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The waters are calm and perfect for whale watching. Our small rib boat bobs gently in the light swell as our guide and pilot surveys the horizon through his binoculars. Another boat appears around the headland, heading back to the jetty. The radio crackles. “It’s all quiet Robbie, nothing to see today.” Our guide picks up his receiver; “They’re still out there, I’m sure. We’re staying for a bit longer.” And so, our search continues.
Whales are wild animals and the oceans are big, so you are never guaranteed to see whales on any tour. However, whale watching guides are experts, and know the area, as well as some of the resident whales, so your chances of at least a brief glimpse of a tail fluke disappearing under the waves are quite high.
Twenty minutes on from that radio call, and we are beginning to question Robbie’s wisdom. If Robbie is doubting himself, he isn’t showing it. He is standing proudly at the rear of the boat, calling out to the whales, and occasionally tapping the side of the boat. It is not clear whether this is a usual practice, or how successful this is for actually attracting any whales.
However, we shouldn’t have doubted. A shout from the seat in front of me, indicates our first whale sighting. Robbie is quick to direct us in the direction of the splash. Within minutes we are up close and personal with a large male humpback, who is entertaining us with a flipper and tail splashing show. “I am the Whale Whisperer!” shouts Robbie with a beaming smile on his face. None of us can disagree.
I confess to enjoying a wildlife holiday, and I have been fortunate enough to enjoy various whale and dolphin watching tours across four different continents. I am proud of my current 100% success rate. Maybe I am lucky, but I also do some research to choose the best possible locations, and times of year, to give at least a better than average chance of witnessing these mammoth mammals. Below are my top ten favourite locations for whale watching.
Every year thousands of humpback whales migrate along the east coast of Australia. Sheltered by K’gari (Fraser Island), Hervey Bay offers the whales a perfect resting point, with calm and clear waters. Between July and November, even those whales with young to protect, appear to relax and enjoy the socialization with other whales (and sometimes people too) around Hervey Bay.
There are plenty of Hervey Bay whale watching cruises to choose from, varying from large 5-deck boats to smaller catamarans. Some tours have special underwater viewing windows whilst others are even licensed to offer controlled swimming with the whales in the calm waters. With the whales in relaxed and inquisitive mood, it is possible for whales to approach boats and for all guests to get an intimate interaction with the whales. The calm waters and close proximity of the whales to shore, makes Hervey Bay a top location for whale watching.
Peak whale watching time along America’s north-eastern seaboard is between May and October, when humpback whales migrate to the warmer waters of the North Atlantic. It is also not uncommon to also see minke and fin whales on a Boston whale watching tour. Generally, the whales congregate at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, so it is possible to join a tour from Boston harbour or from the tip of Cape Cod. My experience is that the waters can get a little choppy once out of the shelter of land, so take plenty of layers to keep warm and take motion sickness remedies before you depart, if you are susceptible to that feeling on the open water.
At times it has been possible to spot the endangered right whale of the coast of Boston, however sightings are rare. It is believed that population numbers of right whales are now in just the 300s with as few as 70 breeding females. Fishing and other shipping is a constant threat to these whales and despite efforts to protect them, their numbers are still falling.
With 80% of the world’s whale and dolphin species frequenting the waters around Kaikoura at some point throughout the year, it is no surprise that Kaikoura has become New Zealand’s whale watching capital. The fact that there is a resident population of sperm whales just off the coast, also means that whale watching is a year-round activity here.
Between the start of June and the end of August, is traditionally thought of as peak whale watching months in Kaikoura, as it is also the most common time to spot migrating whales passing by the area. This means there is an opportunity to spot humpback, minke, blue, pilot and southern right whales. In addition it is common to see orcas and various dolphin species on any Kaikoura whale watching tour.
If you like your photographs of whales to have mountains in the background, then Kaikoura is one of the few destinations where this is possible. Kaikoura can also be visited as a day trip from the city of Christchurch which adds to the popularity of Kaikoura as a whale watching destination.
Robbie, my “whale whisperer” worked out of Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It is possible to join a whale watching tour at various locations around the island, but probably the most popular destination for Vancouver Island whale watching is the capital, Victoria.
As well as having the opportunity to view migrating gray (March and April), minke and humpbacks whales (May to October) Vancouver Island is a fantastic destination for viewing orcas (killer whales). Not only is Vancouver Island a stopping off point for transient orcas that move up and down the coast, the islands and straits around Vancouver Island are also home to resident orca pods, that feed on salmon and other fish that are prevalent in the area.
