Boating Guidelines

humpback breaching
Photo: NOAA, under NOAA permit #14097

Thousands of humpback whales visit Hawaiian waters every year from November through May. These acrobatic, 45-ton marine mammals attract wildlife enthusiasts, but they can pose safety hazards for boaters. Vessel-whale collisions occur every year in Hawai‘i and are a serious risk to boaters and whales. Ocean users are also subject to safety risks when whales surface, breach, or slap their massive tails or flippers.

Humpback whale season in Hawai‘i generally runs from November through May, although whales may be encountered in limited numbers during other months. The usual peak in humpback abundance occurs from January through March.

Humpback whales generally congregate in waters less than 600 feet deep throughout the main Hawaiian Islands. However, mariners may encounter humpback whales in deeper waters.

It is illegal to approach within 100 yards of a humpback whale.

Remain Vigilant

While on the water, always stay vigilant for whales and other collision hazards. Look out ahead for “blows” (the animal's exhalation), the backs of whales, tails (flukes), etc. It's best to post at least one dedicated whale lookout in addition to the vessel operator from November through May.

Go Slow, Whales Below

A slower speed during whale season not only protects the animals, but is prudent to reduce impacts from collision with these large animals to humans. A slower speed also reduces the risk of unintentional harassment, which often goes undetected.

Suggested speeds posted in these web pages are based on the best available science from Hawaii and other regions. However, the best approach to mitigating impacts is to be a prudent mariner.

Remember to maintain a recommended top speed of 15 knots, or safe planing speed, at all times while transiting.

If approaching a whale to observe it:

  • do not approach any closer than 100 yards of any whale,

  • do so at a recommended max speed of six knots within 400 yards,

  • leave the area as you entered, at a recommended max speed of six knots until >400 yards away from the whale.

These speed recommendations for boating around whales were developed jointly by the sanctuary, the State of Hawaiʻi Department of Land and Natural Resources, Pacific Whale Foundation, and members of Hawaiʻi's on-water community.

To learn more visit the Division of Boating and Ocean Recreation website at:

Other ways to avoid colliding with or disturbing whales

  • Stay at the helm: Keep your hands on the wheel and throttle at all times, and be ready to take action immediately to avoid a whale in your path.

  • Stop if you're too close: Stop immediately if you are within 100 yards of a humpback whale. Leave engines running and out of gear (in neutral) until the whale moves away.

  • Go around whales from behind: If you encounter whales in your path, go around them from behind while maintaining more than 100 yards distance. Do not attempt to run out in front of whales to get past them.

  • Warn other vessels: If you spot a whale, use the appropriate VHF radio protocol or other means to alert other vessels that may not be aware of whales in their path.

  • Don't assume the whales can see you: Whales may not be able to see you, or may not get out of your way. Calves are especially vulnerable since they are curious and may not have learned to be cautious of vessels.

  • Plan ahead: Be ready for delays in transit due to whale encounters. Avoid nighttime operations if possible.

Signs of whale disturbance

Cautiously move away if you observe any of the following behaviors:

  • Rapid changes in swimming direction or speed.

  • Erratic swimming patterns.

  • Escape tactics such as prolonged diving, underwater exhalation, underwater course changes, or rapid swimming away from your location at the surface.

  • Females attempting to shield a calf with her body or with her movements.

  • Sudden stop in important breeding, nursing, feeding, or resting activities after your arrival.

  • Abandonment of previously frequented areas.

Report a collision, an injured, or entangled marine mammal:

If you are involved in a collision with a whale or see an injured or entangled whale, call the NOAA Hotline: (888) 256-9840. If a phone call is not possible, hail the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF channel 16.

Suspect a close approach or other violation?

NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline, (800) 853-1964.

The best way to help an animal is to immediately alert authorized, trained, and well-equipped personnel using the above hotlines. Never try to disentangle a whale yourself.