’s do you Need?

The best camera is the one you have. That being said, you will want a lens with at least 300mm zoom, but going up to 600mm is even better. 

What I brought:

  • Canon R5
  • Tamron G2 150-600

(I also brought other lenses but never used them.)

Should you take a video?

I recommend taking video on your phone if you have a newer one with top-tier video. I say this because it’s tough to shoot video on your camera on the open ocean without a Gimbal. (A gimbal is a device that stabilizes your camera when shooting video.)

Most of the video I shot on my camera was rocky and almost entirely unusable. 

What to pack for Hawaii
Maui 5-day itinerary
What to do in Kaanapali
Review of the Maui Westin Hotel

Where to stay in Maui

There are multiple places to call home base in the area. 

You can rent Airbnb, VRBOs, luxury hotels, middle-tier hotels, and jeeps with roof tents. If you couldn’t tell, there’s an option for everyone! 

*Using the links is a free way to support my business.*

Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

FAQ: Whale watching in Maui

Who provides the best whale snorkeling tour in Hawaii?

You’re not allowed to swim with whales in Hawaii, so there is no specific “whale snorkeling tour.” However, if you go on a snorkeling tour (we did this one, and it was awesome) during the winter months, you’ll likely see whales as you head to your destination. 

Can you see whales in Hawaii in August?

There is a very low chance (or zero) that you will see whales in Hawaii in August. They are in Alaska or up north, eating as much food as possible before they begin their trip down to Maui in the fall. 

Why don’t the whales stay in Hawaii all year?

The waters of Maui Nui Basin have almost no nutrients. If the whales stayed here all year, they would starve. Thus, they travel north to Alaska to find food.

a humback fluke seen from a maui whale watching tour
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

Is Maui or the Big Island better for whale watching?

Maui is by far the best place to go whale watching in Hawaii. The low depth of the Maui Nui Basin means they can’t dive as deep, and it is warmer, making it a more friendly place for them to hang out. 

When you combine these two things, it makes for a perfect place to go whale watching. 

Are male or female humpbacks bigger?

Female humpbacks are usually bigger on average than males. However, there is not a massive difference; it may be 4-8 feet bigger. 

But the easiest way to tell the gender is if a calf swims next to a whale. If so, that is its mother. 

a breaching humpback whale in maui
Photo Credit: Alec Sills-Trausch – Hawaii 2024

Final Thoughts: Maui Whale Watching

It was incredible to get out onto the water with the humpback whales. I really looked forward to this during my cancer treatment the previous winter, and it kept me going during some pretty dreadful times. 

Then, being able to visit, totally healthy, and see the most amazing displays of nature during our Maui whale watching was the icing on the cake. 

If you have the interest and the financial means, I highly, highly, recommend visiting Maui in the wintertime.

Author: Alec Sills-Trausch

Title: Founder of Explore with Alec

Expertise: Hiking, Backpacking, Photography, and Road Trips

Alec Sills-Trausch is a hiker, backpacker, landscape photographer, and syndicated travel writer. He enjoys showing off the beauty of the world through his photos, videos, and written work on Alec is also a 2x cancer survivor and bone marrow transplant recipient, showing the world that there is a future from this terrible disease.

He lives in Washington, where he gets to enjoy the stunning PNW mountains in addition to all the other places he attempts to visit each year! You can see more work on IG at @AlecOutside