🐋 The 5 Best Big Island Whale Watching Tours [2023 Reviews]

The Big Island is home to 5 of the State of Hawaii’s 11 Marine Life Conservation Districts. That’s far more than any other island in the Hawaiian Archipelago, demonstrating the importance of the sea life surrounding the Island of Hawaii.

If you are planning a whale watching or dolphin watching excursion in the State of Hawaii, the Big Island is the place to go. With its lower population density and much longer shoreline, it offers the clearest water and the broadest area for whales to gather.

Best Whale Watching Tours on the Big Island

Kailua-Kona: Whale Watching CruiseHonokohau: Kona Whale Watching Catamaran Cruise Big Island: Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook & Marine Life Tour
editors choice
Kailua-Kona: Whale Watching CruiseKona: 1.5-Hour Guaranteed Whale Watching TourBig Island: Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook & Marine Life Tour
Departure:Honokohau HarborHonokohau Small Boat HarborHonokohau Marina North Boat Ramps
Start:12:30 PM2:15 PM8:00 AM
Duration:2.5 hours1.5 hours4 hours
Includes:Boat cruise, hydrophone speaker, snacks, & beveragesPowerboat cruise, live tour commentary, & beveragesBoat cruise, snorkel equipment, safety talk, snacks, & beverages

Tour Information & Booking

Tour Information & Booking

Tour Information & Booking


Quick Answer: The 5 Best Rated Big Island Whale Watching Tours For 2023

  1. Kailua-Kona: Whale Watching Cruise
  2. Kona: 1.5-Hour Guaranteed Whale Watching Tour
  3. Big Island: Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook & Marine Life Tour
  4. Kailua Kona: Humpback Whale Watching Adventure Cruise
  5. Big Island: Eco-Friendly Snorkel & Dolphin Watching Tour

Be sure to see our reviews of Big Island helicopter tours, Big Island volcano tours and Big Island snorkel tours.


Big Island Whale & Dolphin Watching Tours Reviews

1. Kailua-Kona: Whale Watching Cruise

Kailua-Kona: Whale Watching Cruise

Tour Highlights at a Glance:

  • Meeting Point: Honokohau Harbor
  • Starting Times: 12:30 PM
  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Includes: Boat cruise, hydrophone speaker, snacks, & beverages

This is the best value Big Island whale watching tour for visitors who want to hear the whales’ song as well as seeing the whales. The expert crew know where to go for the best chances of seeing humpback whales breaching the waves.

Watch the whales shooting water out of their blow holes and slapping their tails on the water. The fitted hydrophone speaker means you’ll have a unique opportunity to listen to the whales singing beneath the boat.

Watch female whales swimming alongside their calves and males competing against one another to win the females’ hearts. The warm waters of the Pacific surrounding the Big Island are a perfect playground for the largest mammals on Earth.

This tour also provides you with wonderful views of Big Island’s shoreline from the ocean. Enjoy the snacks and drinks provided while you listen to whales singing and watch them swim around the boat.

This Hawaii Island whale watching adventure is a memorable experience that will prove to be the highlight of your vacation. Listening to the whale song is the cherry on the top.

More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


2. Honokohau: Kona Whale Watching Catamaran Cruise

Kona: 1.5-Hour Guaranteed Whale Watching Tour

Tour Highlights at a Glance:

  • Meeting Point:Honokohau Small Boat Harbor, Kalaoa, HI
  • Starting Times:2:15 PM
  • Duration: 1.5 hours
  • Includes: Powerboat cruise, live tour commentary, & beverages

This is the best whale watching tour in the Big Island for visitors who are in a hurry to see the whales. You’ll be transported out into the ocean on a powerboat, which means you’ll cover a larger area of the ocean faster and have a better chance of seeing more whales.

This Hawaii Island whale watching excursion zips you through the water off the beautiful northern coastline. You will be accompanied by naturalist guides who are able to educate you about the lifecycle of humpback whales and other marine wildlife you may encounter on this fast-paced tour.

Watch out for the whales beaching the water and swimming alongside their young. Your expert guide will interpret their actions for you, so you end your whale watching adventure knowing much more about whales than you knew before.

