humpback whale 2Maui Visitors Bureau


Text & Photos by Steve MacNaull

Our whale karma was in overdrive. Visiting Maui in early December we were told our chances would be slim to none of seeing the majestic humpback whales that winter in the warm waters around the island. Yet, not 20 minutes into our kayak and turtle snorkel off Olowalu Point we heard the distinctive sound of water gushing from the 40-ton sea mammal’s blow hole.

“Over there, to your right, 100 yards out,” yelled out guide Brandon Gnazzo from Kelii Kayak Tours. “We are so lucky to be seeing this. It’s really early in the season to be seeing whales, let alone this close.”

Not that our paddling was any match for the powerful whales, but we propelled our kayaks toward the giant animals in an effort to get closer. And then 75 yards away, the classic display of whales breaching and the final glimpse of tail suspended above the surface before disappearing altogether.
My wife, daughter and I sat in our kayaks with the rest of the tour group mouths hung open silently in awe. After a couple of minutes when the whales decided the show was over, our excited group chatter started. We couldn’t believe we’d been treated to such an early-season display and marveled at the whale’s size, speed and grace.

Note, if you visit Maui in January, February or March you are virtually guaranteed to see whales if you do some sort of on-water excursion.

You can see all the whale action you want on the National Geographic channel, but there’s nothing like seeing the beasts up close and personal in their natural habitat. Doing so in kayaks in a small group early morning over eerily calm water was simply a bonus. Although we had no idea, our guide told us we’d just witnessed a “family pod” of bull, cow and one-year-old calf.

kayak guideSteve MacNaull
As a kayak guide born and raised in Hawaii, Gnazzo sees hundreds of whales every winter. Yet he shared our excitement and never tired of our rapid-fire questions and babble about how wonderful this moment was.
Much the same scene was repeated two days latter when we boarded the Trilogy VI catamaran to cruise to nearby Lanai island.The crew told the 40-or-so passengers that we probably wouldn’t be seeing any whales. When we piped up that we’d seen whales just a couple of days ago, crew members nodded with suspicion. And then, just a half-hour later, the first whale breached in front of the catamaran. Unlike our quiet kayak sightings, this time we heard the collective gasp of 40 people and the follow-up excited conversations.

The whales really put on a performance – rolling, breaching and lurching – as the crowd oohed and aahed and cameras snapped.

“This is the grand slam of whale watching,” said crewmember Jeremy Bricco. “This is a competitive pod of five males trying to impress one female in order to mate with her. That’s why there’s so much action.”

While the humpbacks were a highlight of our family Maui vacation, they really were bit players. With a week on the Hawaiian island we also had ample time to laze by the pool, swim in the ocean, go horseback riding, hike to waterfalls and get our fill of tropical cuisine and drinks.

For instance, the second-half of the kayak excursion was with Hike Maui and included a hike to two rain-fed cool waterfalls – Twin Falls (Leomano) and Angel’s Tears (Lelelua).

water with peopleSteve MacNaull
We swam in the still waters before letting the waterfalls pound us into exhilarating submission. Then the brave – which meant me and my eight-year-old daughter, but not my wife – clammoured up the sides of the waterfalls to cliff jump into the deep natural pools.

The second portion of the Trilogy VI excursion was a relaxing afternoon on white sand Hulopoe Beach on Lanai and a tour of the island, which was originally a Dole pineapple plantation.

To see and experience as much of Maui as possible we hotel-hopped.
Three nights at the new and luxurious 628-suite Honua Kai Resort on Kaanapali, a beach that continually crops up on lists of the 10 best beaches in the world.

Then two nights each at the smaller and quieter Napili Kai Beach Resort and the famous 780-room Grand Wailea Resort, which was the most expensive hotel ever built when it was finished in 1991 for $600 million.

For a completely different Maui experience my daughter and I headed Upcountry, what the locals call the interior of the island, for some horseback riding at the Piiholo cattle ranch.

This is Maui without the beaches, mega resorts, pool complexes and palm trees. We loved the change of pace of trotting through undulating cattle pastures and eucalyptus forest catching glimpses of the Pacific Ocean more than 600 metres below.

Memorable eats and drinks included Kaanapali skewers (barbecued chicken and beef and, of course, pineapple) at Duke's restaurant (a Hawaiian institution) at the Hanua Kai Resort; macademia nut-crusted mahimahi fish at the impossible-to-pronounce Humuhumukunakunapuaa restaurant at the Grand Wailea; and lava flows around the elaborate pool complex and waterslides at the Grand Wailea.
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