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The best destinations in the world for whale watching
Read time: 8 mins
Seeing whales in their natural environment is an experience you’ll never forget. It can be the highlight of any holiday if you know where to go, and you’ll often enjoy beautiful scenery and many other activities and attractions. But it’s essential to ensure the outfitter you book with is an ethical one that has set and follows a responsible whale watching policy. When encountering these highly intelligent creatures in the wild, keep in mind that as we’re getting up close to them, they’re studying us too – it’s a two-way process, and something that often brings people to tears.
A responsible whale watching guide knows to slow down when whales are spotted, taking precautions that make the animals relaxed and more likely to interact as well as practice behaviours that are so exciting to witness. Excursion operators have multiple boat types to choose from, including kayaks, Zodiac boats and larger sightseeing boats. Depending on the destination, a Zodiac is the best way to go for not only a more intimate experience, but for a better chance of seeing the whales as they can cover larger areas than a kayak, but you’ll still be fairly close to the water and won’t be crowded in with large groups of people.
Baja California Sur, Mexico
One of the top spots on Earth when it comes to variety, the Sea of Cortez in Baja California Sur was famously referred to as the “World’s Aquarium” by Jacque Cousteau. Not only does it contain a wealth of colourful fish, dolphins, sea turtles and many other sea creatures, but it’s famous for hosting everything from blue whales to humpbacks and grey whales. From December through February, the singing humpback whales can be seen frolicking among the waters of the Sea of Cortez and the Pacific Ocean, often very close to shore and in large groups. They’re quite active, often putting on a show for those on the water and the beach, breaching and slapping the water with their tales. If you go out for a swim, you’re likely to hear their beautiful songs.
Baja is especially famous for its grey whales. There are three major lagoons that serve as their primary destination from around mid-January through early April: Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio and Scammon’s lagoons. The Mexican government strictly regulates access to the lagoons to ensure that human activity doesn’t affect the animals when they’re in these protected, tranquil lagoons. They’ve used them for centuries for mating and birthing before embarking on their annual migration to Alaska. The whales seek out human contact in the lagoons and even come right alongside the boats to get a closer look and oftentimes, for a head rub. Some of the mothers encourage their babies to learn what humans are too, lifting their calves up for people to touch.
Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa
One of the most popular attractions in the Western Cape area of South Africa is whale watching. The southern right whale is the most commonly seen, with daily sightings of these majestic giants virtually guaranteed in September and October. They’re what many people come to marvel at, although Bryde’s whales and humpbacks can be spotted too. Your best bet is to get out on a whale watching boat, but if you’d rather watch them from land, you can do so from cliff tops and shorelines. There are just four to six thousand southern right whales left on the planet today, and each one has a unique pattern on their heads that make it possible to identify one from the other.
Hudson Bay, Manitoba, Canada
Hudson Bay is located in the far north of Manitoba, home to the world’s largest population of beluga whales. These white whales that are particularly friendly and sociable, look as if they’re always smiling – putting smiles on the faces of humans as well. Nearly 60,000 of these playful ‘sea canaries’ (referred to as such for their unusual high-pitched whistle) gather here in the summer months, inhabiting the warmer waters of the Churchill River following the ice breaks. Visitors have a choice of multiple tour options, including trips where you can enjoy close encounters and even listen in on their conversations via hydrophones. Snorkelling with these whales is possible too.
Churchill and the Hudson Bay coastline in general are also a very popular place for polar bears as it’s one of the few destinations where you can enjoy close encounters with them – but not too close. Visitors are safely taken in custom-built Polar Rovers to view the world’s greatest concentration of the animals. While peak time for viewing is usually October and November, in recent years they’ve been arriving in late summer, which means you may be able to time your visit to see both the bears and belugas that may be here at the same time around late August to mid-September.
