“It’s a total crapshoot.”
Not exactly the words an expectant passenger wants to hear, but at least our captain had confirmed my suspicions.
On a Maui whale watching tour, whale sightings are never guaranteed, contrary to what the name might suggest.
And on the Pride of Maui, the crew members aren’t just friendly, they’re honest, too.
There doesn’t seem to be much consensus on what time of day–if any–Maui’s humpback whales are most active. Tours leave in both the morning and the afternoon, with neither one promising better results.
It wasn’t my first whale watching tour, nor my mother’s. We’d both been visiting Maui for many years by this point and had seen many whales from close distances as well as plenty from the shore.
But it was my fiancé’s first attempt at seeing the beasts up close in the wild, and in spite of the unknowable odds, we remained hopeful.
We thanked the captain for answering our questions and headed toward the back of the boat’s upper deck to kick back and enjoy the ride.
No matter what happened, it was a beautiful day to be out on the water; sunny but with partial cloud cover, protecting us from the full force of the Hawaiian sun, and breezy but not so breezy that it made for a choppy ride.
We were headed someplace quite special for our snorkel stop, too–the small half-moon-shaped crater just off Maui’s southern shore known as Molokini.
Even if no whales made an appearance that day, we’d enjoy the scenery, the snorkeling, the BBQ lunch, and the open bar serving our favorite Hawaiian cocktails.
But we didn’t have to wait long for the first sign of whale activity.
“Ladies and gentleman,” we hear our captain’s voice crackle over the loudspeaker, “We’ve just seen our first spout at about one o’clock.”
Using the boat’s bow as 12 o’clock, he was able to quickly direct our attention to the right spot on the water for our best chance of catching a glimpse.
The boat slowed its pace ever so slightly, but since we were on a tight schedule to make it to Molokini, there wasn’t much time for dillydallying.
“If you look closely folks, you can actually see two whales, the mother and her calf swimming side by side.”
When the whale’s flukes appeared above the water, it was clear our show was over for the time being. This meant, our captain informed us, that the whales were about to take a deeper dive and probably wouldn’t resurface for awhile.
They use their powerful tails to propel them downward where they will stay submerged until they need another breath of air, which for adults can be as long as 45 minutes (although calves need air much more frequently).
The Pride of Maui picked up the pace again and we were back on course for Molokini.
In Maui, whale season begins in November and stretches to April, with peak whale activity taking place in February.
This is the time when a specific set of whales known as the Central North Pacific stock migrate between Alaska and the Hawaiian Islands.
The majority of humpback calves are born in Hawaii, making an excellent show for visitors like us as the calves mimic every fin flap, tail slap, and breach their mother performs as they strengthen their muscles for the long journey back to Alaska.
Our captain reiterated that whenever we saw an adult whale breach, we should watch that same spot carefully as a calf breach–utterly adorable by comparison–is likely to follow.
We saw a few more pectoral fins and humped backs from great distances as we cruised toward the crater, but no showstoppers.
As we pulled into Molokini and the water surrounding the crater grew ever more shallow, we suddenly forgot all about those silly whales for a moment–the sights in front of us were showstoppers in their own right.
We ooohed and ahhhed as the water transformed into a royal blue unlike any I’ve seen before. The crater cliffs rose up around us and the wind died down as we drifted into the protected area, shared only with a handful of other boats at this late hour in the afternoon.
Had we made this same journey in the morning, Molokini would have been overrun with tour boats. This was a truly special treat.
We geared up for snorkeling and hopped into the water, assisted by pool noodles if we needed or wanted them, although the saltiness of the water makes a person perfectly buoyant without assistance.
Hans and I quickly realized that most of the fish action was taking place right next to the crater where the water was shallowest.
We spotted many of Hawaii’s most common reef dwellers, like the Racoon Butterflyfish (with a striped mask around the eyes, much like that of a racoon) and the Moorish Idol, whose thick black and yellow stripes and long, thin dorsal fin make it one of the more easily recognizable fish species on the reef.
