The Best Places for Whale Watching in the World

December 12, 2023

best places for whale watching

Imagine setting sail on a serene sea, the salty breeze in your hair, eyes peeled for the majestic leap of a whale. You don't need to venture far; some of the world's best whale watching can be found in destinations accessible from your very doorstep.

From the icy waters of Iceland, where the summer sun beckons minke and humpback whales, to the warm currents of Mexico's Baja Peninsula, where grey whales make their annual pilgrimage, the perfect whale watching spot awaits.

In this article, we'll dive into the top places where these gentle giants command the waves. Whether you're a seasoned mariner or a landlubber with a penchant for marine life, get ready for an adventure that'll splash straight into your memory books.

Table of Contents

Part 1: Understanding Whale Watching

The Basics of Whale Watching

What is Whale Watching?

Whale watching is an outdoor activity involving the observation of whales in their natural habitat. You ride on a boat and navigate a body of water, guided by an expert to view these majestic creatures. Ethical whale watching ensures minimal disturbance to the whales and is a key component of a responsible tour. The experience is not only about spotting the whales; it's about immersion in the marine environment and appreciating the biodiversity that thrives within it.

Best Times of the Year for Whale Watching

The optimal time for whale watching varies by location and species behavior. Typically, seasons when whales migrate are excellent periods as they cover vast oceanic stretches. For example, in Baja Peninsula, Mexico, the best time can range from January to March when gray whales are seen. In contrast, the peak months in Kaikoura, New Zealand, stretch from June to August. Planning your trip during these months amplifies your chances of witnessing these magnificent sea mammals.

Species of Whales

Commonly Sighted Whale Species

On most whale watching tours, you're likely to spot a variety of species, from the acrobatic Humpback Whales to the smaller but equally intriguing Minke Whales. Sightings vary depending on location; for instance, the Favorite Channel near Juneau is known for its abundant humpback whale sightings. These are some of the frequently observed species that enthrall spectators with their imposing size and awe-inspiring breaching behaviors.

Rare and Unique Whale Species to Look Out For

For those seeking a more uncommon sighting, keep an eye out for the elusive Blue Whale or the Southern Right Whale. Although encounters with these species can be rare, the possibility adds a thrilling dimension to your experience. In areas like Iceland and Peninsula Valdés, the chance to spot unique species in their natural, untamed environments is always present, promising a true adventure for whale enthusiasts.

Part 2: Global Whale Watching Destinations

North America Whale Watching

monterey bay whale watching

Monterey Bay, California, USA

Experience the majesty of whale watching year-round at Monterey Bay, where you'll find a diverse array of marine life. Harbor lookouts and coastal trails offer land-based opportunities to spot humpback whales, orca, and the blue whale, while boat tours from Monterey harbor enhance the experience.

If you're looking for somewhere to stay, check out our guide to the best vegan resorts in California.

Baja California Sur, Mexico

Venture to Baja California Sur between January and March for an unforgettable encounter with gray whales. The warm lagoons here serve as nurseries, allowing for unparalleled close-up interactions.

South America Whale Watching

peninsula valdes whale watching

Peninsula Valdés, Argentina

Peninsula Valdés is a prime spot to witness the spectacular southern right whale from June to December. Its protected waters also host orcas, known for their unique hunting behavior.

Bahía Málaga, Colombia

In the pristine waters of Bahía Málaga, you're set to observe humpback whales between July and November as they migrate to breed and nurse their calves.

Europe Whale Watching

Reykjavik whale watching

Reykjavik, Iceland

From Reykjavik, you can embark on tours nearly all year, with peak sightings from April to September. Icelandic waters are teeming with minke and humpback whales, as well as white-beaked dolphins.

Azores, Portugal

The archipelago of the Azores is a hot spot for sperm whales, blue whales, and fin whales, particularly from April to October, providing a backdrop of volcanic landscapes.

Africa Whale Watching

Hermanus, South Africa

Labelled the whale watching capital, Hermanus presents land-based viewing opportunities for spotting southern right whales from June to December.

Watamu, Kenya

In Watamu, the humpback whale migration season peaks from July to September. The Watamu Marine National Park offers a sanctuary for these ocean giants.

Asia Whale Watching

Okinawa whale watching

Okinawa, Japan

Around Okinawa, January to March marks the peak season for observing humpback whale acrobatics as they migrate to the warmer waters for mating.

Sri Lanka

Not far off the coast of Sri Lanka, blue whales and sperm whales grace the waters, especially from December to April, making it an exceptional destination for enthusiasts.

Oceania Whale Watching

Hervey Bay whale watching

Hervey Bay, Australia

Touted as the whale watching capital, Hervey Bay guarantees memorable sightings of humpback whales between July and November, especially during their migration along the coast.