Ensure you take along a good quality camera because you’re certain to see some sights you’ll want to remember forever. And you won’t go thirsty on this trip as soda, juice, & water are provided.

More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


3. Big Island: Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook & Marine Life Tour

Big Island: Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook & Marine Life Tour

Tour Highlights at a Glance:

  • Meeting Point: Honokohau Marina North Boat Ramps
  • Starting Times: 8:00 AM
  • Duration: 4 hours
  • Includes: Boat cruise, snorkel equipment, safety talk, snacks, & beverages

This is the best Big Island dolphin watching tour if you want a chance to swim with marine animals in the warm, crystal-clear water of the Pacific Ocean.

During this 4-hour cruise, you’ll explore Kona’s amazing coastline. There are caves and historical sites where legends were created that are still told around Hawaii today.

The highlight of this Hawaii Island dolphin watching excursion is the visit to Kealakekua Bay. There you will snorkel atop the coral reef and experience the colorful tropical marine life.

Don’t worry if you’ve never snorkeled before. The local expert guides will give you a safety briefing, help you with the equipment, and show you what to do.

You will be sailing in a comfortable modern catamaran and will be provided with snacks and beverages. This is a favorite location for Hawaiian spinner dolphins, so look out for them following your boat and playing together in the water around you.

More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


4. Kailua Kona: Humpback Whale Watching Adventure Cruise

Kailua Kona: Humpback Whale Watching Adventure Cruise

Tour Highlights at a Glance:

  • Meeting Point: Kailua Pier, left side
  • Starting Times: 1:00 PM
  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Includes: Powerboat cruise, live tour commentary, hydrophone speaker, sunscreen, snacks, & beverages

This is the best Big Island whale watching tour for visitors who want the whole package. An onboard naturist will teach you about whale behavior and their lifecycle, and a fitted hydrophone speaker enables you to listen to the whales singing beneath the boat.

In the ocean near Kona, you have a good chance of seeing much more than humpback whales. You might also see pilot whales, sperm whales, and spinner dolphins. With a naturist at hand, any questions you have about the local marine life will be answered by an expert.

But it’s the mysterious and eerie sound of whales singing that captures the imagination of most visitors. Your expert guide will explain the sounds and the latest theories about what it all means.

This cruise also provides you with memorable views of the Hawaii Island’s beautiful western coastline from the ocean. Any visit to Hawaii isn’t complete without a boat trip out into the Pacific.

More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


5. Big Island: Eco-Friendly Snorkel & Dolphin Watching Tour

Big Island: Eco-Friendly Snorkel & Dolphin Watching Tour

Tour Highlights at a Glance:

  • Meeting Point: Ilima Court, Kaahumanu Pl, Kailua-Kona
  • Starting Times: 8:00 AM
  • Duration: 4.5 hours
  • Includes: Boat cruise, snorkel equipment, safety talk, water slide, high dive, water toys including SUP, breakfast, lunch, beverages, & sunscreen

This is the best Big Island dolphin watching tour for people who enjoy having fun in the water. Not only will snorkel equipment be provided, but there’s also a 20-foot waterslide, a 15-foot high dive built into the boat, and a selection of water toys to play with.

The boat is a modern luxury vessel with high-quality facilities. A spacious shaded cabin with comfortable seats is available if you want to stay out of the sun awhile. There’s also a bar and freshwater showers below deck.

Your cruise begins with a leisurely breakfast as you cruise 10 miles along the Kona Coast to your destination – the Red Hill marine sanctuary. While eating, you can admire the beautiful western coastline of Hawaii Island.

Once at the sanctuary, you have 2 hours to enjoy snorkeling along the coral reef and admire the colorful marine wildlife. There are over 600 species of tropical marine creatures to observe.

Snorkeling equipment is provided, and you have up to 2 hours to explore the coral reefs and underwater topography. Don’t worry if you have no previous snorkeling experience. The experienced and qualified crew run a Snorkel 101 Class.

For those who don’t wish to snorkel, there are a variety of flotation toys available to give you confidence as you explore the sanctuary. Also, the crew are trained lifeguards, so your safety is assured.

One flotation toy you’ll love is the Sea View Board. This is a device that provides you with a clear view into the crystal-clear water. You can view the corals without getting your face wet or irritating your eyes.

