We saw our first whales from the plane.

The island hopper had just taken off from Maui, bound for Kauai, and right below our window was the characteristic splashing of whales sporting on the surface -- unmistakably distinct, from that vantage, amid the surrounding whitecaps.

Seconds later, the pilot confirmed the sighting with a laconic announcement. After all, whales are so plentiful here that sightings are practically a routine occurrence during a trip to Kauai.

Humpback whales spend their entire lives engaged in three activities: feeding, breeding and migrating. Growing to about 40 tons, they travel about 16,000 miles a year at a leisurely 5 miles per hour. They eat only in the summer months, when they are in the polar regions. In the winter, they're hanging out in the Hawaiian islands breeding and giving birth.

Near the Hawaiian island of Kauai, boaters get an up-close view of a humpback whale.
Near the Hawaiian island of Kauai, boaters get an up-close view of a humpback whale. (Tom Donahoe)

The season runs from December to April. So unless you're already going in the next few weeks, now is a good time to plan for next season.

The whale-watching industry here is huge. You can see the giant endangered cetaceans from sailboats, zodiacs, kayaks, even stand-up paddle boards and helicopters, many equipped with local guides who know the good places to look and will chase the whales down for you, like the Nantucket whalers who hunted them nearly to extinction in the 19th century, or like the Russian and Japanese factory ships still do today.


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In Kauai, the whaling ships used to put in at a little deep-water indentation on the southern coast that's still called Whalers Cove today. Adjacent to the tourist mecca of Poipu with its splendid luxury hotels, Whalers Cove still seems a world apart. Single-family homes of every variety, ranging from opulent estates to plantation shacks, share the neighborhood with the Whalers Cove Resort, where 39 spacious, well-appointed condos all face the ocean. Just up the road is the quaint town of Koloa, Hawaii's first sugar plantation town, now a picturesque strip of weathered red wooden buildings housing restaurants with charming patios, souvenir shops and a general store. Newer shopping developments with upgraded inventory are scattered among the palms and pine trees.

We spotted our second group of whales from our lanai at the resort. They're easy to spot if you do what the whalers did in the 19th century: look for the trail of water vapor curving away from their breathing spouts. The whalers would grab their harpoons and launch their chase boats, but today, the sighting is a cue to grab the binoculars provided by the resort and focus on where you saw the whale "blow." If you're lucky, you might see a whale or two playing on the water's surface; if not, it won't be long until another of the giant mammals comes along.

In 2011, a humpback mother swam into the cove, just yards from shore, and gave birth to a calf. "At first I thought she was sick and couldn't get back to the open ocean," Marianne Martin, the resort manager, told us. "But then I saw that second spout and I knew right away what was happening." (Marianne captured the excitement on videotape, which you can view on the resort's website, www.whalerscoveresort.com/kauai-videotour/video-tour.php.)

Rather than staying in one place hoping the whales will come to you, you can improve your chances of spotting them if you get out and take a walk. Whales are often sighted from the profusion of beaches in the Poipu area, and you can get an even better view from the easy hiking trails along the cliffs that rise up behind the beaches.

A four-mile stroll north from the end of the golf course adjacent to the Grand Hyatt Resort will take you to a high bluff above Shipwreck Beach, where you might see a surfer fling his board off the cliff, then follow it into the water far below. The walk continues along several spectacular and increasingly deserted beaches to the cliffs at Maha'ulepu, where the humpbacks were congregating in large numbers when we were there.

Another option on the opposite side of the island is to rent a bike in the bustling town of Kapa'a near where the Wailua River flows into the ocean from Kauai's lush interior. Cyclists can follow an oceanside path for about 8 miles, stopping to watch every time they see the humpback's telltale water spout.

Just a few miles up the Kuhio Highway from Kapa'a is the Kilauea Lighthouse. It's one place where you can almost always see whales in season, along with schools of playful, acrobatic spinner dolphins and a rich variety of native seabirds ranging from the Hawaiian state bird -- the nene -- a species of goose found only in these islands, to the red-footed boobie, so common in these parts that the Hawaiian word for it is simply A, to the albatross, graceful in flight, but clumsy on the ground, and the pelicanlike great frigatebird, whose voracious feeding habits have earned it the nickname "pirate bird."

