Hawaii is one of the best places in the world to see whales, as they swim down from Alaska to spend winter in warmer waters. Whale watching cruises on the Big Island offer intimate encounters with these gentle giants – humpback sightings are almost guaranteed in season.
These tours come in all shapes and sizes with both catamaran and speedboat rides on offer. You will find below everything you need to know about whale watching cruises, one of the most memorable outdoor experiences on the Big Island.
Big Island whale watching cruises are operated on a group basis, so you’ll be sharing the boat with other passengers. This helps keeps the cost down and creates a convivial atmosphere (and more eyes to spot the whales!).
If you feel the need for speed, then go whale watching on the Big Island on an inflatable Zodiac boat. You’ll zip through the waves faster than all the other vessels, often beating them to the prime whale viewing spots.
Another benefit of traveling by speed boat is that you’re a lot lower in the water, so you’ll be even nearer to the whales. The watercraft always keeps a respectful distance, but the humpbacks may choose to swim by for a closer inspection. Sometimes they even go right under the boat!
The tours start first thing after breakfast at the slipway in the marina. You’ll board the boat and take your seat, ready for a ride out into the ocean. Hold on tight – these trips are fast!
Once the whales have been spotted, you’ll slow down and hover nearby. You can take all the photos you like, and the guide will teach you about the secret lives of these migratory humpbacks. The captain will maneuver the boat around the site so you can see the whales from all angles.
After saying goodbye to your new wild friends, you’ll speed back along the coast of Hawaii, admiring the spectacular views along the way. There may be time to explore sea caves and lava tubes during the tour, depending on where and when the whales have been sighted.
These tours are more tranquil, which is great for those who haven’t yet found their sea legs. While the pace is more leisurely than on the speed boat, it’s surprising how quickly you’ll find yourself in the heart of the action.
Take time to appreciate the scenery as you sail out of the harbor – the motor is often used for a smooth ride. As you power along to the prime whale spotting area, chill out on the deck with drinks and snacks.
When the whales are located, you’ll have plenty of time to take photos and chat with the guide about humpback behavior. You will be there during the prime breaching season, so expect lots of activity.
One of the trip highlights is listening to the whales singing using the onboard hydrophones. It’s eerie yet beautiful and offers a privileged glimpse into the lives of these giants of the ocean.
The return journey gives you a chance to talk more to the guide about what you’ve just seen. Or, if you prefer, just sit back and relax while taking in the coastal scenery as you head back to dry land.
Speed boat whale watching tours on the Big Island cost US$120 per passenger for a 3-hour trip. The boats hold up to 16 passengers, making it a relatively personal experience.
Big Island whale watching excursions on a sailing catamaran are priced at US$100 per person for 3 hours at sea. These trips are more leisurely, with plenty of time out on deck to enjoy the views. The boats often have a restroom on board too, which is ideal for longer journeys.
Although there is a maximum of 48 passengers on catamaran tips, most boats will only have around 24 people.
You can expect the below to be included on all Hawaii whale watching cruises:
Hotel pickups and drop-offs are not provided on these excursions, so you’ll need to arrange transport to the starting points.
Most Big Island whale watching tours set off from Honokohau Marina, which is just north of Kailua-Kona and a few kilometers south of Kona Airport. There is a large parking lot here if you’ve traveled by car.
Each operator will have their own office, so check your tour instructions to make sure you locate the correct one.
The shortest Big Island whale watching tours are around 1.5 hours long, which is ample time to see the humpbacks. These shorter trips are also ideal for those who just want a quick jaunt out to sea.
Longer excursions lasting up to 3 hours give you an even better chance of sighting the whales. These are the most popular tours.
Whale season in Hawaii runs from November through to April. This period is your best chance of seeing the humpbacks in action.
Whale watching cruises on the Big Island are in full swing from mid-December through to March. The humpbacks will be giving birth and rearing their calves so you may spot some youngsters!
Tours usually operate during the mornings as this is when the whales are active. The seas are calmer at this time too, before the trade winds make the water choppier in the afternoon.
You need good weather for a whale watching tour on the Big Island. If conditions are unsuitable, then the excursion will be canceled, and you’ll be given a full refund.
It’s also possible to reschedule the trip if your itinerary allows, so try and book it at the start of your visit, just in case.
If whales are not spotted during your trip, then you’ll be offered a free place on another cruise.