Where to go whale watching
THE BEST PLACES TO SPOT WHALES WORLDWIDE
Whales migrate further than virtually any other creature on the planet - traveling in search of giant squid, of krill, of warmer currents in which to raise their young. For this reason they can be seen breaching and splashing in most of the world's oceans - even off the UK coast - but each experience varies wildly. Different species favour different regions, and some countries offer land-based tours while in others you'll be enjoying life on board. Wildlife fans may want to be able to combine their whale watching tour with the chance to see other species - while sun seekers will be less keen on following them to their Arctic hideouts.
Below are our favourite whale sighting spots. Click on the blue map points for more information about where to go whale watching.
June. Alaska's wildlife is simply spectacular - and as well as daily sightings of 40-ton humpback whales flinging themselves about in the ocean, keep an eye out for sea otters, seals, dolphins, orcas and porpoises. You can sail into iceberg-filled fjords and right up to glaciers. Land-based activities include forest and waterfall walks, hot springs - and maybe even the spectacle of brown bears fishing for salmon.
Nov-Mar. Most tours depart from the tip of South America, and take you round South Georgia and the Falkland Islands. Eight species of whale can be observed in the Antarctic, and leaving your cruise ship for smaller zodiac expeditions allow you to get up close to humpback, blue and minke whales, along with orcas. You can kayak, walk with penguins, and hike across the ice - this is a serious immersion in nature.
The krill-rich waters of the Arctic lure whales north to feed, so it’s highly likely you’ll spot these ocean giants around Norway, Spitsbergen and Alaska. Take advantage of the endless Arctic summer days to spot puffins, polar bears and walrus, too. In Greenland’s Disko Bay, minke, beluga, humpback and fin whales frequent the ice-packed waters year round, with endangered, 80-ton bowhead whales appearing in spring.
Late Jun-early Oct. One of the most popular whale watching destinations, the Azores offer exceptional sighting records and numerous species, including fin and blue whales - the largest animals on earth. Sei, pilot, minke and sperm whales also travel here, along with orcas and dolphins. Sightings are increased by the land-based 'vigia', who direct boats to the whales. Photography and research trips are also available.
Baja California & Monterey
In Baja, Mexico, blue, grey, fin and humpback whales swarm to the sandy lagoons to give birth to enormous calves in late Jan-March. Grey whales are very friendly, and may even approach your boat. Heading north to Monterey’s Marine Sanctuary, humpback and blue whales pass by in search of krill and anchovies April-Dec, along with orcas, minke and fin whales, making this one of the US’s top spots for whale watching.
Early Nov - early May. These tropical islands entice humpback whales down from Alaska to mate and give birth. Incredibly acrobatic for such mighty creatures, you may be able to spot them leaping and blowing from the Maui shore, while boat tours give up-close encounters. Dolphins can also be seen here, serene and tired after the night's hunting, as well as false killer whales and pilot whales.
July-Nov, shore-based. If you're worried about seasickness, Hermanus offers some of the best shore-based whale watching, thanks to the world's only whale crier, who sounds his kelp horn to announce sightings off the coast. From May to August, boat tours also run - although many are closed in June - the middle of the South African winter.
Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura, located on the east coast of South Island, is New Zealand's whale watching capital. Sperm whales are present here year round, but head here in June or July to spot the more acrobatic humpback whales, or in December or March for orcas. Blue whales, southern right whales and several other smaller species are also occasional visitors. Dolphins and fur seals are also present in these nutrient-rich waters.
La Gomera, Canary Islands
Mar - Nov. This diminutive island has more than its fair share of cetaceans - with several sprightly dolphin species as well as pilot and the rare beaked whale. Lucky cruisers may also spot gigantic fin, sei, sperm or Bryde's whales - sightings peak in spring. The island has a pleasant climate year-round, with beaches and forests to lounge on or hike through when you're not out on the ocean.
Ligurian Sea, Italy
Did you know that sperm and fin whales - the second largest in the world - live in the Mediterranean? A research trip to the Ligurian Sea brings you up close to these gentle giants, where you'll work with biologists to collect vital data and analyse photos. You'll be a full member of the crew - cooking, navigating and taking on duties - and fully immersed in life on board.
