Whale watching travel guide, including top whale watching destinations, tips for whale watching and when to go
Remembering to breathe again after seeing your first whale breach or fluke flick is a challenge. Because, simply, whale watching is one of the world’s greatest wildlife experiences.
You can watch whales all over the world. Different species have different feeding grounds and migration routes. Some of the best places to see whales are the cold waters of the Arctic and Antarctic. However, whales often move to more temperate areas for mating and calving, opening up other potential destinations.
There are many varieties of whales to spot. Plus, if you're not having a lucky day, there'll be other wildlife to see – where you find whales you'll also find plenty of birds and other marine mammals. Most whale-watching tour operators will give you some kind of compensation if no whales are seen on your voyage.
Grey whales can all be spotted off the Pacific coast of North America: their annual 16,000km migration takes them from summer feeding waters in the Arctic to winter calving lagoons in Mexico. Humpback, minke and killer whales can also be spotted in these waters. Blue whales – the world’s biggest creature – are also seen in Mexican waters, mainly from January-April.
Humpback whales are perhaps the showiest species, and can often be seen breaching – leaping out of the water. You can spot these magnificent mammals in locations as diverse as Iceland, the Azores, New Zealand and Antarctica as they tend to hug the shorelines.
Southern right whales cavort off he Western Cape of South Africa in early autumn. You can see and swim with orca (killer whales) in Norway and British Columbia. The largest of the toothed whales, sperm whales can be seen off northern Europe in summer. Other hotspots include the coast off Patagonia, areas of the Caribbean and the South Pacific.
Specialist whale-watching holidays are available all over the world. When you're choosing your operator, look for one that’s signed up to a strict code of conduct for responsible whale watching, which will include approaching whales in the correct way (sideways, never from the front or rear), abiding by minimum distances, etc. If in doubt, ask questions – a good operator will be happy to provide answers.
Whale watching should be an educational experience. Experts should be on hand to interpret behaviour and describe conservation measures, and sightings should be logged for research purposes. Additional activities, such as using hydrophones to listen in on whale and dolphin calls, can provide a more rounded experience.
Possibly the best place in the world for whale watching, this spindly peninsula dividing mainland Mexico from the Pacific Ocean is both a feeding and breeding ground for great whales. The region is also home to a multitude of other wildlife. Read Mark Carwardine’s Ultimate Wildlife Experiences (Wanderlust, 2012) for more on Baja California.
Most whale watching is done by boat, but this South African town is perfect for cliff-top whale watching: here, southern right whales come within metres of the shore to mate and calve in sheltered bays. Whale season runs June-November, with an annual whale festival held every September to coincide with the season’s peak; a 'whale crier' is on hand to help point out flukes and breaches.
Head to the seas around the White Continent for whale watching that is as breathtaking as the otherworldly landscapes. February and March are the best months for whale-watching here; sightings of humpbacks, southern right, fin and sperm whales are all possible.
Iceland is a real whale-watch hotspot: board a boat from capital Reykjavík or Husavik, in the north, for great sightings. Combine the search for whales with the chance to see the northern lights and the island’s geological marvels.
Ferry journeys and kayak trips around Vancouver Island are often accompanied by whale sightings. Some orca reside here, but are best seen June-October. Grey whales are best spotted from March to May; humpbacks July-September. You may also see bow-riding Dall’s porpoises, sea lions, bald eagles and seals.
The pretty little town of Kaikoura is famed for its mighty sperm whales but (depending on the season) you may also see migrating humpbacks, blue whales, southern right whales, beaked whales and pilot whales. There are also seals, dolphins and a huge variety of seabirds.
The west coast of Ireland is visited by minke, fin and humpback whales as well as dolphins, porpoise, basking sharks and birdlife. The Irish government declared the coastal waters of Ireland a whale and dolphin sanctuary during the early 1990s.