Kaikoura, New Zealand

Kaikoura is synonymous with year-round whale watching, home to sperm whales and seasonal visitors like the humpbacks, orcas, and the colossal blue whale.

Antarctica Whale Watching

Antarctic Peninsula

antarctica whale watching

Embark on an expedition to the Antarctic Peninsula during the austral summer, from December to March, to witness humpback and minke whales against a backdrop of icebergs and glaciers.

Part 3: Planning Your Whale Watching Adventure

Preparing for the Trip

Essential Gear for Whale Watching

To maximize your whale watching experience, you'll need the right gear. High-quality cameras or action video equipment like GoPros are essential to capture those breathtaking moments. Ensure your camera is equipped with a good zoom lens, as whales may not always breach close to the boat. Moreover, binoculars are a must-have to spot whales from a distance.

For your comfort, pack layers of clothing, irrespective of the season, as temperatures can drop substantially at sea. A waterproof jacket and non-slip shoes are vital to stay dry and maintain your footing on the boat. Don't forget sunscreen and a hat to protect yourself from the elements.

Health and Safety Considerations

Sea conditions can be unpredictable, so consider bringing motion sickness medication if you're prone to seasickness. It's essential to stay hydrated, so carry enough water for the duration of the trip. You should also have a dry bag for your electronics and any additional gear to protect them from the ocean spray.

Respect the local wildlife regulations that stipulate minimum distances from the animals to avoid disturbing them. In some regions, boats must maintain a distance of 100 yards from humpback whales and even further for other species like killer whales and North Atlantic right whales.

Choosing the Right Tour Operator

Criteria for Selecting a Whale Watching Tour

Selecting the appropriate tour operator can make or break your whale watching experience. Consider the following factors to ensure you choose the best:

  • Tour Length: An all-day tour increases your chances of sightings as it allows the vessel to venture further into the whale's habitat.
  • Vessel Type: Choose between a larger boat with amenities or a zodiac for a more intimate experience.
  • Reputation: Look for operators with excellent reviews and a proven track record for wildlife encounters.
  • Price: Find a tour that fits your budget while still offering a high-quality experience.
  • Safety Record: Ensure that the operator adheres to all safety regulations and has a good safety record.

Responsible Whale Watching Practices

Choose operators that engage in responsible whale watching practices, such as following established guidelines for minimum approach distances and not chasing or encircling whales. Responsible tourism extends to respecting the marine environment and contributing to the conservation of these majestic creatures. An operator's commitment to education and marine preservation is a good indicator of their practices and can enhance the overall value of your trip. Remember, by choosing a responsible tour, you're supporting sustainable tourism and the protection of marine life.

Part 4: Beyond Sightseeing

Conservation Efforts

Role of Whale Watching in Marine Conservation

Whale watching isn't just about the spectacle; it plays a crucial role in marine conservation. Ethical tour operators contribute to the wellbeing of whale populations by following guidelines designed to minimize human impact on these majestic creatures. Responsible practices include maintaining safe distances, limiting noise pollution, and prohibiting feeding. These actions help reduce stress on the whales, allowing them to behave naturally in their habitat. By selecting accredited tours, you're supporting businesses that prioritize the health of marine ecosystems.

How Tourists Can Contribute to Conservation

Your choices as a tourist have power. You can make a positive impact by supporting eco-friendly operators and following the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) Cetacean Guidelines. Advocating for and participating in trips that partake in scientific research or conservation initiatives can also contribute to the long-term protection of whales. Remember, each ethical ticket purchased is a vote for preservation, ensuring these giants of the sea thrive for generations to come.

Cultural and Educational Aspects

Learning About Local Cultures and Traditions

Whale watching excursions offer a unique window into the cultural fabric of coastal communities. The regions you'll visit are steeped in rich traditions where whales play a significant role in local lore and legend. Engaging with these communities allows you to appreciate the bond between humans and whales, deepening your understanding of the integral cultural significance these animals hold.

Educational Opportunities in Whale Watching Tours

Operators with a strong educational component in their tours provide insights into the biology and behaviors of whales, fostering a sense of stewardship among passengers. Knowledgeable guides share up-to-date conservation status and explain scientific monitoring techniques. These tours not only enrich your experience but also inspire the protection of marine wildlife through informed awareness.

Part 5: Unique Whale Watching Experiences

Night-Time Whale Watching

Imagine the ocean at night, a vast expanse under the glow of the moon, while you're on the lookout for one of the ocean's most magnificent creatures. Night-Time Whale Watching tours are a magical and relatively rare experience. With the aid of special lighting and sometimes even under the natural light of the full moon, these tours offer a different perspective on whale behavior. You might witness feeding frenzies or listen to the hauntingly beautiful songs of whales, amplified through hydrophones placed in the water. It's important to note that these tours require excellent conditions for both the safety of the participants and the well-being of the whales.

