Whale Watching on Oahu

by Gray Cargill on March 12, 2014

Post image for Whale Watching on Oahu

It started with a spray of water that shot up several feet above the waves. Someone called out. Everyone leaned forward on the boat in eager anticipation, eyes—and cameras–riveted to the horizon. Then we saw it: a dark, curved mass rising up from the ocean, skimming the surface, then back down, out of sight. Then, a fifteen foot-wide tail rose up from the deep, water streaming off it like a waterfall, the tips reaching for the sky before slapping down under the waves again.

It was a humpback whale, and it was glorious. The whale was just going about its business, swimming, breathing, probably scoping out its next meal. But I’d never seen a whale in nature before. That was the coolest damn thing in the world as far as I was concerned.

 

The Navatek I

The Navatek I

 

Since I was in Hawaii during whale season (which runs from December to April), I thought a whale watching cruise would be fun. I booked through Viator, but the company was Atlantis Adventures. My day started with an early morning bus pickup in Waikiki, which transported me and a busload of other tourists to Pier 6 at the Aloha Tower Marketplace.

Our cruise was aboard the Navatek I, a 140-foot twin hull SWATH (Small Waterplane Area Twin Hull) vessel with two levels for viewing. I know, it’s a fancy name for a boat, right? The shape of the Navatek I reminded me of a cross between the twin-nacelled ships of Star Trek and the Cylon raiders on Battlestar Galactica—not like any boat I’ve ever seen. I’m no expert on aerodynamics, but given the twin hull design, I was surprised at how fast it was. This was useful for making turns and being able to follow the whales once they were spotted.

 

Morning off Oahu

Morning off Oahu

 

After the usual cheesy photo opp while boarding, the staff gathered us all in the dining room for a safety and informational demonstration prior to departure. There was a naturalist on board, a young woman with dirty-blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail. She asked the children in the group to come up and help her hold up a banner facsimile of a humpback whale’s tail, actual size. It was about 15 feet wide.

As we pulled away from the dock, I staked my claim to a good spot on the lower right deck at the front of the boat. The sun sparkled blindingly off the water as it rose higher and higher in the East. We cruised past the shoreline of Honolulu and its famous Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head looming majestically at the tip of the island.

 

Honolulu

The view of Honolulu from the ocean is beautiful!

 

There was plenty to look at–sailboats and people parasailing, fishing boats and lighthouses, and if that was all we’d seen, it still would have been a lovely cruise. But it wouldn’t have been nearly as exciting as seeing whales.

The naturalist had a microphone and spoke to us about what we were seeing. I’m sure it was fascinating, but I couldn’t hear a word she said from where I was standing. But before we left, she’d instructed us to let everyone know when we spotted a whale, so the ship could turn in that direction and everyone could see.

 

Spinner Dolphin

A spinner dolphin leaps from the water by the boat

 

The first thing we spotted were not whales, but spinner dolphins. That was a fun surprise. They swam alongside the boat for awhile. I could barely follow the speedy little buggers with my eyes, let alone get pictures with my camera. It almost seemed like they were playing with us—or racing us. (If so, they won.)

Seeing the dolphins ramped up everyone’s expectations. We scanned the horizon for whales, dolphins—anything living we could see. The boat slowed down. Minutes ticked by. There was nothing but the sun beating down, getting hotter and hotter. Then it happened.

 

Whale blow

Whale “blow” or “spout” results when the whale surfaces to breathe.

 

A handful of people saw the blow and called out, pointing. We all turned to look. The excitement aboard the boat ratcheted up as we all collectively held our breaths for a sighting. I almost felt like I was on the Pequod, but without without the crazy Captain and with much better intentions toward the whales.

Then came another spout. At this point, the whale sightings came quickly, one after another: First the spout (blow), then the whale’s back, then the tale flip. The whales only gave us brief, teasing glimpses of their bodies, no “breaching” (leaping up out of the water), but I was still awestruck.

