As a person who has spent most of his life along the water, I’ve had plenty of opportunities to watch marine life. Growing up in Monterey, California, I was immediately introduced to the world of whales as they migrated and fed in the bay. Beyond the whales I have had in my watery backyard, I have traveled across the globe in search of different cetacean species and have had good to great encounters during my time. I get asked all the time where the best spots to watch whales are and when to go, so below is a list of the best places I think one could go to find the largest group of animals on our planet. While I have not been to every location, I have heard accounts and have researched them enough to make my choices.
Monterey Bay, California, USA
I am trying not to be biased here, but it is nearly impossible to not include Monterey on a list of the best whale watching destinations. Monterey is home to more marine mammal species than anywhere else on the planet as it welcomes whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sea otters, and much more outside the mammal category. Between April – November, expect to find humpback and blue whales feeding in the bay while the winter months of December – April bring the gray whale migration through its waters. Throughout the year, one can find killer whales and large pods of dolphins and if you are lucky, you may spot other lesser seen species such as fin whales, sperm whales, beaked whales, and more. The biodiversity here is off the chain in terms of wildlife and if you can stand the days with rough seas (there are a lot of them), you will not be disappointed.
Vancouver Island/Inside Passage, British Columbia, Canada
This is probably my favorite whale watching spot due to the seclusion and mountain scenery. The variety of species in the cold waters of British Columbia is a little lacking, but the chance to watch a pod of killer whales skim the calm waterways is breathtaking. Taking a boat out of Port Hardy, Port McNeill, Campbell River, or another small town, you are immediately surrounded by misty forests touching the water’s edge and snowy peaks rising thousands of feet above. Besides the passing transient killer whale pods, this is a great place to look for the larger resident (most likely northern) pods who chase the salmon schools. You can also watch humpback whales, minke whales, and dolphins here making it one heck of an amazing area to watch whales. Not to mention, if you need a break from the water, there’s a good chance that bears or coastal wolves are nearby pacing the pebbly shores.
Western Cape, South Africa
The southwest corner of South Africa, known as the Western Cape, boasts some of the world’s best land based whale watching due to the breeding population of southern right whales. Between June – early November, right whales can be seen swimming, breaching, tail-lobbing, and spy-hopping right from the rocky shores or sandy beaches. The town of Hermanus, which lies more than an hour east of Cape Town, is an excellent spot to watch these whales frolic in the waters. If you want to get closer, hop onboard a whale watching tour where you can get close to the whales and also have a chance to spot humpback whales, bryde’s whales, killer whales, and numerous species of dolphins. If you are really into ocean activities, consider going great white shark cage diving where you hop right in the water with these feared predators.
Southeast Alaska, USA
The whale watching in Alaska is very similar to that of British Columbia’s Inside Passage. The scenery looks the same and you will get similar species, but the whale watching here is world renowned, especially for the humpback whale’s bubble net feeding. Only 125 whales bubble net feed, and all of them can be found in Alaska’s southeastern waters. To find these whales, you can either take a cruise through Alaska, or fly into Sitka, Juneau, or Ketchikan and hop on a boat to head out and find them. While the pods that bubble net feed are fairly well tracked by local researches, you can expect to find whales around every inlet and cove in the area. Be on the lookout for killer whales and dolphins passing through that make for an added bonus. The whale watching season starts as early as April and can last through October, but the prime season is between late May and mid September when the weather is more forgiving.
Baja California, Mexico
Whale watching along the Baja Peninsula can really be broken up into two sections: the West coast and its lagoons and the East side along the Sea of Cortez. Between February – early April, Scammon’s Lagoon, San Ignacio Lagoon, and Magdalena Bay host an overwhelming majority of the gray whale population as they breed and give birth. Many claim this is the world’s greatest whale experience as you head out into the shallow lagoons on a small boat (typically 6-8 people aboard) and the mother gray whales brings her calf to the boat. The lucky passengers are then able to pet and play with the gray whales from the skiff in a joyous encounter between human and whale. Folks still are not sure exactly why the gray whales approach the boats, especially after we almost hunted them into extinction just a few decades ago, but this interaction is what one should expect when visiting these breeding grounds. On the East side of the peninsula, you can find humpback whales, blue whales, and bryde’s whales between late fall to early spring
This may be the hardest whale watching spot to get to on this list, but from what I have heard and researched, the rewards seem pretty worth it. To get here, you’re almost guaranteed to be taking a long voyage from Cape Horn in South America, through the dreaded waters of Drakes Passage, down into the icy peninsula. Once there, the waters smooth over a bit and the whale action begins with minke whales, humpback whales, and killer whales milling about. The icebergs and craggy mountains add a fantastic backdrop for watching the whales in their environment. Whale watching in Antarctica is a serious commitment as the amount of time to travel all the way down there is significant, so I would not go unless you’re very anxious about exploring the least populated continent and getting acquainted with some penguins. The best time (really the only time) to visit would be from December to March, when Antarctica is in its summer season.
Located nearly 950 miles west of Portugal, the Azores lure veteran whale watchers and wildlife lovers to its tiny islands every year. The Azores host over 20 species of cetaceans, including sperm whales, blue whales, sei whales, and more. The islands have a nice Mediterranean climate, making them a lovely spot to be out on a boat watching the whales. Due to the temperate latitude, the Azores are one of the few spots on the planet that boast year round whale watching. Expect to find many dolphins any month of the year such as common dolphins, spotted dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, and a few other species. Another bonus here is that once you get your fill of watching dolphins from the boat, you can jump in the water and swim with the dolphins in certain locations. Overall, if you have the means to travel out to the archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, the whale action is fantastic.
Over the last decade, the tourism in Iceland has boomed and the country is experiencing problems finding lodging and services for all the new arrivals. With more and more folks stopping in Iceland, the whaling industry that has persisted here, even after the whaling ban decades ago, is starting to give way to the more environmentally friendly approach of whale watching. The two best spots to head out on a whale watching excursion from are capital city of Reykjavik and the smaller Húsavík on the North coast. You can expect to encounter humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, and killer whales. While sperm whales can be seen anywhere around the island, the best bet to see them is off of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, which is just a couple of hours north of the capital. The best season for watching whales is between late April – early October and during the summer months you can head out to watch whales under the midnight sun for an amazing experience.
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Hey, I'm Chase Dekker, a wildlife and nature photographer looking to share my stories and expertise with as many people as possible. My blog gives you a glimpse into my life as a photographer - whether it be stories from my travels, or guides on how to make your own trips as successful and special as possible.
I hope to give you valuable insight on everything from travel, to animals, to photography tips and more!