We also saw plenty spiky sea urchins, and even a sea cucumber or two.
All in all, a successful snorkel made even more special by the coveted locale. Not every tour with Pride of Maui visits Molokini for snorkeling, and the privilege wasn’t lost on us.
Of course, the crater is home to an enormous number of fish species (over 200) and we just scratched the surface. Whale sharks have also been known to visit the crater, so if you make this trip yourself, keep your eyes peeled for the gentle plankton-feeding giant.
Once back on the boat, I couldn’t help but take advantage of another fun feature on the Pride of Maui, a slide suspended off the front end of the boat.
I may be in my thirties but I never plan to grow up. You can’t keep me away from a good slide, especially one that plunges me into the refreshing waters of Hawaii.
Next, it was the cocktail hour. The server at the bar mixed us up some stronger-than-usual Mai Tais and we settled back into our seats on the top deck for the slow ride back toward Ma’alaea Harbor.
As we sipped on our cocktails, our eyes were fixed on the water in search of more humpbacks. We were lucky enough to see a good number of breaching whales (followed by baby) as well as tails and pectoral fins slapping the water.
Unfortunately, I learned just how tricky it can be to snag a good photo of a whale in mid-air. It’s near-impossible to predict where it’ll happen, and it’s over in the blink of an eye.
I also felt like I would miss it with my own eyes if I was too focused on getting the shot, so after a few attempts I put my trusty camera down and opted instead to simply enjoy the show.
Then another announcement blared over the loudspeakers, and this one really caught our attention: it was time for our BBQ buffet lunch.
Burgers were served with all the fixings, accompanied by a number of salad options as sides. Veggie burgers are available on Pride of Maui tours, but be sure to request them ahead of time (same goes for any other dietary requirements).
As we ate, the crew continued working their buns off to ensure everything was going smoothly. Closing doors if it got too windy, saving paper plates from going overboard, keeping pathways clear, and doing it all with huge smiles on their faces.
Hans and I found a spot close to the front of the boat on the lower deck to eat our burgers; we were transfixed on our meals when suddenly, we felt the boat grind to a halt (well, as much as a boat can grind to a halt, that is).
As we looked up from our plates, we could see the footprint of a fresh whale-sized splash not even 100 feet from the bow of the boat.
By mere seconds, we had just missed witnessing a full out of water breach by an adult humpback whale. To give you an idea of the excitement on the boat for those who had seen it, watch this short video.
Everyone on the boat was whooping and hollering, cheering and clapping at the incredible sight. It was the cherry on top of an already stellar day of whale watching, and no one was going home disappointed.
The sun was just beginning to set as the boat continued its slow roll back into Ma’alaea Harbor. Our hearts were full from the experience of getting up close and personal with some of Maui’s most amazing sea creatures, and our bellies were full of delicious food.
As we bid adieu to the crew, we were provided with a small wooden treasure chest in which to place tips, and we tipped them generously.
The people who work on tours like this one by the Pride of Maui really do embody a sense of pride for this magical island. They do it for the sheer love of it, and to share that love with others.
They also do everything they can to pass on a profound respect for the ocean and all of its inhabitants.
If you forget to bring reef safe sunscreen, they’ll provide it for you at no charge. At the snorkel site, they’ll remind you not to touch the animals and never to feed them so as not to disrupt the delicate natural habitat.
They’ll keep the boat a safe distance from any animals they encounter, immediately cutting the motor if a whale is nearby.
Across my many visits to Maui and the many other tours I’ve been fortunate enough to be a part of, this deep respect for ocean life pervades them all.
If you want a whale watching tour that’s fun, responsible, friendly and safe, you simply can’t go wrong with the Pride of Maui.
Mahalo to Pride of Maui for inviting us to experience this whale watching tour as guests. All opinions expressed in this article are those of The Sweetest Way.