Humpback whale breaching (Shutterstock)
List Words : Team Wanderlust | 22 July 2018

The world's 12 best locations for whale watching

Want to see whales in the wild? Make sure you're in the right place at the right time, with the help of our expert guide.

1. Vancouver Island, Canada

Which whales? Orca, grey, humpback, minke

Why it's a hotspot: Some 20,000 grey whales pass the island’s Pacific coast in spring; it also has resident orca – the most researched pods in the world

Orca whale breaching in Canada (Shutterstock)
Orca whale breaching in Canada (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Salmon, sea otter, seal, sea lion, bald eagle

Best for... Close-ups with orca in Johnstone Strait; spotting migrating greys, then attending the Pacific Rim Whale Festival (March)

When to go? March-April (grey); May-September (orca)

2. Québec, Canada

Which whales? Blue, humpback, fin, minke, beluga

Why it's a hotspot: Three currents collide near Tadoussac in the Gulf of St Lawrence’s mouth, stimulating plankton development and providing a veritable feast for whales

Fin whales, St Lawrence River (Shutterstock)
Fin whales, St Lawrence River (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Seal, porpoise, dolphin, snow goose (Mar-May & Oct)

Best for... Spotting bright-white beluga – Saguenay Fjord is home to a resident population of these ‘sea canaries’

When to go? Best June-Sept

3. Iceland

Which whales? Minke, humpback, blue, sperm, sei

Why it's a hotspot: The North Atlantic is a good feeding ground; whale-watching trips run from the west or north of the country – Húsavik is the main hub, but tours also leave from Reykjavík

Whale near Husavik, Iceland (Shutterstock)
Whale near Husavik, Iceland (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Puffin, porpoise, dolphin

Best for... Whalewatching under the midnight sun (June-July); visiting Húsavik Whale Museum

When to go? Best May-September; June-July (blue); May-August (puffin)

4.  Dominica

Which whales? Sperm, humpback, short-finned pilot, false killer, melon head, pygmy sperm

Why it's a hotspot: Steep underwater drop-offs along the Nature Isle’s west coast create sheltered bays – ideal places for sperm whales to breed and calve

A young Humpback whale swims at the surface of the Caribbean Sea (Shutterstock)
A young Humpback whale swims at the surface of the Caribbean Sea (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Dolphin, pelican, turtle

Best for... Shore-based and boat-based sightings of resident sperm whales

When to go? Year-round but best November-March (sperm); January-April (humpback)

5. Baja California, Mexico

Which whales? Grey, blue, fin, Bryde’s, humpback, sperm, minke

Why it's a hotspot: Greys come to breed in San Ignacio Lagoon, on the Pacific coast; multiple species congregate in the food-rich Sea of Cortez

Free diver with humpback whales off Mexico's Baja peninsula (Shutterstock)
Free diver with humpback whales off Mexico's Baja peninsula (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Dolphin, California sea lion, Guadalupe fur seal, northern elephant seal, blue-footed booby, frigatebird

Best for... Eyeballing friendly greys, which bump right up against small boats and love to be hugged

When to go? Best February-April

6. Colombia

Which whales? Humpback

Why it's a hotspot: Colombia’s Pacific coast is on a humpback migration route; sighting hotspots include Nuqui, Bahía Solano and Bahía Málaga. Combine the whales with a spot of jungle trekking

Whale in Utría National Park (Flickr: Creative Commons/Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero)
Whale in Utría National Park (Flickr: Creative Commons/Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero)

Other wildlife? Turtle, dolphin, sea lion

Best for... Taking boat trips to spot breaching humpbacks and mothers with calves

When to go? Best July-Nov (whales); Jan-July (turtle nesting)

7. Scotland

Which whales? Minke, humpback, fin, sperm, orca

Why it's a hotspot: A third of the North Atlantic’s whale population migrates via western Scotland every year, while some species are resident year-round

Whales in Chanonry Point, Fortrose, Scotland (Flickr: Creative Commons/Pete White)
Whales in Chanonry Point, Fortrose, Scotland (Flickr: Creative Commons/Pete White)

Other wildlife? Dolphin, porpoise, white-tailed eagle, puffin

Best for... The possibility of large pods of orca, especially off Shetland; minke sightings off the Hebrides

When to go? Best May-October

8. Azores

Which whales? Sperm, humpback, sei, bearded, blue, short-finned pilot, orca, fin

Why it's a hotspot: The remote archipelago sits in nutrient-rich waters; the seas sustain resident whale populations, while the islands are also visited by migrating species

Sperm whales in the Azores (Shutterstock)
Sperm whales in the Azores (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Dolphin, turtle, manta ray, petrel, shearwater

Best for... Seeing sperm whales spyhopping; swimming with dolphins; gazing out from vigias (whale observation posts)

When to go? Year-round (sperm); late March-early June (blue, fin, sei)

9. Western Cape, South Africa

Which whales? Southern right, humpback, Bryde’s

Why it's a hotspot: Two oceans converge, resulting in a huge diversity of marine life; sheltered bays and warmer waters provide calving spots for migrating whales

Whale breach in Hermanus, South Africa (Shutterstock)
Whale breach in Hermanus, South Africa (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Great white shark, dolphin, African penguin, Cape fur seal, black oystercatcher

Best for... Shore-based spotting along the Whale Route; Hermanus Whale Festival 

When to go? Best July-Nov; May-Dec (humpback)

10. Sri Lanka

Which whales? Blue, sperm, humpback, Bryde’s

Why it's a hotspot: Sri Lanka’s southern tip nudges the depths of the continental shelf, favoured by blues; nowhere else does the world’s biggest creature swim so close to land, so reliably

Sperm whale in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)
Sperm whale in Sri Lanka (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Dolphin, turtle, flying fish

Best for... Cruising out from Dondra Head to spot mighty blues

When to go? Best January-April

11. South Island, New Zealand

Which whales? Sperm, blue, humpback, southern right, orca

Why it's a hotspot: Tectonic plates collide and ocean currents meet off Kaikoura, attracting an abundance of marine wildlife

Humpback whale, New Zealand (Shutterstock)
Humpback whale, New Zealand (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? Seal, dolphin, albatross, penguin, shearwater

Best for... Sperm whales, which are present here year-round; swimming/snorkelling with huge pods of dolphin and playful seals

When to go? Year-round (sperm); June-July (humpback); December- March (orca)

12. Tonga

Which whales? Sperm, humpback

Why it's a hotspot: During the austral winter, humpbacks migrate from the South Pole to warmer Polynesian waters to mate and give birth

Humpback whale, Tonga (Shutterstock)
Humpback whale, Tonga (Shutterstock)

Other wildlife? White-tip reef shark, black-tip reef shark

Best for... Spotting humpback mothers with calves – and possibly jumping in to swim with them: this is one of the few places in the world where snorkelling with whales is permitted

When to go? Best July-October


Main image: Humpback whale breaching (Shutterstock)

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