The 5 Best Places to See the Winter Humpback Whale Migration

Hawaii, Mexico, and California are hot spots for viewing the marine mammals on their annual journey.

A group on a whale watching boat out of Lahaina, Maui, gets a close look at a breaching humpback whale. (Photo: David Fleetham/Getty Images)

Jan 27, 2015· 4 MIN READ
Melanie Haiken is a San Francisco Bay Area–based health, science, and travel writer who contributes regularly to and numerous national magazines.

It's that time again. January through March is peak season for the annual migration of humpback whales. The marine mammals leave their winter feeding grounds in the Arctic for warmer climes in Mexico and Hawaii, where they breed, give birth, and nurse their young. That means exciting times for whale watchers, since humpbacks are the show-offs of the whale world, known for their curiosity, frolicsome nature, and willingness to interact with humans. (Some people might remember the legendary and highly social Humphrey, who ventured all the way up into the Sacramento Delta in 2007 before being rescued and helped back out to sea.)

An endangered species after being nearly wiped out by hunters, humpbacks have made a remarkable comeback and there are now an estimated 21,000 of them in the Pacific Ocean. Considering that as of 1993 Pacific humpbacks only numbered between 4,000 and 6,000, that's more than a tripling of the population in fewer than 20 years.

Hawaii is ground zero for humpback watching; experts estimate more than 10,000 humpbacks now choose the calm waters around the islands for their winter breeding. In Maui, the island becomes so whale-centric that the Maui Whale Festival runs for more than two months, with events almost every week.

But Mexico has some fertile humpback breeding areas, too, and in the United States you have a good chance of spotting humpbacks from several vantage points on the West Coast.

Here are five places to visit in the next few months where you're almost certain to have a meaningful humpback encounter.

1. Four Seasons Resort, Wailea, Maui

Location, location, location. From its perch above the south end of Wailea beach, the Four Seasons Wailea has a privileged spot overlooking the whales' favorite playground in the channel protected by Lanai and the smaller island of Kahoolawe. This means you can keep watch for passing humpbacks from all over the grounds—even from the balcony of your ocean-view room. For the whale obsessed, there's nothing quite like seeing the white plumes of the mammals' spouts against the sky last thing before you go to bed and then catching their morning play as you get dressed, to make you realize the energy required for the whales’ long voyage.

One of the most authentic ways to get close to the whales is to join one of the resort's free outrigger canoe trips. While learning how to take part in this traditional Hawaiian sport, you'll also hear the insights of guides familiar with the whales' movements and who will position the canoes for front-row viewing. There are also kayaking expeditions, catamaran trips, and a weekly presentation by underwater photographers John and Dan Cesere on their work with Maui humpbacks, including the Keiki Kohola calf research and protection project.

(Photo: Monica and Michael Sweet/Getty Images)

2. The Fairmont Kea Lani, Wailea-Makena, Maui

Another hotel similarly well positioned for humpback sightings is the Fairmont Kea Lani; "competition pods" of the giant mammals sport and show off in the sheltered waters just out from the hotel's private Ko beach. To get a closer view, take a paddleboard or kayak out to Wailea Point. During pauses in the whale action, you can look down on clusters of feeding sea turtles in the clear waters below.

One fun fact about humpbacks in Hawaii is they're really not in any hurry. While their top speed is seven miles an hour, they tend to be much more leisurely in these warmer waters, averaging about one mile an hour and halting frequently to rest and goof off. That's good news for shoreside watching from Ko beach—pods of humpbacks often stick around the bay for long periods of time, spouting, breaching, and poking their heads up (known as spy-hopping) to get their bearings.

3. Turtle Bay Resort, Oahu

Located on Oahu's less developed north shore, Turtle Bay Resort takes advantage of its optimal location with a wealth of whale-related programming, including a family-oriented Welcome the Whales event cosponsored with the North Shore Ocean Education Coalition.

The resort takes whale conservation seriously and is a designated location for the Sanctuary Ocean Count, a shore-based tracking project in which volunteers fan out across the islands to count migrating humpbacks on Jan. 31, Feb. 28, and March 28.

From its namesake sea turtles to dolphins and reef fish, this resort's central focus is the wildlife—it protects the coral reefs and marine refuge of the cove. Of course turtles are the big stars, and you're likely to find yourself swimming along with a few of them while you snorkel the bay's protected reefs. The cove is also a favorite haul-out for Hawaii's monk seals, which are on the verge of extinction. When you see a large brown lump roped off with caution tape, give the sleeping seal a wide berth and some much-needed peace.

4. Sandos Finisterra, Cabo San Lucas, Mexico

From this stone-clad resort's unique location high on the cliffs at Land's End, you have a stunning 280-degree view of the Pacific—so plenty of humpback viewing potential here. In fact, the resort's Whale Watching Club bar is well known as the highest-elevation drinking spot in Cabo—at sunset, guests are plastered up against the plate glass windows or lean out over the deck railing counting spouts and shrieking over breaches.

While you can watch humpbacks on the move on Baja's Pacific side, they like to feed in the calmer waters of the Sea of Cortez, so a boat trip there will get you a closer encounter. In the past few years conservation efforts have focused on banning gill-net fishing in the Sea of Cortez, largely to save the endangered vaquita porpoise, but also aided by a moving video of a group of naturalists and photographers saving a young humpback whale tangled in a gill net.

The biggest whale draw in Baja is the Magdalena Bay nursery, where gray whales come to give birth and nurse their young. But it's important to choose your guide service carefully, as many boats get intrusively close to the whales during what's obviously a delicate time.

Recently, scientists presented evidence at the International Marine Conservation Congress that whale watching boat trips can stress out whales, with the potential to affect their health.

Other experts, though, such as those at the Pacific Whale Foundation, argue that whale watching has played a huge role in raising awareness and educating the public about the enormous marine mammals, resulting in stronger conservation and protection efforts.

5. Monterey Bay, California

Thanks to a deep ocean trench known as the Monterey Submarine Canyon, which allows the whales to come closer to shore, Monterey Bay is one of the few places on the West Coast you can see humpbacks and other whales clearly from shore. It's also unusual in that whales can be spotted year-round, though fall and spring are most active, with the whales heading first south, then north again.

In August, for example, a pod of über-active humpback whales turned up in Monterey Bay on their way south, drawn closer than usual to shore by a bumper crop of anchovies.

It's hard to single out one particular hotel in Monterey, because pretty much everyone has gotten in on the whale watching action. More than 15 area hotels now offer whale watching packages that include a boat tour as part of the price.