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Double the fun: Snorkeling and whale watching

March 10, 2014 - Leah Sherman

Thousands of North Pacific humpback whales come to Hawaii's waters every year (usually between November and May) to give birth and mate. And thousands more human visitors come to Hawaii's shores to see the protected animals.

So, what is the best way to see these giants?

Of course, they can easily be seen frolicking from the beach, with the spray from blowholes easy to spot from a distance and larger splashes signifying a breach. If you enter the water and dip your head below the surface, it isn't unusual to hear a whale song.

But at least once a year I like to hop on a boat and be right in the middle of the action.

There are tons of whale-watching tour options out there. In my opinion, the important points to consider when choosing one are (in no particular order):

• Price.

• How much time you have available to spend out on the water.

• Which part of the island you would prefer to depart from — most boat tours leave from Maalaea harbor and Lahaina harbor, but there are options that depart from beaches in West and South Maui.

• Likelihood of seasickness.

• How you feel about crowds.

For my most recent whale-watch outing, I went with Four Winds II's afternoon snorkel cruise.

The Four Winds II is a 55-foot catamaran (according to the website, see link at right), which offers morning and afternoon snorkel trips (which double as whale-watch tours during whale season, which the website identifies as Dec. 20 to April 20) from Maalaea harbor. While the morning cruise is scheduled to visit Molokini, the afternoon one takes snorkelers to either Molokini or Coral Gardens (a reef formation along Maui's west coast, according to the Four Winds' website), depending on conditions.

On the February afternoon I went out, we went to Molokini. Along the way, the boat traveled at a leisurely pace — slowing, veering off course and even stopping to give passengers plenty of time and opportunities to watch humpbacks.

The tour was uncrowded with maybe 40 passengers, which meant there was very little jostling for positions at the railings for the best views.

Snorkeling tips were given and equipment was handed out en route to Molokini, so people were in the water soon after the boat was moored. The Four Winds II features three entry ladders — or a slide for the more adventurous. I get a little nervous being out in the deep water, so it was nice that swim belts, life jackets and boogieboards with viewing holes were available for use. The boat has a glass bottom, giving nonswimmers a chance to see almost everything that snorkelers can see.

Once at the snorkel spot, a BBQ lunch was served buffet-style, with passengers given the choice of eating before or after snorkeling. Lunch (burgers, veggie burgers, hot dogs, chicken and potato chips) is optional on the afternoon tour but, for $7.50 per person, it is a great deal.

After giving snorkelers about an hour in the water, the boat headed back toward the harbor at a less-leisurely speed while still offering opportunities for whale watching.

The Four Winds II afternoon trip is time consuming but if you have an open afternoon it is a fun and relaxing way to spend it — whale season or not. Check-in was at 1 p.m. and we returned to Maalaea harbor at 5 p.m. (I don't recommend this trip for cruise-ship passengers who have to be in Lahaina by 5:30 p.m. There was one group on our tour that was trying to do just that. Considering traffic at that time of day, I'm going to guess they probably didn't make it.)

Currently offered at an adult price of $39 per person, the afternoon trip is much more economical than the almost-identical morning trip, which starts at $88 for adults but does include lunch. Both trips include soft drinks, juice, beer and wine, as well as snorkel gear and instruction. Among the crew members is an underwater photographer who goes out with the snorkelers and puts together a photo video for passengers to view during the return trip to the harbor. Photos are available to purchase. Snuba is also offered on the Four Winds II for an additional charge.

For people looking for shorter or less expensive whale-watch tours, I have also been out with Trilogy Excursions and Pacific Whale Foundation (see links at right). Both offer excellent trips with loads of departure options from both Maalaea and West Maui.


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A boat trip offers beautiful view of Maui.


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