The Great Migration: Humpback Whales Spend Winter in Hawaii

PHOTO A humpback whale shows off its tale in the waters off Kauai, Hawaii.

Each winter and spring, the path of the humpback whale flows from Alaska to Hawaii, bringing the spectacle of Hawaii humpback whale season to the nation's 50th state.

"When a visitor comes to Hawaii, they really should come to Kauai, they should come to the west side -- for whales, for your ocean adventures," says Mike Faye, owner of Waimea Plantation Cottages, a cluster of historic restored sugar plantation cottages on the western coast of Kauai. Faye is a lifelong Kauai resident whose grandfather helped found the sugar industry in the Hawaiian Islands in the late 1800s.

Native Hawaiians say that the best place to catch the playground of migrating whales is in the channel between the west shore of Kauai and the Island of Niihau, a hidden getaway near the town of Waimea, a quiet, historic community that is a throwback to old Hawaii culture.

The town is just three miles from one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the islands, the sprawling Waimea Canyon, which Mark Twain once called the "Grand Canyon of the Pacific," home to pristine white-sand beaches with sunny and dry weather most of the year.

After feeding all summer in the coastal waters of Alaska, the migrating humpback whales return to the Hawaii area from November to May to mate and give birth. The calm waters off the coast of Waimea come alive with the whales through the spring, making it the perfect location for relaxing whale-watching on the ocean aboard one of the many boats that tour the area.

"Kauai is a beautiful, beautiful island. The waters here are some of the most pristine I think in the world. Real nice to see the whales here," says Greg Elsworth of Kauai Sea Tours, which offers traditional catamaran excursions as well as zodiac tours of Kauai's West Shore and Na Pali Coast. Along with whales, the waters off Kauai are populated with bottlenose and spinner dolphins who actively swim and jump next to boats. But it is the whales who draw crowds of tourists with their graceful and sometimes playful motions.

"The water will you know, tend to be flat calm, and then all of a sudden you see tons of whales out there -- rolling, flapping, spouting, jumping, you name it," says Casey Reimer of Jack Harter Helicopters, one of the companies whose helicopter tours give breathtaking views of Kauai and its coastline, two thirds of which can only be seen from the air.

Native Hawaiians marvel at the calming influence of the humpbacks each year.

"The Hawaiian word for whale is kahola," says Nalani Brun, a Kauai cultural specialist and traditional Hawaiian singer and dancer. "It's a wonderful lesson the kahola teaches us, to slow down, enjoy life. When you watch whales, you have to slow down. You gotta sit there and be very patient and wait, and you become peaceful."

And the views from the shores of Kauai are unrivaled. "I've seen some of the best sunsets right here," Faye says. "It's probably the most beautiful place in the world."

For more information, visit Kauai Sea Tours, Jack Harter Helicopters, Waimea Plantation Cottages and Hawaiian Airlines.

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