Killer whales can be easier to find than you think. From the icy waters of the Antarctic to the beaches of Patagonia – we uncover the best orca-watching spots around the world
The Antarctic is a good feeding ground for orcas and it is estimated that half the world’s population (around 25,000) reside there. Expedition cruises circle the Antarctic Peninsula in search of dorsal fins cutting through waves, or to witness orcas crashing into icebergs to knock unsuspecting sea lions into the water where they can be devoured.
Where to see: Tours of the peninsula from Argentina’s Ushuaia are popular, with sightings of minke and humpback whales common. Trips from New Zealand to the Ross Sea in the eastern Antarctic are also rich in orcas.
When to go: February-March
Neither heavy in numbers nor easy to spot, the lure of Patagonia’s orcas is their sophisticated hunting technique. Witness the lobos (meaning 'wolves', a local nickname given to the area’s predatory orcas) gulp down sea lion pups after purposely beaching themselves at high tide in order to capture their prey.
Where to see: Viewings are mainly land-based, with the beaches of Caleta Valdes, Punta Delgada and Punta Norte all good viewing spots.
When to go: March-April (Punta Norte) and September-October (Punta Delgada and Caleta Valdes)
Orcas are common to the coastal fjords of western Iceland, where they devour a wealth of herring and often put on vivid aerial displays. You can also alternate whale sightings with skygazing, as you hunt down the northern lights at night.
Where to see: The lively village of Grundarfjörður, two hours’ drive north-west of Reykjavík on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, is the prime location for orca watching. Húsavík, on Iceland’s northern coast, also has a bounty of whales – including orcas – particularly during summer.
When to go: January-April (Snæfellsnes) and March-October (Húsavík)
The waters around Norway’s northern region of Tysfjord and further towards the Arctic Circle are some of the richest fishing spots in the world – and they draw large numbers of whales. Seek out herring-hungry whales and possibly jump in and swim with them too: this area is one of the few places in the world where you are permitted to snorkel alongside wild orcas.
Where to see: Many tours depart from the village of Andenes on the northern island of Andøya. Alternatively, the city of Tromsø has also recently emerged as a prime orca-watching hub.
When to go: November-early February
Located 50km off the coast of Western Australia, the ocean canyon around Bremer Bay has seen a frenzy of marine life in recent years. Reports put it down to an underwater hydrocarbon gas leak fertilising the waters, luring fish (and predators) from near and far. The area is now thought to be home to the largest group of orcas in the Southern Hemisphere – about 150 – drawn by the promise of a free feed.
Where to see: Boat tours geared around orca watching go solely from Bremer Bay Boat Harbour.
When to go: Late January-early April
The movements of Alaska’s 18 pods of resident orcas are dictated by two factors: ice and fish. When the pack ice advances off the north of the state, they head for the shallow waters off south-eastern Alaska to gorge on king salmon and for the females to calve. Humpback and minke whales are common, while the majority of wild sea otters also call Alaskan waters home.
Where to see: Orcas gather in the Kenai Fjords, around Resurrection Bay, as well as in Kachemak Bay. Tours depart from nearby Seward and further south-east from Juneau’s Auke Bay Harbour.
When to go: June-September
The salmon-rich waters of the San Juan archipelago, off the coast of Washington state, provide a feast for the islands’ three resident orca pods as they track fish close to the shores during the summer months. It’s not just orcas on view: grey, minke and humpback whales also frequent San Juan’s waters. Keep an eye out, too, for soaring bald eagles in full flight.
Where to see: Tours regularly depart San Juan’s Friday Harbour, or visit Lime Kiln Point State for shore-based whalewatching.
When to go: Mid-April to mid-October