(NOAAs National Ocean Service)
Article Words : William Gray | 16 July

Whale watching: who, what, where and what to spot

We've had a lot of questions about whale watching here at Wanderlust, so we've compiled the best ones to help you on your way

Dozens of boats at the marina – how do I choose the right one?

Look for an operator that’s signed up to a strict code for responsible whale watching. If in doubt, ask questions about how they minimise disturbance to whales. A good operator will talk about the correct way to approach cetaceans (sideways, never from the front or rear), minimum distances, no-wake speeds etc.

Whale watching should be an educational experience with experts on hand to interpret behaviour, describe conservation measures and so on. Whale sightings should be logged for research purposes, while additional activities, such as using hydrophones to listen in on whale and dolphin calls, provide a more rounded experience.

Are there specialist whale watching holiday companies?

Endorsed by the Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society, Oceans Worldwide offers a programme of ‘Out of the Blue’ whale watching trips to destinations ranging from Scotland and the Bay of Biscay to Alaska and Patagonia. Also try Discover the World, Naturetrek and Wildwings.

Where should I sit on the boat?

That often depends on weather and sea conditions. The bow and raised areas provide the widest field of view but are more exposed to wind, spray and waves. It’s not essential to be next to the guide as most use a clock system to direct your gaze (“humpback at three o’clock!”) with the bow representing 12.

What special kit do I need?

You may spend long periods waiting, boat idle, rolling on a swell, so if you’re prone to seasickness take precautions.

Windproof and waterproof clothing, sunscreen and hat are essential. Polarising sunglasses are useful for reducing glare and cutting through reflections on the water surface to see whales and dolphins that approach the boat.

Take a pair of x8 or x10 binoculars or, if you’re watching from land, a spotting telescope. Other useful extras include camera, a notebook for recording sightings and a field guide.

How do you get those perfect tail shots?

It’s not easy photographing whales. They’re moving, the boat’s moving and salt spray is a camera’s worst enemy. Protect gear in a splash-proof housing (eg www.aquapac.net) and use a lens hood to cut glare on the lens. Choose a telephoto zoom, select as fast a shutter speed as possible and switch to continuous shooting mode. Whales that raise their flukes are often preparing for long, deep dives, so you may only get one or two chances at a decent shot. Keep your camera focused on the whale while on the surface, then take a sequence of photos as the back and tail start arching through the water. The closer you are to the surface, the more impressive the fluke shot.

Should I shout  “Thar she blows”?

Encounters with whales are supercharged with emotion, but don’t drown the moment with shouting and whooping. At worst you’ll disturb the whales, but you’ll also shatter the expectant silence as they draw breath ready to slip below the surface again.

Any tips for swotting up on spouts?

Excellent field guides include Whales, Dolphins and Seals: A Field Guide to the Marine Mammals of the World (A&C Black, 2006) and Mark Carwardine’s Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises (Dorling Kindersley, 2010). Out of print, but worth tracking down, is Whales & Dolphins: The Ultimate Guide to Marine Mammals (Collins, 1998).

Find in-depth information on all whales and dolphins at the WDCS Species Guide.

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