More Information & Tour Booking

100% refund for cancellations within 24 hours of tour experience


Tips For Whale Watching on the Big Island

Best Whale Watching Tours on the Big Island

Dress in Layers:

Even if you feel like it’s hot, it’s not the same once you get out on the water. The open-air ocean can get really windy and chilly.

That doesn’t mean go full-on parka mode. We recommend wearing layers so you can add or subtract as you go. It’s always a good idea to have waterproof outer layers as you may get splashed being on the deck

Be Patient:

Whales have down times of close to 10 minutes, so if you don’t immediately see them, don’t feel discouraged. If you do see a whale and it disappears, remember which direction it was swimming and follow your line of sight in that direction.

Choose a Viewing Site:

Choose a viewing site and stay there. Moving around usually doesn’t increase your odds of spotting a whale. When it doubt, however, the captain and crew will help point them out to you. Many tours have onboard naturalists and are a great resource to have. They are experts in the nature and habits of whales and are great at spotting them.

Listen to the Guide:

Your guide is an expert in whale behavior and can offer valuable insights on where to look and what to expect. Listen carefully to their instructions for your best chance to see the whales.

Choose your tour:

There are quite a few whale watching tours on the Big Island. They vary widely in price depending on the boat and how many people are on the tour. You can take a tour that departs from Kona or Hilo but they will all give you a close-up view of the whales. Most tours have at least one naturalist on board who can provide information and commentary. We would recommend the Kailua-Kona Whale Watching Cruise.

A kayaking tour is also a good option that allows you to paddle along the coast and see the whales from a very different perspective. Some of them also have snorkeling or diving opportunities to see the whales underwater. If you looking for a thrilling experience, take a helicopter tour that will give you an aerial view of the whales.

Respect the wildlife:

Many of the whales are endangered species that deserve our protection. Follow the guidelines of your tour operator and don’t try to feed or harass them in any way. Always keep a safe distance and avoid disturbing them. Remember that you are a guest in their environment.

Learn their behavior:

If you learn how they breathe, dive and feed, it will help you predict their movements and anticipate their actions. If you see a whale arching its back or lifting its tail flukes you can assume it is about to dive. If you see a whale slapping its tail on the water, it probably means it’s feeding or playing.

What can I expect at a whale watching tour?

A whale watching tour usually starts with a check-in at the harbor or hotel pickup. You will board a boat that is specially designed for whale watching, with large windows, open decks, and comfortable seats. You will meet your captain and guide who will brief you on the safety rules and what to expect.

You will cruise along the coast in search of whales. You will have plenty of opportunities to see them in action, as they breach, tail slap, spy hop, and blow. You will also learn about their behavior, biology, and conservation from your guide. You may also hear their songs through a hydrophone or see them underwater through a glass-bottom boat.

Whale watching tours are usually two and four hours. It depends on weather conditions and how long it takes to find the whales.

FAQs About Whale Watching Tours

Q: Why are whale watching tours so amazing?

A: Whale watching tours are exciting adventures that take you to the open ocean to see the majestic humpback whales. Humpbacks travel thousands of miles every year from Alaska to Hawaii to mate and give birth. Imagine seeing these huge and graceful creatures breach, splash, and sing right in front of you. That’s what whale watching tours are all about!

Q: Where can I find whale watching tours on the Big Island?

A: You can find whale watching tours on the Big Island along the west and north coasts, where the water is deeper and warmer. The best places are Kohala, North Kohala, and North Kona, where you can see the most whales and enjoy the stunning scenery of the island.

Q: How do I choose the best whale watching tour for me?

A: If you are staying in Kona your best bet is to book a tour that leaves from Kona or Honokohau Harbor. You can choose from small zodiacs to large catamarans, depending on the type of adventure you want.

The most scenic and diverse experience is a tour that departs from Kohala or North Kohala. You will see not just whales but dolphins, turtles and manta rays. You will also have views of the coastline, mountains and waterfalls.

If you want to combine your whale watching tour with other activities and attractions, you should check out the options available in each destination. For example, you can visit Pu’ukohola Heiau National Historic Site or Lapakahi State Historical Park before or after your tour in Kohala, explore the beaches and shops of Kona town, or discover the coffee farms and art galleries of Holualoa.