 

Whale back

A whale’s back

 

Two days earlier, I had seen a skeleton of a sperm whale at the Bishop Museum, so I had a sense of scale, even though I couldn’t see the humpback whales’ full bodies. And there they were, these gigantic creatures, living, breathing, swimming freely in the ocean just 100 yards away from me. I felt pure happiness.

Here are a few more photos I took during the cruise:

Whale

“Admiral, there be whales here!”

 

Whale back

Taken from 100 yards away with a zoom lens.

 

whale tail

Whale tail sighting!

 

Lighthouse

What a view!

Pier 6

Pier 6, Aloha Tower Marketplace

 

Other Things to Know About The Whale Watching Cruise

  • Whales are only in Hawaii from mid-December through April, so that’s when the cruises run.
  • Atlantis Adventures has a guarantee that if you don’t see whales on your cruise, they give you a free do-over on another day. (So it might be best to book the tour early on during your stay on Oahu, just in case.)
  • The morning whale watching cruise lasts 2 hours. The company also offers lunch and sunset dinner cruises.
  • If you have access to a car, you can drive yourself to Pier 6 for the cruise. If not, there is bus pickup through Roberts Hawaii. It doesn’t pick up at all hotels; you may need to meet the bus at the closest pickup point to where you’re staying.
  • If you easily get seasick, I recommend taking something for that before you board the boat. It’s not particularly rough, but I felt the movement.
  • Wear sunblock and a hat to protect yourself from the sun, and bring layers of clothing, since the temperatures can change radically during the cruise.
  • Bring a camera! You definitely want photos. Try to score a good spot at the front of the ship. Use a fast-action shooting mode, because dolphins and whales aren’t posing for photos; they’re moving fast. Also it’s best if your camera has zoom capability, as tour boats are required to remain 100 yards away from the whales at all times. (Or you can purchase professional-quality photos in the gift shop taken by the Navatek I’s onboard photographer.)
  • Food and beverages are available on the boat (for purchase), but I’d recommend eating breakfast before the cruise.
  • The cost of my cruise through Viator was $58.
Marcello Arrambide April 1, 2014 at 1:01 am

I never got to whale-watch while I was in Hawaii. What a shame. I did spend a lot of time by the beaches and went scuba diving with sea turtles 😀

Maybe next time I’m visiting Hawaii, I’ll have the chance to go whale-watching. If not, then I’ll find somewhere else to do it 😉

Gray Cargill April 1, 2014 at 8:19 pm

OMG, you went scuba diving with sea turtles? I’m so jealous! That must have been awesome, Marcello.

Tracy Antonioli March 18, 2014 at 5:48 pm

Oh my goodness! The photo of Honolulu alone makes me need to go to Hawaii. And I’ve never really had any desire. But add whales? Yeah. I must go. Next year, apparently. As I’m all out of whale-watching time this year.

Seriously, lovely shots. And you tell the story so well. Glad you hand an amazing experience.

And you know, thanks. For making me need to go there. Because I so needed to add yet another destination to my must-visit list! 😉

Gray Cargill March 18, 2014 at 6:10 pm

LOL, Tracy. Glad to be of service. The only danger in going is that you may not ever want to leave–or that no other place will measure up on the vacation scale ever again.

Christine |GRRRL TRAVELER March 16, 2014 at 11:01 pm

$58 doesn’t sound too bad. You got awesome shots, Gray! So envious I wasn’t there to do it with you. I’ve been out on canoes and escort boats and stuff in the Oahu waters and I’ve yet to even see a dolphin. Last year, I saw a turtle and was like whoopee! Glad you had a nice time.

Gray Cargill March 18, 2014 at 6:13 pm

Christine – Oftentimes, tours are a bit overpriced, but I thought this was right on the nose. I can’t believe you’ve lived in Hawaii your whole life and you haven’t seen so much as a dolphin! That is a shame. I’d be excited to see a sea turtle, though. I became absolutely obsessed with them on this trip (probably because I didn’t see any).

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