Whale watching became a trend in the 1980’s, as a way to try and influence the debate over whaling. Back then the concept of whale watching was written off as a ‘stupid idea’, but nowadays it’s anything but.
In trying to change the social acceptance of whale hunts, a group of fairly savvy conservationists realized that there is nothing more remarkable than seeing a whale in the wild, and saw a world where whales would be more valuable to an economy alive, than hunted.
Ever since then, whale watching has grown into a 2.1 billion dollar industry, and almost every country with a coastline has jumped in on the action.
While it was conservationists who pioneered whale watching as a global trend, researcher Roger Payne credits only one group for the development of whale watching: the whales themselves.
Described as nature’s best self‐publicists, whale watching is now taken seriously as an economic activity globally. So, do take a look at this list before booking your whale watching holidays.
The Best Destinations for Whale Watching Around the World
When: December – May
Hawaii is a popular destination for its perfect year round weather, lush forests, and some of the most scenic stretches of coastline in the world. But if you’re trying to choose an island for whale watching, you should head to Maui.
The waters surrounding Maui are the stage for a massive migration of North Pacific humpback whales; thousands of them travel to Hawaii from December through until May, heading into the shallow waters to breed.
Plenty of whale watching cruises are available, and you can join boats that head out and get right up close (within 100 yards) the whales and their young. While you can’t swim with whales here, they’re very active in the water, and you’ll see them breaching, and surfacing quite a lot.
These massive creatures range between 40 to 50 feet long, so you can often see them from the shore too. Head to the McGregor Point lookout west of Maalaea and the beaches of Kaanapali, Kihei and Wailea, and keep your eyes open!
Other places within the United States that are great for whale watching include Southern California.
The Azores, Portugal
When: April – October
A group of nine volcanic islands in the middle of the North Atlantic ocean, about two thirds of the way between Europe and the US, several whale species choose the Azores region of Portugal as their home.
This is a region known for its emerald beaches, dazzling blue lakes, and waterfalls cascading deep into ravines. But as far as whale watching goes, the islands take pride in offering some of the most interesting whale species for watchers.
Here, you can spot sei, blue, humpback, fin, and sperm whales, however, blue whales are the ones that excite people the most. The largest animal known on Earth, these incredible whales weigh up to 200 tons and can be as long as 100 feet long.
The best part about whale watching in the Azores is that the chances of catching a glimpse of at least one species is as high as 98 percent (April and May are the best time). The best way to spot them is to take a guided tour.
When: April – October
Icelandic waters make a home for around 24 species of whales, and spending time in the North is just extraordinary. A sailing trip out from Húsavík to Skjálfandi during summer is one of the best ways to guarantee a marine mammal sighting.
You’re most likely to see seals and dolphins, though with any luck you’ll witness the spectacular humpback whales leaping out of the water in a breach, or perhaps even spot an orca.
Whale hunts are still a common occurrence in Iceland, though as the whale watching industry becomes more beneficial to the economy than whaling does, it will be harder to justify future hunts. So supporting the whale watching industry here is one of the best ways you can actually save them.
Shetland and Orkney Islands, Scotland
When: May – September
Scotland is well-known for its beautiful castles and breathtaking scenery, but did you know its west coast is one of the best places to find whales in the wild?
Scotland takes pride in being home to one third of the whale population found in the North Atlantic. While Minke whales are the most commonly sighted species, you can easily spot sperm, fin, humpback whales, and even orcas from time to time.
The West Coast of Scotland, particularly the region off the archipelago of Shetland, is the best place to spot large pods of orcas. And while the best time for whale watching is from May until late October, there are some species that can be found here year round.
It’s quite amazing to think that whale watching in Scotland wasn’t even a thing just two decades ago, though nowadays there are more than 50 different operators that offer excursions.
When: April – November
Alaska offers some of the best whale watching in the world, and while land based travelers opt for day trips, cruising means you’re on a whale watching journey every day.
Humpack whales and orcas are most commonly sighted throughout the Inside Passage, and can be seen throughout most of the year. Though you’ll have the chance to spot eight different species of whale here, including the Minke, Beluga, Grey, Bowhead, Blue, and Right whale.
If you’ve ever seen a 30 ton whale breach, you’re in for a treat. And, being that you’re spending most of your time on the water (when cruising), the opportunities for whale watching are endless; you may very well spot an orca while you’re on the treadmill!
Pro tip: splurge on a baloncy room. Yes, you’ll be able to whale watch from the main decks, but having your own balcony with a private view to the ocean is well worth the extra cost.
The Antarctic Peninsula
Image credit: Sheryl Clarke.
When: December – February
Antarctica boats some of the best whale watching in the world, and the opportunity to kayak or take a zodiac within 100 meters of these giants of the sea is beyond incredible.
Whales are attracted to Antarctica by the huge swarms of Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean, and you have the chance to see the Minke whale, Southern right whale, Blue Whale, Humpback whale, Sperm whale and orca, or Killer whale.
The Humpback whale is the most abundant in the region, and they are also the most active making them absolutely magnificent to see in person. They hardly breach, though do tend to put on a show for onlookers, slapping the water with their tail and fin, and being open to relatively close encounters.
NSW Coast, Australia
When: May – November
While there are several spots in Australia that are known for whale watching, the NSW Coast is a haven for sighting humpbacks.
Southern Hemisphere whales migrate north for the winter, meaning NSW in May holds fantastic opportunities for whale watching allowing tourists to catch a sight of them breach and splash.
Whales can be spotted along the coastline from the headlands, or via whale watching tours by boat or air. The whales pass very near many parts of Australia during their quest to breed.
There is a free smartphone app to get the latest whale sightings, record your own, and learn more about these amazing mammals. Just practice caution if planning on jumping in after them – more than whales that occupy Australian waters!
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