Q: When is the best time to go on a whale watching tour?

A: Whale season runs from November to April. During this time, thousands of humpback whales visit the Hawaiian waters to escape the cold and find mates. The peak months are January and February, when you can see the most whales and their newborn calves.

Q: How long does a whale watching tour last?

A: A whale watching tour typically lasts for about two to four hours, depending on the tour operator and the destination. Tours range from $65 to $155 per person.

Q: What is the cheapest whale watching tour on the Big Island?

A: If you are on a budget but would like to see the majestic whales then we recommend the Kailua-Kona: Whale Watching Cruise. You still get a 2.5 to 3 hour experience it’s just on a bigger boat so you don’t get the personal experience.

Q: What is the best Big Island whale watching tour?

A: If you don’t mind spending a little more for a great whale watching tour, we recommend the Kealakekua Bay, Captain Cook & Marine Life Tour. On this tour you go out on a smaller boat for a more personal experience plus you have a whale naturalist on board to answer your questions.

Tips on Photographing Whales

Tips on Photographing Whales

  • Use the right equipment: When you are photographing whales, you will need a powerful zoom lens that will cover a wide range of focal lengths, from wide-angle to telephoto. A lens that is longer than 400 mm will be difficult to use on a boat because of the rocking motion, so use something like a 70-200 mm or a 100-400 mm lens. You need a camera that can shoot fast and has a high burst rate and autofocus. A DSLR or a mirrorless camera with a sports mode or a shutter priority mode is your best bet. Don’t forget to bring extra batteries and a waterproof bag to protect your gear.
  • Adjust your shutter speed: Whales are faster than you think! You need a fast shutter speed to freeze their motion and avoid blurry shots. A least 1/500 of a second or faster will do, depending on the light and how fast the whale is moving. You can also increase your ISO or open up your aperture to get more light and faster shutter speeds. Just be careful to not overexpose your pictures.
  • Use the right exposure: Since whales are surrounded by water and possibly a sunny sky, this can fool your camera’s metering system and result in underexposed shots. To avoid this, you can use exposure compensation or use a manual exposure and adjust your settings according to the scene. A good tip is to use spot metering or center-weighted metering and aim for the whale’s body or head.
  • Use continuous shooting mode: Whales will appear and disappear in just a matter of seconds, so you have to be ready at a moments notice! By using continuous shooting mode, you can take many shots in a row that will increase your odds of getting the perfect shot. You can also use continuous autofocus mode or Al Servo mode to track the whale’s and keep it in focus. Try to anticipate the whale’s behavior, your guide will help you out here.
  • Use a scale: Whales are quite massive, but they may look small in your photos if you don’t have something for scale. To help show their true size, try to include something of scale in your shot composition. Try and incorporate other boats, birds, mountains, or even the city skyline. You can also get closer to the water level and shoot from a low angle to make the whale look more imposing.
  • Consider the weather:  Obviously the weather will have an impact on your whale photography. It can change the color and contrast of your pictures. Ideally you want to shoot in bright sunlight to bring out the details and texture of the whale’s skin. Just because it’s cloudy or even foggy you can still get some amazing shots with soft light and muted tones. Just make sure you adjust your white balance and exposure accordingly.
  • Learn their behavior: By learning how they breathe and dive you can predict their movements and anticipate their actions. As an example if you see a whale arching its back or lifting its tail flukes, it means it’s about to dive. If you see the whales slapping its fins or tail on the surface, it’s feeding or playing. By paying attention to these signs it will help you capture the perfect photo!
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The Kailua-Kona Whale Watching Cruise is our Editor's Choice for the best overall tour for whale watching

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Robert Baker

Robert is a content writer and editor at World Guides to Travel where he shares his love for the great outdoors. He also writes in-depth travel blogs for other websites around the world. Robert is passionate about the environment and uses his writing to educate people about the advantages and importance of sustainable living. Robert enjoys creative writing. In 2009, his children’s novel Sally Hemings & the Good Associates won the Children’s Fiction section of the You Write On Book of the Year Award.
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