Imagine you are sitting on a boat with nothing around you but the blue waters of the ocean stretching as far as the eyes can see, and suddenly, you see a humpback whale breaching and spouting water from its blowhole, just existing freely in its natural habitat. Just the idea of witnessing something like this may feel like a dream, but the truth is that many places worldwide have become famous as whale-watching destinations where you can see these majestic creatures without disturbing them in the wild.
Whale-watching is a safe water activity, and it needs to be done responsibly. According to the World Wildlife Fund, six out of 13 great whale species are endangered or vulnerable, and it is essential to preserve their species by not disturbing them in their natural habitat. Hence, strict guidelines for whale watching have been created by several organisations to promote ethical and safe whale watching. The destinations mentioned below are where you can witness whales in their natural habitat, breeding and nursing their young ones without disturbing them. However, it is crucial to remember that the tour operators you choose for your whale-watching expedition prioritise the whales’ safety over everything else.
Top whale-watching destinations in the world
The Azores, Portugal
Azores is an autonomous archipelago of Portugal hidden away in the North Atlantic Ocean. It is renowned for being one of the world’s largest whale sanctuaries, with over 20 types of whale species spotted around the islands. The largest animal in the world, the blue whale, is known to frequent the waters of the Azores all year round and can be seen just a few miles off the coast. The chances of clearly viewing each species are higher during its migration period — for blue whales, it is at the end of the winter and for sperm, sei and bearded whales in the summer.
How to reach: João Paulo II Airport is 5 km from Ponta Delgada, the capital of the Azores.
Hermanus, South Africa
Southeast of Cape Town, the capital of South Africa, lies Hermanus, a small seaside town facing Walker Bay. The bay is the mating and breeding grounds of the Southern Right Whales during winter and spring and has made Hermanus one of the best destinations for whale-watching from land, boat, and air. Several viewpoints and destinations have been designated for whale-watching from the shore, with some sites known for spotting whales just five metres from the coast. Head to places like Gearing’s Point at Old Harbour, Cliff Path, Kwaaiwater Lookout Point, Voëlklip Beach, Grotto Beach and Dreunkrans.
How to reach: Cape Town International Airport is 106 km away.
Kaikoura, New Zealand
The South Island in New Zealand has a small coastal town named Kaikoura, which has gained fame for offering bountiful wildlife experiences, including whale-watching. Just two hours from Christchurch, Kaikoura’s coast is frequented by sperm whales, and it is one of the only places in the world where you can easily spot this species.
Known to be the largest of the toothed whales, they can be seen all year round. The Pacific Ocean around Kaikoura is frequented by 14 other species of whales and dolphins, with Orca or killer whales seen from December to March and humpback whales from June to July. The official website of Kaikoura claims to have a 95% success rate for the spotting of whales while on boat tours, and they even guarantee an 80% refund if you don’t see a whale on your boat tour.
How to reach: Christchurch International Airport is 179 km from Kaikoura.
Nova Scotia, Canada
Nova Scotia is one of the island provinces of Canada, and it is separated from New Brunswick, another Canadian province, by the Bay of Fundy. The bay has gained fame for two reasons — for having the highest tides in the world and for being frequented by over 12 species of whales, including the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The high tides bring an abundance of food for the whales, and the sheltered area of the bay is ideal for them to feed, give birth and raise their calves.
The summer months from May to September is when these majestic creatures can be spotted easily, and many whale-watching tour boats operate from Bigby Neck, Long Island and Brier Island in Nova Scotia. That’s not all; Vancouver Island and Tadoussac are great whale-watching places besides Nova Scotia in Canada.
How to reach: Yarmouth International Airport is the closest airport to the Bay of Fundy, about 163 km from Brier Island.
Baja California, Mexico
The Baja California Peninsula boasts a friendly community of grey whales, drawing enthusiastic whale watchers to interact with these whales. These are UNESCO-protected bays, and small boats lead small tours to these waters. The lagoons of the peninsula are frequented by grey whales in the winter months of January to March to give birth and nurture their calves.
San Ignacio, Magdalena Bay and Ojo de Liebre are three lagoons where whale-watchers head to catch a glimpse of these majestic creatures in their natural habitat. The grey whales are so friendly here that they even come and nudge the tour boats. Besides grey whales, you can also spot humpbacks, blue whales, fin-back whales, and whale sharks.
How to reach: Los Cabos International Airport, Loreto International Airport and Tijuana International Airport are the major airports of Baja California.
