Whether it’s a humpback whale breaching the waves in a bold display or a grey whale and her calf gently cresting the water’s surface, there’s something magical about any encounter with these mammoth creatures of the sea. Whale-watching has become one of the world’s most popular wildlife attractions, and there have never been more opportunities to view the seafaring mammals than today. Whales can be spotted in every ocean, but some locations are better for whale-watching tours than others. Here are some of the best destinations to enjoy an intimate experience with a gentle giant.
With the opportunity to observe humpback, minke and blue whales as well as white-beaked dolphins and porpoises, it’s no wonder that Iceland is quickly becoming a favorite destination for sea mammal enthusiasts. Whale-watching boat tours in Iceland are available in the towns of Husavik, Dalvik and Hauganes as well as in the nation’s capital, Reykjavik. Tours departing from Reykjavik into Faxafloi Bay include trips on Icelandic oak boats, some of which are schooners. Whales are known to come quite close to the boats, so passengers can expect some memorable encounters.
Each spring, pods of orcas migrating north up the Pacific Coast swim into Washington state‘s Puget Sound. Traditionally, the best location to view the orcas is around Orca Island, which is part of the San Juan Islands archipelago, but the orcas swim in the waters around Vancouver as well. Around 80 orcas remain in the Sound through the summer to feed on salmon, and experienced whale-watching operators can identify individual whales by sight. Grey whales, minke whales and humpback whales can be sighted as well. Tours featuring open-air zodiac boats let visitors enjoy close-up encounters.
Known as the home of the humpbacks, Hervey Bay in Queensland, Australia, offers multiple opportunities to observe the active and curious whales as they summer in the waters between Fraser Island and the mainland. Humpbacks are known for the way that they leap into the air and crash back into the water with a jubilant splash. Catamaran whale-watching tours are a popular option in Hervey Bay. The boats are often equipped with underwater windows, special viewing platforms and hydrophones that amplify the whale’s vocalizations.
Each year, hundreds of gray whales and humpback whales migrate thousands of miles to winter in the warm waters of the Gulf of California between Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula and mainland. Located at the southern tip of the peninsula, Los Cabos is a popular destination for whale-watchers from around the world. The tranquil lagoons of the gulf provide a safe place for the whales to breed, and it’s common to spot calves with their mothers while on a whale-watching boat tour, particularly between the months of January and April. Mammoth blue whales and sperm whales sometimes make an appearance as well.
The Valdes Peninsula lies on the Atlantic coast of the Chubut Province in Argentina. A protected area, the peninsula’s arcing coastline is home to large populations of seals and sea lions, which attract orca whales during the spring. Although they’re actually a member of the dolphin family, orcas are commonly referred to as killer whales. Whale-watchers can sometimes spot orcas riding the waves to the beach to snatch sea lion pups. Southern right whales are plentiful from July to November, and they can often be seen raising their flukes in the air. They mate and give birth in the calm waters stretching between the peninsula and the mainland.
Opportunities to watch whales abound throughout the Hawaiian islands, but the southern and western shores of Maui are considered some of the best locations. Up to 10,000 humpback whales migrate from the frigid Alaskan waters to the islands each winter. The whales mate, have their calves and return north in the spring. Maui’s clear water makes it easy to spot the magnificent creatures from dawn to dusk. Male humpback whales vocalize their otherworldly songs for up to a half hour at a time. Whale-watching tour-boat options range from luxury vessels fitted out with hydrophones that allow visitors to hear the whale songs to 24-long open-air rafts that increase the chances for an up-close encounter.
Located around 1,360 km (850 miles) west of Portugal, the nine islands that make up the Azores archipelago are some of the best whale-watching destinations in the world. They’re also a great place to view the largest whales on the planet: blue whales. With a heart the size of a small car, a blue whale can grow to be 30 meters (100 feet) long and can weigh as much as 130 tons. Visitors can view the gentle behemoths from on-shore lookout towers known as “vigias” or can board tour boats for the chance of a closer view. Sperm, pilot and northern bottlenose whales can be spotted as well.
The numerous humpback, minke and finback whales that come to Cape Cod each year to feed are the reason that the World Wildlife Fund lists Massachusetts among the best whale-watching destinations in the world. Sightings of humpback whales spouting and breaching are so plentiful that many tour-boat operators in Boston will refund tickets if none are seen during the trip. Their long, white fins and wavy-edged flukes make them easy to identify. The highly endangered northern right whale can sometimes be spotted in the spring as mothers bring their calves to feed in the region’s submerged sand banks.
Located on the southern coast of Africa near Cape Town, Hermanus is known the world over for its shore-based whale-watching. The sheltered, shallow waters attract southern right whales that migrate to the region each year to mate and breed. Calves can be as long as 6 meters (20 feet) at birth and adults can reach 17 meters (55 feet). A six-mile-long cliff-side walk with built-in telescopes and benches offers visitors plenty of opportunities to view these social animals as they raise their flukes in the sea breezes. The town even features a “whale crier” who alerts visitors when whales are spotted. Whale-watching boat tours in Hermanus are available as well.
A small town located around 160 km (100 miles) to the north of Christchurch on New Zealand’s South Island, Kaikoura is ranked as the best destination in the world when it comes to watching sperm whales. Growing up to 18 meters (60 feet) long, the sperm whale of “Moby Dick” fame can dive as deep as 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) and remain below for more than two hours. A deep underwater canyon hugs the coast of Kaikoura, creating an environment that attracts all manner of sea life, from dolphins and seals to humpback, pilot and blue whales. Kaikoura’s economy revolves around whale-watching, offering a variety of boating tours as well as light-aircraft flyovers.