“Wildlife defines Hawaii. Hawaii is one of the places where there is still a significant amount of unique wildlife. Seventy percent of our wildlife is not found anywhere else on the planet.” -Hannah Bernard, Hawaii Wildlife Fund, Executive Director
Going to Hawaii and wondering where you need to go to see wildlife? First, get to know the islands’ adorable and unusual creatures. But before you mingle with them, it’s important to review and follow local regulations for lawfully and respectfully interacting with any native animal. Hawaii wildlife conservation expert Hannah Bernard provides tips on how to practice ethical behavior while spotting wildlife.
What to see and where to see it
Hawaiian Hoary Bat: The Hawaiian hoary bat has brown fur with a frosted white back. They are only found on Kauai and Big Island. The bats are nocturnal, but instead of roaming in caves, they seek out tall trees and attach themselves to their highest branches. The hoary bat is Hawaii’s native mammal and, along with the monk seal, is among the only creatures endemic to Hawaii. They prefer to seek solitude, so to catch one out in the open, keep your eyes peeled just before dark and head to the nearest stream or bay, or look along the coast. Even researchers still don’t know that much about the hoary bats, so if you happen to spot one yourself, you may be able to learn something new about them.
Hawaiian Owl: When going Hawaiian owl-spotting, a good camera with a zoom lens is an absolute must. These are some of the most beautiful creatures you’ll ever see. The majestic owl has a brown coat mixed with shades of white and yellow, and its eyes are haunting. Hawaiians have considered the “pueo” highly spiritual since original settlers believe it represented the reincarnation of an ancestor. Contrary to most owls, these early birds like the daytime and often cruises at a high altitude over grassy areas. Look for them in the hilly Kula region on Maui, at Kaena Point on Oahu, in Waimea on Big Island, and at Waimea Canyon on Kauai.
Néné: The state bird of Hawaii, the néné is the rarest goose in the world, and unfortunately endangered. It’s also known simply as the Hawaiian goose and is an offshoot of the Canadian goose. Like its predecessor, the néné can fly. Unlike its Canadian ancestors, the néné has a hybrid foot: partially clawed and partially webbed. It also has a distinctive black and white throat. A good place to see one—or many—is on the golf course, where they often arrive in packs. You won’t find them on Oahu, other than at the Honolulu Zoo, but you will find them on the other three major Hawaiian islands: Kauai, Maui, and Big Island.
How to practice ethical animal-spotting behavior on land
Animals, like humans, require personal space and can feel uncomfortable and confrontational if they lose that, says Bernard. Practice these two simple rules for approaching wildlife: “Know the laws and use your common sense. Nobody would go up to a bear if they were trying to see it; they would understand there’s a real chance of endangering themselves and getting hurt. But people will approach dolphins and turtles and get as close as they can. They may not hurt us, but they have a space that they don’t necessarily want to have invaded. All animals have a certain approach distance or an escape distance that they feel comfortable with.”
She adds: “Don’t approach a sleeping animal and wake it up. Understand its behavior; if an animal is showing escape behavior, get out of its way.”
In the Water
What to see and where to see them
Green Sea Turtles: Hawaii’s most common turtle is the Green Sea Turtle, also known as the honu. They’re often seen lingering beneath underwater ledges or feeding on algae closer to shore. But the easiest way to see them is just above water, when they come up to breathe, or better yet, walk onto the beach to bask in the sun—just like you would do. There are a few hotspots that are known for high honu traffic: For example, Laniakea Beach in northern Oahu is nicknamed “Turtle Beach.” There’s also a non-profit organization stationed at the beach offering up turtle information for those eager to learn. Then there’s Maui’s kid-friendly Maluaka Beach, known as the best snorkeling beach around, and also referred to as “Turtle Town.” Each of these beaches, as their names suggest, offer up good chances to see turtles both in and out of water.
Hawaiian Monk Seals: Consider yourself lucky if you get a glimpse of one as Hawaii’s monk seals are a rare sight. They’ve been reportedly spotted laying on the Kauai’s southern shores of Poipu Beach or in South Maui, though they don’t have a true home base. When they’ve surfaced to sand, that typically means they are resting from a long day of escaping sharks so it’s important to be respectful and keep your distance.) An endangered species only found on the islands, they are often described as having faces like puppies. In fact, their Hawaiian name is Ilio holo i ka uaua, which translates to “dog running in rough seas.”
Humpback Whales: Hawaiian humpback whales make a long, 4,500-mile swim each year, typically from Alaska. They only visit the islands during winter months, usually mid-December through mid-April. The 60-foot long Kohola (as they’re known locally) can be spotted from all the islands, but your best bet to see them is Maui or neighboring Lanai and Moloka’i. You can see them from land on a clear day (they’re hard to miss!) and getting to a high point is the best way to get a good view. If you can get out on a vessel you can get a closer look, and since humpbacks are known for being curious about their surroundings, they may even have the courage to approach your boat—so keep your camera handy.
How to practice ethical animal-spotting behavior by sea
“The most important message I would communicate to families traveling in Hawaii and experiencing our wildlife is to respect it,” says Bernard. “Respect the wild areas of Hawaii and respect wildlife. It’s not Disneyland here. People think because it’s so beautiful here that you can’t get hurt.”
Bernard is particularly a proponent of keeping your distance from dolphins unless they approach you. Seeking them out in their natural habitat is considered disruptive. “Enjoy seeing them from a snorkel boat so you can encounter animals already out moving on their own and choosing to approach a vessel. Same with turtles: We encounter turtles in our nearshore waters, and even in our beaches when they’re resting, warming up, and avoiding predators. People are going as close as they can get to get selfies with the turtles, and we’re proponents of giving them 10 feet.”
For whales, Mammal Protection Acts dictate staying 100 yards away at all times—unless they approach you. “Dolphins and whales do decide to come up closer sometimes. If they choose to approach your vessel, then you’ll have the experience of a lifetime,”says Bernard.