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Humpback whales are Maui festival's big stars

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi

LAST UPDATED: 1:47 a.m. HST, Nov 13, 2011

In the late 1970s, Maui whale activist Greg Kaufman would round up two dozen volunteers to put on annual festivities at Kalama Park in Kihei in honor of Hawaii's most famous winter visitors, the humpback whales.

They would cook big pots of chili and rice, ask local musicians to perform and invite the public to attend. Kaufman founded the nonprofit Pacific Whale Foundation in 1980, and the organization presented the first "formal" Whale Day that year, based on the same concept of bringing people together to celebrate the whales with food, fun and music.

Over the years, the event grew by leaps and bounds. The foundation began holding a Run for the Whales on the weekend prior to Whale Day, and filling the dates between them with other offerings, including talks and whale-watch cruises. To reflect its growth, the celebration's name was changed to Whale Week, then Whale Month.

Last year the foundation launched the Maui Whale Festival, a series of whale-themed events running throughout whale-watch season, from late November through mid-May.

"People are thrilled to see whales in the wild, and they want to learn all they can about them," said Merrill Kaufman, Greg Kaufman's wife and the foundation's chief operating officer. "They can do that at the Maui Whale Festival's free presentations by whale researchers and scientists. For those who enjoy an active lifestyle, there's Golf Fore the Whales, Run and Walk for the Whales and a new paddling event called Stand Up for the Whales. Add whale-watch cruises, good food, music, art and children's activities, and you can see the festival has something for everyone."

One of Kaufman's favorite events is Whale Day, set for Feb. 18. "Many visitors tell us they plan their vacations around that," she said. "This year we changed its name to World Whale Day. Our vision is to inspire people around the world to hold celebrations, big and small, in honor of whales on that day."

Kaufman also counts Keiki E.C.O. Day, a free environmental education day for Maui schoolchildren, as one of the Maui Whale Festival's key offerings. E.C.O. stands for Educating Children Outdoors.

"Last year more than 200 children participated with their teachers in hands-on, science-based sessions on everything from earthworm composting to celestial navigation," Kaufman said. "There's a direct relationship between the choices we make on land and the health of the oceans and the overall environment. We want to inspire kids to consider the impact of their decisions, ranging from their recycling habits at home to what's in their lunch box, which is often more packaging than food."

Hawaii's scenery, climate, culture and aloha make it a top vacation destination for close to 7 million visitors annually. For half the year the humpbacks are a magnificent bonus.

"On Maui you can see whales from shore, you can hear them while you snorkel," Kaufman said. "Hawaii is one of the few places where you can go on a cruise and have a close encounter with one of the largest, most magnificent animals on Earth. It's a total wow, and the Maui Whale Festival reminds us of that extraordinary privilege and blessing."

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is a Honolulu-based freelance writer whose travel features for the Star-Advertiser have won several Society of American Travel Writers awards.


Maui whale festival highlights

For more information and to make reservations, go to or call the Pacific Whale Foundation at 249-8811 on Maui or 800-942-5311 from the other islands. Ask about online and foundation member discounts. If you don’t spot whales on a whale-watch cruise, you can go again free.

Nov. 26

Welcome Home the Whales Cruises

Welcome back the humpbacks on special two-hour cruises with the foundation’s research team. Cruises depart from Maalaea Harbor at 9 and 11:30 a.m. and from Lahaina Harbor at 11:30 a.m. Cost is $24.95 per adult and $17 for children 7-12. Kids 6 and under are free (one child per paying adult).

The foundation’s regular two-hour whale-watch cruises run from Nov. 27 through May 15. Cruises depart daily from Maalaea and Lahaina harbors. Prices begin at $24.95 for adults. Children’s rates are the same as above. Reservations are required.

Open House

The foundation will host an open house at its headquarters at Maalaea Harbor Shops, 300 Maalaea Road, from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tour the research labs and education classrooms, and meet the research staff.

Dec. 11

Stand Up for the Whales

Join a human “pod” on boards or kayaks. This event goes downwind along the South Maui coast. It begins at 8 a.m. at Haycraft Beach Park beside Maalaea Bay and finishes at Kenolio Park in Kihei where there will be refreshments, prize drawings and medallions for participants. Entry fees: $50 for adults and $40 for youths 12-15 years old. Kids under 12 are free, but they must be accompanied by a legal guardian.

Dec. 17

Golf Fore the Whales

Open to individuals or teams of four, this golf tournament at Makena Beach and Golf Resort’s North Course includes a reception at Cafe on the Green from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. with live entertainment, contests, prizes, pupu and a silent auction. The shotgun start for the four-person scramble will be at noon. Advance entry fee is $100 for foundation members and $130 for nonmembers by Nov. 18. After that date the fee is $150 and $160, respectively.

Feb. 4

Run and Walk for the Whales

Choose the course: 5K walk or run ($35); half-marathon walk or run ($45); or a 2K fun run for children up to age 12 ($25). The starting line and post-event festivities will be at the Makena Beach and Golf Resort. Register online by Dec. 1 and receive a discount for the 5K and half-marathon events.

Feb. 5

VIP Whale Watch

Enjoy a two-hour VIP cruise with Greg Kaufman, the foundation’s president and founder. The cruise departs at 12:30 p.m. from Maalaea Harbor. Cost is $49.95 per person and $34.95 for children 7 through 12. Kids 6 and under are free. Reservations are required.

Feb. 10-11

Evening with the Experts

Experts will share insights about whales from different perspectives (last year a scientist, filmmaker and marine photographer were on the panel). This free talk will be from 5:30 to 8 p.m. at the Westin Maui Resort and Spa.

Feb. 17

Keiki E.C.O. Day

Keiki E.C.O. (Educating Children Outdoors) Day at Kalama Park is a free, daylong event that teaches Maui schoolchildren about the environment and their role in protecting it. The public is welcome to observe, and visiting families can sign up to participate.

Feb. 18

World Whale Day

Planned are live entertainment, ono (delicious) food, Made on Maui artisans fair, environmental displays and children’s activities. It begins at 9 a.m. with Maui’s Parade of Whales along South Kihei Road and continues through 7:30 p.m. at Kalama Park.

Feb. 25

Great Whale Count

Help the foundation’s research team count whales that can be seen from Maui’s shores. All training and materials are provided, it’s a great way to learn about whales, and there’s no cost to participate.

May 15

Aloha to the Whales Cruise

Departing from Lahaina Harbor at 2:30 p.m., this two-hour cruise marks the end of whale-watch season on Maui. Cost is $24.95 for adults and $17 for children 3-12. Kids 2 and under are free (one child per paying adult). Reservations are required.

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