4/1/22: Maui’s Kahekili Beach & Whale Watching in Lahaina

Family and friends,

A day spent on one of Maui’s most beautiful beaches and then looking for migrating humpback whales at the end of the season in Maui’s warm waters amid spectacular scenery was pretty near damn perfect even if we weren’t lucky enough to see any of the whales’ breaches. If that weren’t enough, that was followed by the second-most beautiful rainbow we’d seen ever!

All the best to you and your loved ones,


Driving along Maui’s southwest coast, Steven and I stopped at a lookout for the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary, one of the world’s most important humpback whale habitats, lay within the shallow, warm waters surrounding the main Hawaiian islands.

The sanctuary protects humpback whales and their habitat in Hawaii through education, outreach, research, and cultural activities. If people are lucky enough, humpback whales can be seen in Hawaiian waters from December to May with mothers and calves often resting near the shore. 

I marveled at the engineers that had carved this mountain in half along much of the highway.

West Maui’s Kahekili Beach Park is often referred to as Airport Beach because this area used to host an airstrip before it was home to condos and timeshares. 

Across from the beach was the neighboring island of Molokai.

We had intentionally come to Kahekili Beach in the morning because blustery winds tend to kick in around noon which would make it a bad time to snorkel. Unlike some of the beaches we’d just visited on Kauai, we could just wade directly into the water here. We still had to be careful not to touch any coral or come close to fish and shells with poisonous spines that could harm us. 

I wish I could say this snorkeling experience lived up to Maui’s reputation as a great snorkeling destination but there were few fish and indifferent coral. Perhaps our next time would be better.

After a couple of hours on the beach, we headed to West Maui’s main town of Lahaina, once known as Lele, which means “relentless sun” in Hawaiian. Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the early 19-century, Lahaina was also a historic whaling village and a plantation settlement during the mid-1800s whaling boom. Then, up to 1,500 sailors from as many as 400 ships stopped in Lahaina, including Herman Melville, who immortalized the era in his classic novel Moby Dick. 

These cannons on the Lahaina waterfront were raised from the wreck of a Russian warship in Honolulu Harbor around 1816 and brought to Lahaina to guard the royal capital and the fort that had been on this spot. 

Weeks earlier Steven and I had signed up for a whale watching tour from Lahaina with the Pacific Whale Foundation. The boat was certified for 150 passengers but there were only 36 on board that afternoon. As it was the end of the whale season in Hawaii, the captain said he’d have to do more “searching” for humpback whales. 

The reef was just feet from the shore.

We were told that there were three “Bs” of whale watching: seeing body parts – i.e. tails and fins; breaching – when much of the whale jumps out of the water; and seeing the blows.

Most of the North Pacific humpback whale population in Hawaii peaks between the end of January and the end of March when the whales are a common sight along the shore as they leap in the air or breech. We learned that humpback whales are attracted to the islands’ warm waters from Alaskabecause of their underwater visibility, variety of island depths, and the lack of natural predators in Hawaii. 

It takes the whales six to eight weeks each way with very few stops for them to travel the 3,000 miles from Alaska to Hawaii each winter at a speed of 3 to 7 mph. We learned that they migrate in trickles, i.e. not all at once, to mate, calve, and nurse. During the spring, they return to feed in cool, nutrient-rich waters near Alaska and other northern areas.

The over 20 species of whales and dolphins in Hawaiian waters are protected by a variety of state and federal laws designed to maintain healthy populations and recover species threatened with extinction. But only two species, the humpback whale and spinner dolphin are commonly seen in Hawaii.

At birth, humpback calves weigh about 1.5 tons and are 13-feet long. Adults, whose lungs are the size of a VW, weigh about 45 tons and are also the same number of feet long. We were told to imagine how enormous one adult humpback is by thinking of it crammed into a yellow school bus! Whales are mammals and therefore have five characteristics as people: they’re warm-blooded, they nurse, they can breach, they have a live birth, and they have hair!

Did you know it was common for adult humpbacks to have 1,000 pounds of barnacles on their underside and face?! Not surprisingly, that extra weight slows the whales down. Their breaching may be an attempt to get rid of the barnacles.