Whale Watching from the Air

Taking your whale-watching experience to the skies can provide stunning aerial views that are just not possible from a boat. Whale Watching from the Air allows you to appreciate the true scale of these giants as they navigate the open waters. Small aircraft or helicopters can hover at a safe distance so you can observe pods of whales or see them interacting with each other. This bird's-eye perspective is not only unique but also minimizes the disturbance to the whale's natural environment, making it an eco-friendly option. Remember, while this experience can be exhilarating, it's weather-dependent and can be pricier than traditional boat tours.

Combining Whale Watching with Other Activities

For those who love to dabble in a bit of adventure alongside their whale watching, there's no shortage of options to combine whale watching with other activities. From kayaking and paddle-boarding in whale-rich waters to embarking on a coastal hike with strategically placed lookout points, you can enhance your wildlife experience. Some tours offer the opportunity to help with conservation efforts, adding a rewarding educational component to your adventure. There's also the chance to immerse yourself in the local culture by visiting nearby villages or participating in traditional ceremonies related to the ocean's bounty. Whatever you choose, pairing your whale-watching venture with another activity can create a truly unforgettable day.


You've now got all the insights you need for an unforgettable whale watching adventure. Remember, timing is key to spot these majestic creatures, so plan your trip accordingly. Don't forget the age limits if you're traveling with little ones and always choose tours that respect marine life. If you're worried about seasickness, prep ahead with the right remedies. With these tips in hand, you're ready to embark on a journey that'll leave you with memories to last a lifetime. Happy whale watching!


What Is the Best Time of Year to Go Whale Watching?

Whale watching can vary greatly depending on the destination and species you're hoping to see. Generally, the best time to go whale watching is during the migration season of whales. For instance, if you're planning to visit the coast of California, the prime time would be from April to November, when humpback whales pass through. Similarly, in locations such as Mirissa, the whale watching season runs from December to April. Consult local whale watching calendars for optimal times.

LocationBest Whale Watching Season
California CoastApril to November
MirissaDecember to April
Tromsø, NorwayJune to August
Azores IslandsJune to November

Are There Any Age Restrictions for Whale Watching Tours?

Most whale watching tours are family-friendly and welcome participants of all ages. However, some operators may have age limits for safety reasons, especially for tours that involve small boats or rough waters. It's always best to check with the tour provider before booking to ensure that there are no age-related restrictions that could impact your plans.

How Can I Ensure That My Whale Watching Experience Is Eco-Friendly?

Ensuring an eco-friendly whale watching experience is pivotal for the conservation of marine wildlife. Here's what you can do:

  • Choose responsible tour operators that adhere to strict ethical standards and guidelines, like those set forth by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO).
  • Opt for tours that contribute to scientific research or support conservation efforts.
  • Ascertain that your chosen tour maintains a respectful distance from the whales—minimum 328 feet—and follows time limitations to minimize stress to the animals.

What Should I Do If I Get Seasick During a Whale Watching Tour?

Dealing with seasickness can be challenging, but there are ways to manage it:

  • Before the tour, consider taking over-the-counter motion sickness medications as a precaution.
  • Stay hydrated and avoid heavy meals before setting sail.
  • Focus on the horizon to help stabilize your sense of balance.
  • If possible, stay in areas of the boat where motion is felt least, such as the lower deck or near the center.

Remember, the crew is there to help, so don't hesitate to let them know if you're feeling unwell. They're trained to assist with seasickness and can provide additional support and remedies.

Where is the best place in the world to see orcas?

One of the top spots for orca sightings is the waters off the coast of Norway, particularly in regions like Tysfjord and Vestfjord. Orcas come here, especially during winter, to feed on the abundant herring. Another notable location is the San Juan Islands in Washington State, USA. This area is home to several pods of resident orcas, making it a popular destination for orca watchers.

Where is the best place to see blue whales?

The best place to see blue whales is in the waters off the coast of Sri Lanka. The Dondra Point, accessible from the towns of Mirissa and Hikkaduwa, is particularly famous for blue whale sightings, especially between December and April. Another great location for spotting blue whales is the Monterey Bay in California, USA, where these giants are often seen between April and October.

What are the odds of seeing a whale on a whale watching tour?

The likelihood of seeing a whale on a whale-watching tour varies greatly depending on the location, season, and species targeted. Generally, tours in areas known for frequent whale sightings have higher success rates. For instance, tours in regions like Monterey Bay or the San Juan Islands often report success rates of over 90%. However, it's important to remember that these are wild animals in their natural environment, so sightings can never be guaranteed.