Having a whale of a time

Where are the best places for a young family to watch whales? William Gray has the answers, and the memories

4 mins

It was one of those moments when, no matter how incredible the spectacle, you simply had to turn and watch your children instead. The sheer, wide-eyed amazement that bloomed across our twins’ faces when they saw their first whale was so captivating that I barely registered the parade of pilot whales off Tenerife’s west coast.

As toddlers, Joe and Ellie didn’t have the words to spoil the moment with crass exclamations. Instead, for just a few seconds, they were quietly spellbound. Admittedly, they then returned to ransacking the brochure stand in the boat’s lounge, but following that memorable induction to the world of cetaceans their attention span has steadily grown.

A few months later, on Québec’s St Lawrence River, the twins were enraptured by a playful minke whale that surfaced so close to our boat that you could hear its explosive breath and glimpse a rainbow in the column of spray before the breeze shredded it.

By the age of four, Joe and Ellie had begun to master the art of using binoculars. Well, I say ‘master’ – in fact, Ellie spent most of a three-hour boat trip in South Africa peering through the wrong end of her newly acquired optics. No matter how close a southern right whale surfaced alongside, she kept muttering that she couldn’t see anything. Joe, meanwhile, was convinced that every wayward frond of kelp was a whale.

By now, innocent wonder had been replaced by an obsession with size and smell. They were truly astounded to learn that a whale could be as long as a boat. And if you ask them what their most abiding memory of that boat trip was, their eyes light up as they enthusiastically describe the whiff of 60,000 fur seals on Dyer Island.

South Africa is a great family whale-watching destination. You don’t even have to get in a boat (a bonus for victims of seasickness), because the whales are easily viewed from low cliffs at places such as Hermanus.

Child-friendly whale-watching

In terms of child-friendly whale-watching, however, we hit the jackpot in New Zealand. Kaikoura’s sperm whales were impressive enough – despite their tendency to ‘up-flukes’ and dive the moment you sighted them. But it was their diminutive cousins who stole the show. We’d barely left the harbour when we were surrounded by a pod of at least 600 dusky dolphins.

What made the encounter so utterly mesmerising was the dolphins’ energy and unabashed joie de vivre. When one performed a three-metre backward leap with reverse twist there was every chance it would do it again, two or three times in quick succession. Now imagine dozens of similar acrobatics taking place all around you until your head is spinning and you are hoarse from cheering and laughing and you will understand why Joe and Ellie are now dedicated followers of all things cetacean.

When they’re older, we’ll return to Kaikoura to swim with the dolphins – another of those moments, no doubt, when I’ll be torn between whale-watching and child-watching.

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