Another fun fact: Each humpback’s lung is the size of a human sleeping bag!

Sixty percent of the whales coming from Alaska stop in Maui with the rest going on to Mexico. Humpback whales’ greatest threat is the orca whale as twenty percent of its diet is from other whales, normally calves. There are few orcas around Maui’s warm waters, though. 

Though the Hawaiian population of endangered humpback whales is making a strong revival, the vulnerable species is threatened by vessel strikes and entanglement in marine debris and fishing gear.

Depending on whom you believe, humpbacks only stay in Hawaii for either 15 days or 3 weeks and, except for calves, fast while they are there because the warm water is nutrient-deficient for whales. The “joke” why they go up to Alaska to feed, according to the biologist on board, is that it’s too expensive to eat on Maui. Believe me, all the tourists could understand that!

The biologist said there were at least four whales in this one area which meant it was a ‘competition pod’ with the males hunting the “hottest female left in Maui!” Male whales return to Maui each year while female whales stay in Alaska a lot longer to recuperate after giving birth and regain weight before returning to Maui. By the way, there are no twins among whales as it takes everything for mom whales to maintain their pregnancies, according to the biologist.

Humpback whales use their powerful flukes or two lobes on their tails to propel their entire bodies out of the water in spectacular jumps called breaching. Unfortunately, we weren’t lucky enough to see any of the four whales come anywhere close to breaching that afternoon. 

The whale watching tour was similar to a safari in that as soon as one captain saw a whale, that was communicated to all the other nearby boats. I didn’t see that the presence of several boats in a fairly small area changed the whales’ behavior, however.

Even though we didn’t get to see any whales breach which is every whale watcher’s dream, the onboard biologist was excellent, the views were sublime, and we did spot several whales even after the end of the season. If you’re ever visiting Maui and want to see the whales, my recommendation would be to make sure to pick an outfitter other than Pacific Whale Foundation. The trip was supposed to have been two hours long but the captain returned to shore well before then with no explanation and there were also several other concerns.

After the whale watching tour, we strolled through Lahaina, the historic town that had been transformed into a Maui hotspot with dozens of art galleries and a variety of unique shops and restaurants on the National Register of Historic Places. To get a sense of what Lahaina was, and is, we began looking at some of the sights on the Lahaina Historic Trail.

Lahaina Court and Custom House was built in 1859 with the remains of King Kamehameha III’s unfinished coral palace. From the beginning, it served as a customs house for the whaling and trade ships and a center for government offices during the monarchy period. When the Hawaiian islands were officially annexed to the United States in 1898, the Hawaiian Kingdom’s flag was lowered and the American flag was raised in its place over this courthouse.

The historic Lahaina Fort was constructed in 1832 by Hoapili, the Royal Governor of Maui, to protect the town from whalers. After it was demolished in 1854 and in 1964, the State Parks Department placed a reconstruction of the old fort coral wall near the harbor.

The land that now housed the Lahaina Public Library was once cultivated in kalo or taro from ancient times. Since the beginning of the 19th-century, the land was known as Apuakehau, King Kamehameha’s royal taro patch. Taro was the food staple of ancient Hawaii and it remains still a staple of the Hawaiian diet. Lahaina was the perfect location to cultivate taro because its cultivation required a lot of water and the town once looked like the “Venice of the tropics” with streams, ponds, and waterways.

The Pioneer Inn was built at the turn of the last century after a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police tracked a criminal to Lahaina, fell in love with the town, and built the hotel. After discovering there weren’t a lot of visitors, a movie theater was built which was wildly successful. The inn was the only hotel in West Maui until the 1950s.

In the center of Lahaina wasLahaina Banyan Court Park, named for this Indian banyan tree that was planted in 1873. The 60-foot-tall tree, the largest in the US, shaded almost an acre in the park. Can you just imagine the decades of luaus, dances, concerts, public rallies, and chair-gatherers the tree has witnessed under its mighty boughs? I could hardly believe the mammoth tree was just 8 feet tall when it was planted!

