observing whales and dolphins in their natural habitat
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Travel topics > Natural attractions > Whale watching

Whale watching is the practice of observing whales and dolphins in their natural habitat, enjoyed by millions of people around the world every year. Whales are watched most commonly for recreation like bird watching but the activity can also serve scientific or educational purposes.

Understand

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Conservation

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See also: Animal ethics

The rapid growth of the number of whale-watching trips and the size of vessel used to watch whales may affect whale behaviour, migratory patterns and breeding cycles. There is now strong evidence that whale watching can significantly affect the biology and ecology of whales and dolphins.

Environmental campaigners, concerned by what they consider the "quick-buck" mentality of some boat owners, continue to strongly urge all whale watcher operators to contribute to local regulations governing whale watching (no international standard set of regulations exist because of the huge variety of species and populations). Common rules include:

  • Minimize speed/"No wake" speed
  • Avoid sudden turns
  • Minimize noise
  • Do not pursue, encircle or come in between whales
  • Approach animals from angles where they will not be taken by surprise
  • Consider cumulative impact - minimize number of boats at any one time/per day
  • Do not coerce dolphins into bow-riding.
  • Do not allow swimming with dolphins. (This last rule is more contentious and is often disregarded in, for example, the Caribbean.)

(Source: Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, WDCS)

Almost all popular whale-watching regions now have such regulations. Campaigners hope that a combination of political pressure, free advertising and promotion by ethical tourism operators and boat operators' personal passion for marine wildlife compel them to adhere to such regulations.

One example of such regulations is the Be Whale Wise campaign of the Northeast Pacific.

Get in

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It is common to watch whales from tour boats.

Whales can also be seen from the shore, from you own watercraft, or from ships and ferries that happen to pass through areas in which whales may be spotted, but on few of those other ships the crew is likely to announce whale sightings or deviate from their course to give you a better look.

There are many regional whale watching groups, which can share knowledge and sighting info with you.

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Tail of a southern right whale
 
Map of Whale watching
  • 1 Plettenberg Bay. A stunning beach town surrounded by mountains, forest and ocean. Boat trips and land-based viewing of whales, dolphins, and seals. Sightings include: Southern Right, Humpback, Brydes and occasionally Sei Whales and orcas. Dolphins are also abundant which include Common Dolphins who love to swim alongside the ocean safari boats, and the playful Bottlenose and endangered Humpbacked dolphin.    
  • 2 Hermanus. A place to spot southern whales even from the shore. The town has the world's only Whale Crier, who announces the sightings by blowing his horn. In September Hermanus is a venue of the Whale Festival.    
  • 3 De Hoop Nature Reserve. The base of the Whale Trail, a 5-day hike along the coast with spectacular views of the whales during season.    
  • 4 Cape Town. During the season many of the beaches and viewpoints provide whale watching opportunities.    
  • 5 Azores Islands. Year-round 4 resident species (including sperm whales), and from March up to 24 (a third) of all known cetacean species.    
  • 6 Andenes (in Vesterålen). Sperm whales are often seen here.    
  • 7 Krøttøya (near Harstad). whale watching both winter and summer    

Iceland is one of the best locations in Europe for whale watching (see this website). The most suitable time to see whales is from May to September.

  • 8 Húsavík. The Skjálfandi bay is great place to observe numerous kinds of whales. Minke whale and humpback whale are the most frequently spotted kinds, white-beaked dolphin and the harbor porpoise are also fairly common. Blue whale, fin whale, orca, northern bottlenose whale and sei whale are less frequent visitors to the bay.    
  • 9 Reykjavík. Several operators offer whale watching tours in the Iceland capital area all year round.    
  • 10 Snaefellsnes (in West Iceland). Best place to see orcas in Iceland    
  • 11 Westfjords (Holmavik). Steingrimsfjordur fjord is an important feeding ground for humpback whales and ideal for whale watching    

Spain

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  • 13 Churchill (Manitoba). Becomes the world's largest concentration of beluga whales each summer, between mid-June and mid-August. You can see them by boat, or even by snorkeling.    
Atlantic
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Pacific
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  • British Columbia - This province has a natural abundance of wildlife and there are many tour operators offering opportunities for guided trips, most of whom operate with a common sense and respect for the environment. Whale watching is popular off of the coast of Tofino where you are likely to see grey whales, humpback whales and sea lions. In addition to whales, grizzly bears and black bears may also be seen.
Pacific
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  • Baja California - Gray whales that migrate along the coasts of Canada and the United States are headed towards their breeding areas in the warm, protected bays along the Baja peninsula. Breeding areas include:
    • Bahia Ojo de Liebre - the whale breeding areas are part of El Vizcaíno Biosphere Reserve, a protected area that is a UNESCO biosphere reserve, whale watching excursions can begin in the town of Guerrero Negro
    • Bahia Magdalena - a remote area where whale watching tours can begin in the towns of San Carlos or Adolfo Lopez Mateos
Sea of Cortez
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A wide mix of whale species can be seen in the waters of the Sea of Cortez. Several of the breeding grounds are protected as national parks.

  • The best known whale watching destinations in the Sea of Cortez are:
    • Loreto - Whale species found in Loreto include blue, fin, bryde's, humpback, orca, and sperm as well as diverse dolphins. A large swath of sea surface is protected as the Bahia de Loreto National Park.
    • La Paz - Good size city with many whale watching tour boats. Species you're likely to see include humpbacks, fin whales, sperm whales, sei whales, and orcas as well as whale sharks (the largest fish species on the planet).
Atlantic
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  • Cape Cod - Humpback whales are a common site in the Atlantic off of Massachusetts.
  • Gloucester (Massachusetts) - Gloucester, Massachusetts is the whale watching capital of New England. For hundreds of years people have traveled to Gloucester to see Humpback Whales, Minke Whales, Blue Whales, Northern Right Whales, Sperm Whales, Pilot Whales and several other whale species whom migrate every year on the abundant natural resources off the coast of Gloucester, Massachusetts.
Pacific
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  • Monterey Bay - Gray whales migrate from Alaska to Baja in the Spring and Fall. Blue whales, humpbacks, orcas and dolphins can be seen at other times of year.
  • Puget Sound offers exceptional viewing of not only migrating Gray and Orca whales but also several pods of Orcas are residence around the San Juan Islands.
 
An Orca 'porpoising' in Hood Canal area of Puget Sound
  • Dominican Republic - 160 km (100 miles) north of this island nation is the Silver Bank where the largest concentration of humpback whales anywhere in the world gather each Spring. Pricey live-aboard charters can be arranged, allowing the amazing opportunity of snorkeling with the whales. Elsewhere on the islands whales may be seen on more typical day trips.
  • Head of the Bight - near Great Australian Bight Marine Park in South Australia, a yearly destination for southern right whales.
  • Port Ann - in the South West (Western Australia), a yearly destination for southern right whales.
  • Anywhere by the coast in New South Wales and Southeast Queensland – whales migrate up north here from May-November. It can mostly be seen off the coast, although taking the boat out gives you better views
  • Kaikoura - Depending on the season you may see migrating Humpback Whales, Pilot Whales, Blue Whales and Southern Right Whales, as well as Orca and the Hector's Dolphin (the world's smallest and rarest Dolphin).
  • Vava'u - Whale-watching tours to observe humpback whales between June and November.

Stay safe

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General boating safety can be found in cruising on small craft. Keep your speed down, not to collide with a sub-surface whale.

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