Every year more than 2000 humpback whales travel to Hawaiian waters in winter to mate and give birth to offspring and about 800 of these animals spend their time in Hawaii around the shores of Big Island. Many people take whale watching charters or paddle kayaks offshore to view these massive underwater beasts, but if you know the right places to look you may be able to see these animals for free from shore. This post will discuss the best places to see marine mammals, namely whales and dolphins, while standing on dry land.
Dolphins live in Hawaii year round and can be seen during all seasons, but Humpback whales are only viewable in Hawaii between the months of December and March. Most humpbacks in Hawaii migrate from Alaska, with each whale completing the 3000 mile journey solo in about 6 weeks. While in Hawaii these animals don’t eat anything and exist entirely off their fat stores. By the end of the mating season adults will have lost up to 1/3 of their body weight, so the whales you see in March will be considerably skinnier than the ones you see in December.
Humpbacks live in the waters around the entire island, but are most commonly seen off the western coast. During the daytime these whales prefer shallower water and tend to stick to areas 200 feet deep or less. Because much of the western side of the island drops off quickly down to deep water there are many places where swimming humpbacks will hug the shoreline as they transit up and down the coast. Shore-based whale watching in the north is particularly good along the northwest Kohala coastline. There are numerous steep roads providing shore access up here, but my favorite place is Kapa’a beach park. On clear day you can also see Maui’s Haleakala volcano rising in the distance.
The western coast has several more good whale spotting locations including Spencer Beach Park near Kawaihae, Makalawena beach north of Kona, and even downtown Kona itself during peak season. It’s also quite common to see Hawaiian Spinner Dolphins in Kona Bay as well. Spinners, bottlenose, and common dolphin are a regular offshore sight near Kona, but the best place to see dolphins from shore on this island is 9 miles south of Kona at Kealakekua Bay.
Kealakekua hosts the largest population of Hawaiian spinner dolphins in the state and here divers can even swim them. Spinners can usually be found daily in Kealakekua and commonly interact with humans, however with short attention spans and powerful tails, don’t expect them to stick around long. These animals do what they please and once they get bored of you they’ll disappear into the distance.
South Point is the best place to spot large marine wildlife on the southern half of the island. This faraway coastline has some of the strongest currents around the island which bring nutrients and food with them. South point is not only a common place to see passing whales and pods of dolphins hunting, but it’s also home to more large shark sightings than anywhere else on island.
Most of Big Island’s east side is unsuitable for whale watching, but occassionally whales can be seen from the highway near Naalehu in the south, and off 4 mile beach near Hilo in the northeast. The Hamakua coast also hosts rare whale sightings, but these are few and far between.
If you really want to see marine mammals on Big Island your best bet is to actually get on the water, but with patience and a little luck it’s possible to see quite a bit of our sea-dwelling mammalian counterparts without getting your feet wet.