In addition to the original trunk in the center, there are now 16 major trunks. The banyan was planted to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the first Protestant mission in Lahaina which was started at the request of the widow of King Kamehameha the Great.

As Lahaina had no deep-sea harbor, whalers anchored offshore in deep water and boarded smaller boats to reach the shore past a reef. When that proved dangerous, a canal was dug from one of the freshwater streams that ran through Lahaina in the 1840s where the street now is. The canal was filled in to construct Canal Street.

This location had been home to a Government Market built of thatch for Hawaiians to sell goods to sailors. As drinking establishments and grog shops were also erected nearby, the whole area became known as Rotten Row!

Prior to seeing this magnificent rainbow over Lahaina, the most stunning one we’d seen had been overlooking Macchu Picchu. 

Built from 1828-to 1832, the Wainee Church was the first stone church in Hawaii and could accommodate 3,000 people and their “calabash spittoons” for tobacco-chewing Hawaiian chiefs and ship captains. After a windstorm in 1858 destroyed the church and several other buildings in Lahaina, it was rebuilt twice. The current church, Wailoa Church, has been here since 1953. Some of the palm trees behind the church are among the oldest in Lahaina.

Next door was Hawaii’s first Christian cemetery which was established in 1823 and includes graves of Hawaiian chiefs, sailors, missionaries, and many members of the royal family.

Members of Lahaina’s Buddhist sect built the original Hongawanji Mission temple in 1910. This building, which also included a language school, was constructed in 1927.

The Old Prison was built by the Works Progress Administration. Hawaiians called the prison Hale Paahao or Stuck in Irons House as sailors were arrested for refusing to return to their boats at sunset and taken to the old fort. 

The Prison Gatehouse was used by the Master who was required to check each cell and prisoner daily as well as maintain prison records.

In front of the gatehouse was a 1923 Model “T” Ford Touring Car that has been in Lahaina since 1924 when it was bought by a sugarcane worker who had arrived in the 1800s. After going into wholesale merchandising, the car was converted to a ‘pickup’ so it could transport small goods to all the sugar camps in West Maui. 

After the Anglican Church first came to Maui in 1862, services were conducted using King Kamehameha IV’s translation of the Book of Common Prayer at Holy Innocents Episcopal Church in Lahaina. On the church grounds, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, Queen Lili’uokalani, spent several of her childhood vacations. 

Next post: Walks along Maui’s south coast and in a nature reserve.

Posted on April 27th, 2022, from home in the Denver burbs as we finalize details for our upcoming road trip through the US Midwest, much of Eastern Canada, and the eastern seaboard en route to relaxing on the beach in Florida.


6 thoughts on “4/1/22: Maui’s Kahekili Beach & Whale Watching in Lahaina

    1. Phil,

      Smiled when you commented on that piece of useless trivia as I love esoteric facts like that, too! If you DO make it to Maui and take a whale watching tour, you might like one on a zodiac boat although. Michaela’s camera might get wet!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Actually sighting whales WAS guaranteed by all the tours because we were there still within their migration pattern, Sarah. The onboard biologist was superb but there were many issues with the tour other than it being shorter than promised.

      The photo of the rainbow was the ‘real deal’ as Americans might say in that I didn’t use any camera tricks to enhance the color. Glad it met with your approval!


  1. Well, it looks like you saw a lot of body parts, namely tails, and blows. The best whale watching experience we ever had was in Baja California, near Guerrero Negro, on the Pacific side, where the whales calve in lagoons during their migrations. The whales bump the small boats and look you in the eye. They also enjoy being petted! They come to you if they want attention.

    This year, we saw plenty of breaching, tails, flipping, and blowing through binoculars on the Sea of Cortez side. It doesn’t look like Hawaii is all that spectacular when it comes to snorkeling. French Polynesia seemed much better! 🙂


  2. I totally agree, Liesbet, the whale watching experience wasn’t very good and the operator was deficient in so many ways it made me crazy!

    Snorkeling was far, far superior as you said in French Polynesia which I was surprised about give all the hoopla about Hawaiian snorkeling.

    Lucky, lucky you having such a fun time with the whales in the Sea of Cortez!

    Liked by 1 person

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