After Hana, we traveled around the empty and rugged southern end of Maui, up over the shoulder of Haleakala and back to Kahului, where we then proceeded south to Kihei, one of the most touristified places in all of Hawaii. Our trip was winding to a close, but we came for one reason: humpback whales.
It was December, the very start of whale season on Maui, and we reservations the next afternoon with the Pacific Whale Foundation in Maalaea. I was eager to see breaching humpbacks and watch the look on Varenna’s face.
After checking in, we drove down to the Mana Kai Maui and watched a too-good-to-be-true sunset over Kaho’Olawe and Molokini Island. Melon and salmon hues covered the horizon, with the occasional spout of spray from a humpback in the bay. They were out there.
In the morning, we visited Kamaole Beach Park II for a little sand and snorkeling before driving around to Maalaea. There’s not much to Kihei. It’s nice, and the beaches are sugary and pleasant, but just a handful of decades ago, this area was empty. Virtually no town existed. So as a result, Kihei looks and feels and acts as you would expect it to — a town built completely by modern-day condo tourism.
The whale-watching cruise was wonderful, but we were still a little too early to see the spectacular breaching of full-grown males. We came upon a pod of four males and a female, and there appeared to be some battling going on, but it was hard to tell. The side of a whale would emerge, its massive windmill-blade of a fin would wobble in the air and then come down hard on the surface of the water. This was usually followed by a set of whale tails indicating a dive, and then silence for another 5 minutes.
The only breaching we witnessed was a baby humpback whale, which was a good 1/2-mile away. He seemed to squirt out of the water like a submerged beach ball popping through the surface.
Varenna saw this spectacle through the fog of her napless, exhausted state. But I’m not sure her mind was processing what was what. She gets a better view of a complete humpback whale when she watches Octonauts.
Our final day began with this exchange: “Varenna, let’s get your suit on. We’re going to the beach.”
“No! I don’t like the beach!” Ahhh, traveling with a toddler.
Truth is — of course — she loves beaches. Sand is a miracle substance for 2-year-olds. It molds, it falls apart, it falls through your fingers nicely. And waves? My God! Waves are awesome. No matter how many times they attack, retreat, then attack again, it never gets old. They’re like a knock-knock joke on repeat.
But toddlers will find a way to say “no,” especially when you are living out of a suitcase and everything is time sensitive.
So we reminder her of sand and how you can draw in it with your finger, got her suit on, and proceeded to Keawakapu Beach, where the water was calm enough for her float in the waves with her mom and grandparents. Bobbing in the water out there, with the perfect blue sky and idyllic backdrop of paddleboarders, occasional humpback whale spouts and the hulking slopes of Haleakala … not bad. This is why Kihei is worth it.
Our final stop of the trip was Polo Beach, which fronts the Four Seasons in Wailea just south of Kihei. We had a flight to catch at night, so keeping ourselves unsandy (if that’s the word) would have been nice, but how can you resist? Just as we all arrived on the crowded, sugary sands, a small commotion occurred. Everyone was pointing out at sea, and there, about a 1/2-mile from shore, was a massive whale tail slapping the surface of the sea repeatedly. It was a mother, showing her calf how its done. A smaller whale tail could be seen next to her, clumsily trying to do the same thing.
Why humpback whales “lobtail” like this isn’t fully known. It could be non-verbal communication to other whales (although their voices carry further), it could be a sign of aggression, or it could be a feeding practice which causes panic among prey and forces them to ball-up into tighter formation so the whale can have an easier time feeding.
Who knows, but it was a spectacular way to wave goodbye to us.