St Lawrence Marine Park, Saguenay, Quebec, Canada
In the summer months, Quebec’s Saguenay-St. Lawrence Marine Park, located around the small town of Tadoussac where the Saguenay and Saint Lawrence rivers meet, is a place where multiple species of whales gather. From May through October, as many as 13 species of cetaceans inhabit the salty waters of the St. Lawrence River, including humpbacks, minke whales and the largest animal on the planet, blue whales. Beluga whales are here year-round. Most of the creatures you’ll see here in the summer, from the birds to seals and whales, have travelled thousands of miles to come and feed here, spending a significant amount of time feeding and resting.
Captains of whale watching vessels here are required to complete training on the behaviours that should be practiced in order to avoid disturbing the whales, and they know how to react when the animals breach the surface unexpectedly nearby. This region is filled with spectacular scenery, and is part of the breath-taking fjord route that travels the awe-inspiring 65-mile-long Saguenay Fjord, one of the world’s longest, surrounded by towering cliffs while historic small towns line both sides, some of which are considered the most picturesque villages in the province. Hiking, biking and horseback riding are just a few of the other activities here too.
St. Anthony, Newfoundland, Canada
Newfoundland offers the chance to witness and incredible number of whale species. Its waters are inhabited by 22 different species of whale, including minke, orca, blue, sperm and the largest popular of humpback whales on Earth. They come to feast on krill, capelin and squid along the coast. From May through September, with the peak time July and August, they can often be seen breaching the water’s surface and splashing along the shores. While they can be seen in many different areas, one of the best places is the Great Northern Peninsula with tours departing from St. Anthony. If you time your visit during the second half of June, you’ll likely be able to see not only lots of whales, but stunning icebergs too.
Mirissa, Sri Lanka
The small tourist town of Mirissa on the south coast of Sri Lanka is famous for its whale watching, with the waters here particularly rich in plankton. Sightings are typically very good from November through April, when the waters are calm – from May through October the sea tends to be quite rough, and in the peak of monsoon season, May and June, there are no boat tours. While there are Bryde’s whales and sperm whales here, the blue whales are the star of the show. These astounding creatures measure as long as 99 feet and live just a few miles off the south coast shoreline.
Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand
The town of Kaikoura on New Zealand’s South Island is one of the few spots on the planet where sperm whales can be witnessed year-round. The marine environment here is remarkably rich in nutrients, drawing the animals that can weigh over 50 tons, and grow as long as 65 feet. They come to gather here due to the more than one-mile-deep canyon that runs alongside the coastline, creating a rare, unique system of sea currents that carry a very abundant marine food chain. There is just one boat-based whale watching tour company here, Whale Watch Kaikoura, that provides passengers with especially exciting encounters with the world’s largest toothed predator in their natural environment. Depending on the season, you might also spot, southern right whales, blue whales, pilot whales, humpbacks, and orca. The area is also home to the world’s rarest and smallest marine dolphin, the hectors.
The postcard-perfect town itself is also known for its rich Maori culture, with its name, Kaikoura, a Maori term for ‘eat crayfish,’ the signature culinary dish here which can be found in many eateries and food trucks. Visitors can also witness the unique albatross bird, enjoy close encounters with fur seals and embark on llama treks.
North Cape Cod, Massachusetts, USA
The Cod National Seashore is a beautiful 40-mile stretch of sandy dunes and picturesque lighthouses off the coast of Massachusetts. At its northern end, Provincetown, is a popular tourist destination with its colourful downtown filled with all sorts of restaurants from seafood shacks to fine dining options, unique shops, art galleries and grand mansions. It also happens to be a fantastic place for whale watching, with trips departing from here bringing the chance to marvel at humpback whales along with dolphins, seals and other marine creatures. The season begins in mid-April and the excursions run through October, although the best time for a tour is May and June with an unprecedented number of the whales typically spotted during this time frame.
Hervey Bay, Australia
The Land Down Under offers a variety of whale watching experiences but one of the best spots is the coastal city of Hervey Bay in southern Queensland. From mid-July through November, the protected Great Sandy Marine Park is the preferred place for humpback whales to rest, particularly with their young. Most tours take place between late August and late October, when sightings of the approximately 7,000 humpbacks and their new calves can generally be guaranteed. The mother whales use this time to teach their babies survival skills before they migrate back to Antarctic waters.