The lighthouse -- a navigational aid for 62 years, guiding sailors safely across the northernmost point of the Hawaiian Islands -- and about 200 acres of surrounding peninsula became a national wildlife refuge in 1985. Its high bluff juts out into the ocean and commands a sweeping sea view. Humpbacks are found in profusion here during the winter months, and they're easy to spot from this vantage point.

And because it's part of the national parks system, the refuge is well staffed with park rangers and docents who share their aloha spirit and deep knowledge of the area's wildlife. They maintain a small but very informative visitor's center, which includes binoculars that visitors can check out with no charge.

But unquestionably, the best way to see humpback whales is to get into the water with them and view them up close. This is a profoundly different experience than spying on them from a land perch, entertaining though that can be. From the deck of a charter boat, you might spot a blue-black arc slicing gracefully through the water's surface even before you see a spout. This is your cue to stay focused, because in a few seconds, you're likely to see any of several spectacular sights.

Your whale might float to the surface and remain there, sometimes mere yards away from your boat. She might roll onto her back, exposing her white belly to the sky. She might soar straight up and fall into a belly flop, or slap her oversized fin onto the water's surface with an audible crash. Even better, she might be nuzzling a 2-ton calf playing around her flank, or charging ahead at full speed with two or more males in hot pursuit. Best of all, your whale might "breach," lifting her huge body entirely out of the water and crashing back down, displacing thousands of gallons of ocean water.

The show could last a minute or half an hour. But when you see her broad tail rise gracefully out of the water and slide back down again, your whale has "sounded" or gone into a deep dive, and the show is over, although chances are it won't be long until your next sighting.

It's useless to try to take photos unless you really know what you're doing. Best to just enjoy the moment or aim your smart phone in the right general direction and try to keep your hand from shaking with excitement while you capture the action on video.

Boats don't work the north shore of Kauai during the whale season, so you'll have to drive way around to Port Allen on the west side in order to book a charter. But that brings you full circle very close to the Poipu resort area, and what better way to cap off an afternoon on the water than to head over to the spectacular lanai at the Grand Hyatt for a cocktail.

And it was there, relaxing on the balustrade, sipping our mai-tais, that we gazed out to the cove and spotted our last whale of the trip playing lazily on the water's surface, as relaxed as we were. There really are no limits to the ways you can go whale watching on Kauai.

Contact Peter Magnani via travel@bayareanewsgroup.com.

IF YOU GO

Whale-watching options
From a boat: Port Allen Harbor at Hanapepe Bay is home to several charter boat companies, including Blue Dolphin Charters, Cap'n Andy's and Kauai Sea Tours. They all have their offices at the Port Allen Marina Center, 4353 Waialo Road, Ele'ele. If you want to find whales, it's best to choose a whale-watching cruise, where the captain is actively searching for the mammals the whole time you're on the water, rather than a snorkeling cruise or one that's exploring the Na Pali coast or serving a sunset dinner. Dolphin Charters (808-335-5553) has good ones that go out for two or four hours, drinks and pupus included. Two hours is plenty of time for whale watching, and if you're prone to motion sickness, be sure to get the nondrowsy medicine, otherwise you might miss the whole show.
From a bicycle: Kapa'a has a number of bike rental shops either on or just off the main Kuhio Highway adjacent to the oceanside path. Try Coconut Coasters, Kapa'a Beach Shop, Eastside Cruisers or Kauai Cycle, or search online for "Bike Rentals Kapaa."
From up high: The Kilauea Point National Wildlife Refuge, 3500 Kiluea Road, and its lighthouse, is accessed via a well-marked turnoff from the Kuhio Highway south of Princeville. Open daily 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $5 or free with a National Parks pass. The parking area is small, so there can be a wait to get in during crowded times. The walk to the point from your car is uphill, but only about a quarter-mile on a paved roadway. Details: 808-828-0168.
Lodging, dining
You might not see any whales at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, but if you're looking for a place to sip that $15 mai-tai, you're not going to do any better than this. In addition to drinks and pupus, there's live music and native dance shows. The walk to the bluffs and beaches starts just to the left as you face the water, and if your to-do list includes an elegant dinner for that special occasion, the Tidepools Restaurant on the hotel grounds will not disappoint. 1571 Poipu Road, Koloa; 808-742-1234.
The Whalers Cove Resort is at 2640 Puulolo Road in Koloa. Reservations can be made at 1-800-225-2683 or www.whalerscoveresort.com

-- Peter Magnani