When you think of the perfect vacation on Big Island, you might picture luaus, beautiful sandy beaches, and ukuleles, but you may not be aware of the incredible opportunities for whale watching tours on Big Island of Hawaii.
During the winter months of December through April, over a dozen distinct species of whales, from melon-headed whales, false killer whales and orcas to sperm whales, pilot whales and beaked whales migrate to the warmer, shallower waters around Big Island to mate or give birth. But despite this varied collection of species, the most sighted is the humpback whale, as large groups travel from the frigid and dangerous waters of Alaska to the calmer, safer sub-tropical Pacific.
This perfectly coincides with tourists and adventure seekers looking to escape the colder months of their hometowns in the sun and fun of the Hawaiian Islands.
There are quite a few great spots for whale watching on Big Island, but the best places are the coasts along Kohala, North Kohala and North Kona, all of which offer plenty of opportunities to see the beautiful creatures in three specific ways: lounging on the beach, swimming or snorkeling, and chartering a boat for a whale watching tour.
Tip from a local:
The winter months are the rainy season in Hawaii. Typically, all the islands have similar weather patterns. The east side (windward) of each island is usually rainy and cooler, while the west side (leeward) is usually hot and dry.
While there is potential to spot whales in Hilo Bay on the east side, this is one of the rainiest spots on Big Island. So, if you’re looking to enjoy the beaches and abundant sunshine while you keep a lookout for whales, you’re much better off on the west side in towns like Kona.
Just be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen.
So, the biggest question to ask yourself when planning a whale watching excursion is: how close and personal do you want the whales to get?
Here is a quick overview of the options for viewing sites and snorkeling locations but keep reading for recommendations for the best whale watching tours on Big Island.
Want and little more information about whale watching or just watch from shore? Here are our favorite places to watch whales on the Big Island of Hawaii
If you prefer to keep your feet on dry land, then there are four great parks and beaches with a high likelihood of spotting these amazing creatures.
- Lapakahi State Historical Park, located on the northwestern edge of the island, rises to an elevation of about 100’ above sea level, providing a perfect overlook to spot whales in the distance.
- Kapa’a Beach Park is located very close to Lapakahi State Park, and while it is 20’ lower in elevation, it does provide shaded picnic pavilions, so it might be a better choice for extended whale watching.
- Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site, located a little further south than the previous two, is the best place to spot whales, as its name translates to “hill of the whale”.
- If you’d prefer to stay a bit closer to Kona, the Pu’u Kuili cinder cone overlooking Kua Bay rises to 342’ above sea level, providing incredible views of the ocean.
If you want to get a bit closer to the action and you’d like to get your feet wet with a little swimming and snorkeling, there are many fantastic beach options all around the island, but not really any specific recommendations in this list simply because swimming and snorkeling are less about whale watching and more about listening to their beautiful song. Sound travels much further underwater, so if you’re planning to swim or snorkel anyway, you may be treated to a serenade. During whale season, the majority of safe and accessible beaches on the west side of the island, in particular, can offer plenty of opportunities to hear the whales singing without the need to enter deep and dangerous waters.
Now, on to the main point. Boat tours really are the best way to ensure an unforgettable whale watching experience. There are many charter options for whale watching in Kona and in Hilo, but most of them offer essentially the same (wonderful) experience. So, here are the three best charter companies that offer some unique features and stand above the rest.
Captain Zodiac Kona Whale Watching Tour
Captain Zodiac is the best tour option for those wanting to get as close as possible to the whales, while maintaining the legally required 100 feet of distance to ensure the safety of the beautiful creatures and, of course, the passengers. Their 16-person Zodiac rafts are smaller than many of the other charter companies, giving every passenger a front-row view. However, this 3-hour tour can be a bit rough with such a small boat, so Captain Zodiac caters to the more adventurous whale watchers.
Where: They are located just south of the Kona International Airport on the southern side of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park.
Hours of Operation: Their tours run every day except Wednesday from January to the end of March.
Tour Details: The smaller, faster Zodiac rafts allow more time to explore the coastline along the way, with the possibility of getting up close to lava tubes and sea caves. But because of the rough nature of the boat ride, they do not allow pregnant women or anyone with neck or back problems.
Cost: $75 for children ages 4-12 and $105 for anyone 13 and older.
Perks: With on-board hydrophones, you can listen to the hauntingly beautiful whale song during the tour. They also offer sunset tours aboard 24-foot Zodiac rafts to combine two of Hawaii’s most beautiful sights.
Contact Info: (808) 329-3199; https://www.captainzodiac.com/big-island-excursions/whale-watching-tour/
Captain Dan McSweeney’s Whale Watch Learning Adventures
Captain Dan McSweeney has studied whales for nearly four decades and has worked with National Geographic and Discovery Channel. He personally conducts and narrates every tour to ensure that his guests not only have an amazing experience but also learn about whales and ocean conservation. This is Kona’s only full-time whale watching tour company, unlike most other charters that offer various other snorkeling and sightseeing tour options.
Where: They are also located just south of the Kona International Airport on the southern side of Kaloko-Honokōhau National Historical Park, in the same harbor as Captain Zodiac.
Hours of Operation: Their 3-hour tours run daily at 7 AM and 11 AM during whale season between January to the end of April.
Tour Details: Captain Dan pilots “Lady Ann” on every tour. The boat has ample seating, sunny and shaded areas and welcomes guests of all ages. While other tours offer more rugged adventures, Captain Dan focuses more on an educational and leisurely cruise experience coupled with unforgettable whale sightings.
Cost: $125 + tax per child (infant to 11 years) and $135 + tax per adult.
Perks: Captain Dan guarantees that guests will see whales during his tours, using his decades of experience studying whale migration habits to guide him to whale sanctuaries that other charters may not know.
Contact Info: (808) 322-0028; https://www.ilovewhales.com/index.html
Hilo Ocean Adventures Humpback Whale Exploration
If you would prefer to stay on the east side of the island, Hilo Ocean Adventures does offer a unique whale watching tour, so you do not have to make the long (but beautiful) drive to Kona. The Humpback Whale Exploration tour is a bit shorter than others at 2 hours, but there are waterfalls and cliffs along the Hamakua coast to make it a great option for those equally interested in basking in the beautiful Hawaiian scenery while keeping one eye out for whales.
Where: They are located near the Hilo International Airport and just around the corner from the majority of the hotels and resorts of Hilo.
Hours of Operation: They offer three different tours at 8:30 AM, 11 AM and 1:30 PM every day between December and April.
Tour Details: Children must be 8 years or older to participate and due to the rough nature of the boat ride, pregnant women, people with back and neck problems, people over 300lbs and those who are unable to swim without assistance are not allowed.
Cost: $119 per person, with an optional upgrade to the Whale Song Snorkel package for $158 per person.
Perks: Hilo Ocean Adventures offers the Whale Song Snorkel package for additional cost, which includes full snorkel gear and lifejacket, so that guests can see, potentially swim near, and hear the beautiful song of the humpback whales. Also, this tour offers guests the chance to learn more about native Hawaiian history and lore, specifically the story of Kanaloa, the god of the animals in the ocean, which is represented by the whale.
Contact Info: (808) 934-8344; https://www.hilooceanadventures.com/boat-tours/whale-watch/
Final thoughts on Whale Watching Tours in Hawaii
No matter which charter company you choose, be sure to check in with their website. Most companies list when their reservations open for the next whale watching season months in advance and they all sell out very quickly.