Humpback whales congregate in large numbers in the warm waters off Maui from December through March, with sightings peaking around Valentine’s Day.
Nature photographer and island resident Daniel Sullivan knows the best places to spot the 40- to 50-foot mammals and offers these tips for tourists hoping to grab a memorable image or two.
Sullivan, who leads photo tours on land and on sea, urges travelers to look for a “blow,” the misty spurt of water seen when a whale comes up for air. Then get your camera ready.
“If you bring your camera to that spot and you have your camera aimed, then just wait,” he said. “All photography is about waiting for that moment. It really is being fixated on that spot where you see the whale and hoping for a breach or a fluke to come out of the water. It takes a lot of patience.”
You don’t need a high-end camera either, he said. Cellphones can take good photos, especially using the burst tool when trying to capture a breach that lasts only two or three seconds.
The humpbacks that com from Alaska each year likely were born off Hawaii and return for the warm waters that are critical for birthing calves. Humpbacks do migrate to Mexico, but most winter in Maui, making it a good spot to see and snap.
“So much about photographing whales is about anticipation. And a bit of it is pure luck,” Sullivan said.
Many companies offer whale-watching tours during winter, but Sullivan said there are plenty of good places on land where you can photograph whales who come to mate and train their newborn calves.
“One of the best places that I have found whales … is in Lahaina Harbor,” Sullivan said. Not so coincidentally, many of the boat tours depart from Lahaina, the West Maui town between the resorts of Kaanapali Beach and Wailea.
“The whales will come all the way up to the boats that are moored,” he said. “The waters are so warm that it has a huge amount of whales in that part of the island.”
2. Secret Beach and Makena Cove
Within a short drive of the Wailea hotels are two more of Sullivan’s favorite photo stops. Heading south on the only coast road, look first for the easy-to-miss Secret Beach, also known as Paako Cove, and Makena Cove. In addition to whales, look for green sea turtles in the sheltered waters.
3. La Perouse Bay
Heading about 10 minutes farther south, La Perouse Bay, named for an 18th century French explorer, has a coastal trail good for spotting whales and other sea creatures.
“There’s a very active spinner dolphin pod out there, and you’ll often see the two together hanging out,” Sullivan said.
4. Hookipa Beach Park
Along the island’s North Shore, nine miles east of the airport at Kahului, Hookipa Beach Park near Paia is, according to Sullivan, not only popular with surfers, but also with whale watchers in the know.
“That’s really a great place to watch too, because you’ll have surfers in the foreground and whales in the background,” he said. “That’s always a wonderful place to sit and watch the whales on the North Shore.”
Whale watching excursions are one of several photography tours that Sullivan leads. Tours start at $200 an hour, with prices higher if you want to take inflatable boats to get closer to whales.
Sullivan, who has published coffee table-type books and owns Indigo, an upscale shop and photo gallery in Paia, said he also introduces tour participants to the history and culture of Maui.
The photography tours also are “about seeing Maui in a deeper way than what people often get to see when they stay at a resort,” Sullivan said. “Through the people and through the land, [they are] getting a deeper understanding.”