Whales hold great significance in Hawaiian culture, especially the North Pacific humpback whale. Known as the koholā, these whales are considered natives of the islands, as the waters of Hawaii are where they come to breed, calve and nurse their young.
From December through May, these humpback whales swim in the Auʻau Channel between Maui and Lanai. There are several whale-watching boat tours and kayak tours that start from Lāhainā Harbour on Maui island. You can even spot the whale from land at McGregor Point on Māʻalaea Bay, as well as Kāʻanapali, Kīhei and Wailea beaches on the island.
How to reach: Kapalua Airport in West Maui and Hāna Airport in East Maui are two airports on the island.
Renowned as the “Whale Capital of Iceland”, Húsavík is a small coast town in North Iceland, located on the shores of Skjálfandi Bay. The humpback whales frequent the water from May to September. They are known for their playful nature, often spotted breaching, slapping or spy hopping in the ocean.
That’s not all; minke whales, orcas, fin whales, sperm whales, and even blue whales can spotted around Húsavík. The city also houses the Húsavík Whale Museum, which adds to the whale-watching experience in Iceland. Reykjavík and Akureyri are also good places for spotting whales in the nation.
How to reach: Húsavík Airport is approximately 10 km from the city centre.
While Sydney may be synonymous with the Sydney Opera House, the Australian city has developed quite a reputation for whale-watching as well. Southern right whales and humpback whales make their way along Sydney’s coastline during the months from May to November. These whales can easily be spotted from the shore and have been known to visit the Sydney Harbour (also known as Port Jackson).
There are several vantage points to get a glimpse of these mammals —Cape Solander in Kamay Botany Bay National Park, North Head Lookout, Bangalley Headland at Avalon Beach and Barrenjoey Lighthouse at Palm Beach. You can even hop on a whale-watching cruise from Circular Quay, Darling Harbour and Manly to get a closer look at these beautiful giants. Besides Syndey, Hervey Bay and Gold Coast are also good whale-watching destinations in Australia.
How to reach: Sydney Airport is within the city, about 12 km from the city centre.
Mirissa, Sri Lanka
The humpback and the blue whales are what you can see when you head to Mirissa, a quaint town on the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Several tour boats operate from Mirissa, taking hopeful whale-watchers off the coast to spot these beautiful whales. The biggest mammal on Earth, the blue whale, can be observed from December to March. You can even see Bryde’s whale and sperm whales swimming in the water while looking for the blue whales.
While Mirissa is the top spot for whale-watching in Sri Lanka, Galle and Trincomalee have special whale-watching tours organised by the Sri Lankan Navy! You can even spot whales from the shore at Dondra Head, the Southernmost point in Sri Lanka, just 20 km from Mirissa.
How to reach: Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport is the closest to Mirissa, roughly 92 km away.
Cape Cod, US
Between Cape Code and Cape Ann lies the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a protected area of the ocean in Massachusetts that is a feeding bank for migrating whales. From April to October, you can spot sei whales, humpback whales, North Atlantic right whales, fin whales and minke whales passing through these waters. There are three ports from where you can catch a whale-watching boat tour in Cape Code — Barnstable, Provincetown and Newburyport.
A major part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago makes up Nunavut, and these islands are home to some of the most unique species of whales in the world. Narwhals, the toothed whale known as the unicorn of the sea, beluga whales, and bowhead whales inhabit the Arctic zone and frequent the waters surrounding the islands of Nunavut. Sirmilik National Park, the fjords of Devon Island, Whale Cove, Rankin Inlet, and Arviat are some of the many places where the tours operate.
Hero and feature image: Todd Cravens/Unsplash
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
– Where can I go whale watching?
You can watch whales in Iceland, Sri Lanka, Australia, South Africa, Hawaii, the US, Mexico, Canada, New Zealand and the Azores.
– What types of whales can I see during whale watching?
You can see all kinds of whales, like blue whales, right whales, humpback whales, minke whales and grey whales.
– When is the best time for whale watching?
Since the migration period of each species of whale is different, you will have to schedule your whale-watching dates as per their movement.
– Can I go whale watching if I get seasick?
If you get seasick, then you can opt out of whale-watching boat tours and rather go to whale-watching spots on land.
– Is whale watching ethical?
As long as the boats are not disturbing the whales by following the guidelines given by the relevant authorities, whale watching is considered ethical.
– Are there any rules for approaching whales?
Yes, there are rules for approaching whales. This may vary for each whale and each place.
– How can I find a reputable whale-watching tour operator?
The official website of every destination usually has trusted tour operators listed on their website.