It’s no secret that Hawaii’s oceans are tropical and tempting. But have you heard about the whale and shark population? We’re here to tell you it’s pretty EPIC. And not in the general slang sense, but truly something to be wowed by. Humpback migrations, more species of shark than possible to list here and the ever–popular playful dolphins. If you’re swimming in waters where sea turtles barely get a look-in, you’re onto an ecosystem that’s thriving. Dive in, board a boat – or simply watch from the shore.
Hawaii’s waters are THE place to tick many aquatic species off your ocean-loving list. Not all of them require you to flipper-up and dive into the tropical waters. But, if you feel compelled to, you can swim with sharks, rays, dolphins and humpback whales. Sharks in Hawaii range from the inshore black tip, sand bar and formidable tiger sharks to impressive offshore predators such as great white, blue and short fin mako sharks. Offshore doesn’t always mean toothed-up and ready to pounce though. The larger, toothless and placid whale sharks are also patrolling the blue.
For cetaceans with a more playful vibe, look to spend time with whales and dolphins. Three main species of dolphin are seen on whale watching tours in Hawaii. Spinner, spotted and bottlenose dolphins regularly play in the wake of boats, or hang out with swimmers looking for that wild swim experience. The big must sees from Maui are the humpback whales. Spot them from boats, the beach or dive in for a swim. They flock here in their thousands from October – May.
Most Hawaiian wildlife, from the ocean to the islands, can be categorised as vulnerable or endangered. So it’s worth spending your travel dollars wisely. Swimming with dolphins, whales, turtles and sharks is fairly low impact – providing you follow Federal legislation. You can’t swim within 100 yards of humpback (50 yards for other species) and boat operators have to observe the same rules. If that sounds too far away, fear not. Humpbacks do often approach boats out of curiosity – and this falls within the rules. Known in the whale-watch community as ‘mugging’ – it’s your chance to really get close to the whales on their terms. This goes for swimming too. Waiting for whales and dolphins to approach you is the least stressful way to interact with the animals.
Orbzii tip: One of the simplest eco-friendly ways to protect ocean life is to wear a coral friendly sunscreen. Whether you’re buying sun protection for a day on the beach or surf lessons in Hawaii, look for ‘reef safe’ on the label when you’re shopping.
Best time to go
The simple answer is: when humpback whales are in Hawaii. Visible from shorelines, hilltops – and boat trips – spying a humpback breech certainly adds a certain something to the day. If you want to time your diving trip – or Hawaii beach wedding – with humpback season, book between October and April. January is peak season, but sightings are reliable enough either side. Dolphins are year round residents – but aim for April – May or September – October to see them at their best. If you’re diving? Water visibility is at its best during July and August – though these are the busiest tourist months.
There’s a Maui company that really racks up the eco-credentials when it comes to whale watching in Hawaii. PacWhale Eco-Adventures not only has an impressive line–up of green accolades, but a healthy choice of whale watching options. Perhaps the least intrusive on the eco-system are the whale watch sails. Aboard a sailing catamaran, you’ll harness wind-power to get you out into the open ocean. The state-of-the-art craft does use engine power – but only for human, or whale, safety. Onboard hydrophones let you listen in on some whale chit-chat and there’s reef safe sunscreen on board to protect you – and the reef.
Location: Lahaina Harbor, Maui
Cost: Adult $59 (£43) Children 7-12 $30 (£21.85) Children under 7 go free
Wild Side Hawaii
If you’re staying on Oahu, consider a trip with Wild Side Hawaii. Their entire ethos around swimming with dolphins is to put you at one with the pod – if the dolphins choose to join in. Swimming alongside – rather than at – the dolphins, you’ll observe them as they go about their daily frolic, feeding or nursing routine. They strongly adhere to the no touch rule and drum home the fact we’re just visitors to the dolphin’s world. Just the kind of message you want from a tour operator that clearly knows and cares about the pod they swim with.
Location: Waianae Boat Harbor, Oahu
Cost: $195 per person (small group tour – max 5-6 passengers)
Orbzii tip: For the ultimate no fuel, eco experience, hire a kayak. We’d recommend paddling out with a guide. Not because your paddling technique’s a little off, but when suddenly faced with 45 tonnes of humpback? We’d all appreciate a little point in the right direction.
Hawaii Eco Divers
In Hawaii, diving opens up the chance to see sea life you’d never spot from above. Yes, there’s a chance of encountering whales, but you’ll more likely be suiting up for a swim with manta rays and sharks. Hawaii Eco Divers operate from Oahu and their dives are eclectic to say the least. Night dives, newbie dives, North shore and boat dives are just the start. They favour their prime spot in the Pupukea Conservation District. A safe place away from boats and fishing charters, the sites to explore include Shark’s Cove.
Location: Haleiwa Town Center, Oahu
Cost: 2 tank shore dive $109 (£78) includes dive gear.
Hawaii Shark Encounters
If you’ve not passed your PADI cert, but still want to spy on sharks in Hawaii, have a chat with Hawaii Shark Encounters. For a small fee, they’ll pop you in a steel cage amid a few of their closest shark mates. Expect to see galapagos and sandbar sharks, though, tiger sharks, blues silkies and hammer heads do put in an appearance occasionally. The team’s big on promoting conservation and quelling the ‘Jaws’ myth that still hangs heavy over shark perception. In eco-terms, yes the boat runs on engine power to get you into shark territory, but the company is ticking all the boxes laid out by leading eco-tourism groups.
Location: Haleiwa Boat Harbo, Oahu
Cost: Adults $120 (£86) / Children $90 (£65)