Encountering a whale can be deeply moving. These mysterious creatures are found in every ocean in the world from Africa to Antarctica. You can go whale watching from basically any country with a coastline, but there are certain places where the chances of sightings are particularly high and the whales come conveniently close to shore. But which is the best place for whale watching?
There is something so magical about seeing a whale in the wild. Maybe it’s the fact that we feel so small next to them (blue whales can weigh an astounding 300,000 pounds) or that for most of us, whales aren’t animals that we get the chance to see every day. Whether you’re spotting one from the deck of a whale-watching cruise or from the shores of a national park, whales are some of nature’s most beautiful creatures.
To observe these gentle giants in their natural habitats, add one of these coastal destinations teeming with whale-watching opportunities to your bucket list. 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. These are the 14 best places for whale watching:
These remote islands are one of the most popular whale watching destinations in the world due to the number and diversity of cetaceans (whales and dolphins) that are found here. You’re most likely to see the resident sperm and pilot whales that hang out year round, along with several dolphin species including orca — ok, killer “whales” aren’t actually whales at all.
In the spring, when migrating whales pass through, you’ve got a good shot at spotting humpbacks, Sei, and the two largest species of whale: fin and blue. Peak season is April through September, but visit in April and May for the best chance of spotting a big blue.
Which whales? Sperm, humpback, sei, bearded, blue, short-finned pilot, 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.
Other wildlife? Dolphin, turtle, manta ray, orca, 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. Hermanus/Western Cape, South Africa
This fishing town is one of the best places in the world for shore-based whale watching, ideal for those who prefer to stay on dry land. To find out where the whales are, you can call a special hotline or listen out for the town’s whale crier, who blows a kelp horn to signal activity in the bay. Whale season stretches from July to November with peak sightings during September and October.
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.
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
The coast off Mirissa and Galle is swimming with whales and dolphins from November to April, including humpback, sperm, Bryde’s and sperm whales. But February and March is when you’ll find the mighty blue whale, the largest animal to ever live. Unfortunately there is little regulation governing the industry here, so choose an operator with care.
Which whales? Blue, sperm, humpback, Bryde’s and, if you luck Blue Whale..
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.
Other wildlife? Dolphin, turtle, flying fish.
Best for… Cruising out from Dondra Head to spot mighty blues.
When to go? Best February and March.
11. South Island, New Zealand
Kaikoura on the South Island is known as the whale-watching capital of New Zealand, due to the resident sperm whales that can be seen here year-round. (Here’s a bit of literary trivia for you: Moby Dick was based on a real 19th century sperm whale named Mocha Dick, who lived in the Southern Pacific). But visit over June and July and you’ll also catch the more acrobatic humpbacks en route to their winter territories in Tonga and Australia, along with occasional blue and Southern right whales.
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.
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).
This Polynesian archipelago is one of the few places in the world that permits swimming with humpback whales, who journey here from Antarctica each year to mate and give birth. During the July to October whale season you’ll have a good chance of encountering courtship rituals, singing (male humpbacks are known for their vocal talents) or a mother with her calf.
To minimize the disturbance to the whales, it’s imperative to use a licensed operator who follows official guidelines;
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.
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.
From December to May, around 12,000 North Pacific humpback whales escape frigid Alaskan waters for the tropical climes of Hawaii. (Creatures after our own hearts.) January through March is the best time for spotting these acrobatic, social and curious whales who have been known to swim up to investigate boats. Although humpback whales can be seen from all of the Hawaiian Islands, the shallow Auau Channel between Maui, Molokai and Lanai is one of the best whale-watching destinations in the world.
Which whales? Humpback.
Why it’s a hotspot: Each winter 12000 graceful humpback whales – two-thirds of the entire North Pacific humpback whale population – come to the shallow coastal waters off the Hawaiian Islands to breed and give birth
Other wildlife? Orca, Sharks, Green Sea Turtles, Spinner Dolphins
Best for… Best January to March
14 – Abrolhos, Brazil
Many people do not know that Brazil is one of the best places to observe the greatest of all mammals, whales. The animals arrive at the Brazilian coast to mate or to escape from the Patagonian cold waters during the winter. Especially between the months of July to November, two species of whales, Jubarte and Franca, migrate from the icy waters of Antarctica to the warm waters of the Brazilian coast for breeding and, for this reason, they can be seen in different places around the country. A favorite place for Humpback Whales, the Abrolhos archipelago, about 70 kilometers off the coast of Caravelas, in Bahia, is considered one of the largest nurseries for Humpback whales in the world – it is no wonder that it was the first National Marine Park in Brazil. To be aware of the number of whales that exist in the region, it is estimated that 90% of the Humpback whales that migrate to the Brazilian coast are in Abrolhos and, therefore, the probability of seeing them is very great. The observation tour is done on a catamaran, where you will be able to see hundreds of whales swimming and jumping (many of them accompanied by their calves), and even stops at the islands of the archipelago for diving.
Which whales? Humpback, southern right whale and the minke whale.
Why it’s a hotspot: Beautiful beaches, boat trips, whale watching (the region’s main attraction), historic villages, mangroves, etc. If you like to dive, then you have one more reason to go. Abrolhos is considered one of the 10 best diving spots in the world. Among the places most requested by practitioners are: cove of Santa Bárbara Island, where the archipelago’s lighthouse is located; caves of Siribas; wreckage of the Italian freighter Rosalina, wrecked in 1939.
Other wildlife? Turtles, rough-toothed and bottlenose dolphins
Best for… Best august to november
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