Silver Bank, Dominican Republic
Silver Bank is one of the world’s few destinations where you can actually swim with humpback whales in their natural environment. The submerged bank and coral reef covering about 649 square miles lies approximately 80 miles northeast of Puerto Plato in the Atlantic. It was declared a ‘Sanctuary for Marine Mammals,’ creating a unique naturally protected area for the Northern Atlantic humpbacks which migrate here every winter, giving birth and searching for new mates. Excursion captains understand that it’s important to earn their respect first with passive approaches and only non-aggressive movements for encounters that are often enjoyable to both humans and whales.
Maui, Hawaii, USA
One of the most popular Hawaiian Islands, Maui not only boasts picture-perfect beaches and lush rainforests, but from around mid-December through late April it’s one of the world’s best places for watching humpbacks. During their annual winter migration through the Pacific, you can see countless whales with the population steadily increasing in recent years thanks to conservation efforts. Just a half-century ago there were estimated to be less than 2,000, but today there is around 21,000 and half are believed by experts to pass through these gorgeous turquoise waters.
Juneau, Alaska, USA
Boat tours are incredibly popular in Juneau as they’re often the best way to see whales as well as glaciers, with around 600 humpback whales inhabiting the waters of the northern Inside Passage from April through November. Local guide companies take tourists out on scenic boat rides to see them, typically taking place between the peak viewing times from May to September. Orcas are also common here, along with all sorts of other wildlife like moose, bears and bald eagles.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada
Vancouver Island and particularly Johnstone Strait, which sits between mainland Canada and the northern part of the island, is one of the world’s best places to witness orca whales, and often at a rather close distance. It’s home to the largest resident pod in the world, with a population of around 200 of the killer whales. The name is a bit of a misnomer, as the resident orcas don’t consume mammals of any kind, but primarily feast on salmon and are anything but ‘killers,’ known for their intelligence and often curious, friendly nature. The best time to see them is from June through September, which is also when the weather is most pleasant. While there are multiple trip options, one of the best experiences here is by kayak, paddling alongside them in their natural habitat as countless bald eagles fill the skies and sit perched in the trees along the banks searching for their own salmon meal.
San Juan Islands, Washington, USA
The San Juan Islands lie just off the western coast of the U.S. in Washington State and are another top destination for orca whales, along with grey whales, humpbacks, minke whales, seals, otters, dolphins and more. This is the home of the Southern Resident killer whales, made up of pods J, K and L, which can frequently be seen in the waters here from late May through early October. There are numerous whale-watching outfitters to choose from, with tours bringing passengers out on smaller power boats typically the best bet. Although kayak excursions can provide a more intimate experience, your odds of seeing them aren’t as good simply because you won’t be able to paddle as far. If you don’t want to get out on the water, head to Whale Watch Park, officially known as Lime Kiln Point State Park, where they often swim close to the shore.
Puerto Madryn, Argentina
This small remote town in the beautiful Patagonian region of Argentina is one of South America’s best destinations for whale watching, including southern right and orca whales. The season for viewing them is June through December, when the animals come as close to 20 feet from the shoreline. This area is also popular for its penguins which can be seen from late September through mid-March, with the best time to watch them typically after November when the babies are born, and in the months that lead up to March while they prepare their babies for migration. For an unforgettable experience that brings the best chance to view both whales and penguins, plan your visit around early December.
Monterey, California, USA
The central coast of California is not only jaw-droppingly beautiful, but the area, especially around Monterey, is a prime whale-watching destination. In fact, you can see cetaceans here year-round. Winter and spring are ideal for watching migrating grey whales while summer and fall are when the blue whales and humpbacks are here. Orca sightings take place mid-April through mid-May, and late August through October, but can occur at any time. The area is abundant in other marine life too, including sea otters, sea lions, porpoise and dolphins.