Late May-Sep, Nov for orcas. The picturesque Norwegian fishing villages, overlooked by snow-dusted mountains are a gorgeous backdrop to your trip. Tours can be based out of converted fishermen's cabins, with plenty of land-based activities in between boat rides to see sperm whales, humpbacks, and possibly porpoises or orcas. For a truly magical experience, go sailing on a Victorian tall ship schooner.
Best time: late Jun - early Aug. The atmospheric setting of Newfoundland and Nova Scotia will see you sail past giant slabs of ice in search of the 20 whale species found here, including humpback, minke, sperm and fin whales - as well as dolphins, eagles and puffins. Whale study tours are available with biologists explaining their behaviour and giving marine ecology presentations. Or, join in the region's only orca census.
Scotland - Isle of Mull
This peaceful corner of the British Isles is home to its largest creature - the minke whale. Boat tours with marine biologists reveal these immense mammals lunging through shoals of fish, while porpoises, eagles, puffins and dolphins may also be spotted along the way. You also can land on a remote islet to hang out with seals. Tours work in collaboration with marine research programmes; fees go to support their work.
Late Nov - mid Apr. The mighty blue whale is most likely to be seen in the warm waters of the Indian Ocean from late February to mid-March, when they travel here in search of krill. Sri Lanka has one of the highest concentrations of cetaceans, and the acrobatic spinner dolphins will whizz past your boat year-round, while sperm whales dive in search of giant squid. Leave your boat to search for leopards in the nearby Yala National Park.
Late Jul - early Oct. The freezing Antarctic winter sees humpback whales migrating thousands of miles north to the balmy waters surrounding Tonga, where they give birth. This is one of the only places in the world where you can snorkel with these 40-ton marine giants in crystal clear seas, and swim with the newborns. Staying on land will also give the chance to discover the laid back culture of the "Friendly Islands".
Late Jun-Sep. The calm waters of the Inside passage are ideal for kayaking - and for watching orcas, at eye level from your kayak. Beach camps increase your chances of sighting these striking mammals even when back at base. Humpbacks, minke whales, dolphins and porpoises can also be seen here, and the Whale Interpretative Center gives a fascinating background to these beautiful creatures and their habitat.
Where to go whale watching
RESPONSIBLE TRAVEL'S SUPPLIERS RECOMMEND
Amanda Stafford, from our supplier Dolphin and Whale Connection, has been whale watching for 18 years. She saw her first blue whales last year - in the Azores:
"In the Azores I had a blue whale mother and calf come right up to the boat. I saw the calf and thought "My God, that's a big whale". And then a long way to the side of the calf this big thing like a mountain coming out of the sea, came up, and I realised - that's the mother! I'd thought the baby was the blue whale. They're very big, and they are actually a mottled blue. We run tours to see the blue whales when they migrate through the Azores in May, so that's a great place to see them and it's extraordinary! I really appreciated it because they're endangered. It felt like such a privilege to see the largest mammal on the planet, especially after having been going there for so long and never having seen that particular species."
Sue Grimwood is a whale watching specialist with our supplier Steppes Travel. She shares her tips on where to go whale watching for up-close encounters:
"If you want to see grey whales, the best place is Baja, Mexico. You can see other whales there, but when most people think of Baja they're thinking grey whales - mothers and calves, really close - and the season with the babies really is February to March. The mothers calve in the bay just off Baja, and they have this slightly strange need to get quite close to humans. Quite often they will actually push the calves close to the surface, right next to the pangas (small boats) that go out so they actively seek out human company. They then migrate into the Arctic regions. I've seen them when they're up there feeding, and they're not that keen on humans at all. They'll still feed normally if you're nearby in a boat, but they certainly won't approach you like they do in Baja during calving season."
Brent Carey is the owner of our supplier, Templeberg Villa in Sri Lanka. He shares his tips on where to go whale watching if you want to see blue whales:
"During a half day tour off southern Sri Lanka, we saw over ten blue whales. The drivers - fishermen now turned eco-warriors - are very respectful of the whales' habitat. They cut their engine just as much as they fire it up to have you zipping across the tops of waves and having some very close encounters with blue whales. There is something eerily spooky about hovering above an animal bigger than a double-decker bus that is somewhere beneath your boat. When they come up to the surface for air and you see then for the first time you realise how small and insignificant we are as human beings. They definitely are the rulers of the sea."