From Victoria harbour it is possible to choose between small zodiac-type speedboats or bigger cruisers to see the whales. The choice is between comfort and speed, but also the angle from which you take your photographs. You are much closer to the sea in a zodiac.
I chose a zodiac boat, which involves donning a full-body floatation suit that protects you against the wind and spray as you skip across the waves. These smaller boats are also able to approach closer to the whales and the photo opportunities are great. If you do choose the zodiac option, just remember that you are out on the water for about three hours without any restrooms!
It may be the winter months for inland South Africa, but June through to October is whale watching season at the coast. The weather may be cool and rainy at times, but the prospect of viewing the marine Big 5 on a Hermanus whale watching tour are very good. South Africa’s marine big 5 include fur seals, African penguins, bottlenose dolphins, great white sharks as well as humpback and southern right whales.
Around five miles off the coast is Dyer Island, home to many resident bird species including the African penguin. A cruise around the island provides good photographic opportunities, whilst a short cruise to neighbouring Geyser Rock, offers views of the resident fur seal colony. The stretch of sea between the two is known as “shark alley” because of the regular sightings of great white sharks, attracted to the area by the penguins and seals. Southern right whales frequent the same waters between June and December with humpback whales joining the party later in the season.
Each year, at the end of September, Hermanus hosts a whale festival. Timed to coincide with the return of southern right whales to the area. As well as parades, markets and music concerts, the festival intends to raise awareness of the marine wildlife in the area and how to share the coastal waters.
Monterey is on my list because the waters around Monterey Bay are good for whale watching all year round, although different seasons bring different species along the coast. During winter months the predominate species is the gray whale, whilst in spring transient orca pods are more visible. As the sea becomes warmer in summer and autumn then the waters become home to migrating humpbacks and the occasional blue whale. So, there is always something to see.
Whilst whale movements remain the same throughout the day, the weather conditions in Monterey Bay regularly change. In the mornings the onshore winds are usually light, creating light swell and few waves. These are the perfect conditions for Monterey whale watching as it is clear from quite a distance when a whale breaches the surface. In the afternoons, the bay becomes choppier as the winds increase in strength. The whales are still there, it is just not quite as easy to spot them, and you will probably need to hold on while moving about the boat.
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Not only is Sydney one of my favourite cities in the world, it is also makes it in my top ten places for whale watching! Whilst a standard Sydney Harbour Cruise offers spectacular views around the harbour, joining a Sydney Whale Watching Cruise takes you from Circular Quay all the way past Manly, and beyond the Sydney Heads that form the entrance to the harbour, out into the open ocean. It is here that it is possible to view humpback whales on their migration up and down the Australian coast.
It is estimated that around 40,000 whales pass the entrance to Sydney Harbour each year. It is the marine equivalent of Africa’s Great Migration, with humpback whales moving from their southern feeding grounds to their more northerly breeding areas and back again.
There are two distinct seasons for whale watching in Sydney. From late May through to early August, it is possible to view well-fed whales, heading north following a southern hemisphere summer, feeding in Antarctic waters. During this period it is common to see whales breaching out of the water, as energetic males look to impress their female counterparts.
From September through to November, the whales switch direction and are heading south back to the feeding grounds. It is this period where it is possible to see mothers with calves as they are returning from the warmer and calmer waters further north which are perfect for bringing up a baby whale.
Namibia is best known for its exceptional landscapes and picturesque National Parks. To the west the impressive sand dunes meet the Atlantic Ocean along the Skeleton Coast and the Namib desert. In the middle of the coast lies the towns of Swakopmund and Walvis Bay.
In the months between June and November, dolphin and seal cruises, become whale watching cruises as whales migrate along the coast. Both humpback and the endangered southern right whale are attracted to the waters of the Benguella Current, just off the coast from Walvis Bay, that are rich in plankton at this time of year.
It is not only whales that you are likely to see on a small boat cruise from Walvis Bay. There are plenty of dolphins and seals that frequent these waters and they are often inquisitive and approach the boats. It is also possible to see sunfish and turtles, all whilst still within sight of the Swakopmund’s iconic lighthouse and seafront.
Dolphins and turtles also share the blue waters around Hawaii, but the common dolphin and snorkelling cruises, that frequent the Waianae Coast of Oahu, become whale watching cruises between December and April.
Amazingly around 10,000 humpback whales swim from the coastal waters of Alaska all the way to the warmer waters around Hawaii each year. It is in the sheltered waters around Oahu that the whales mate and give birth.
Because the whales (known as “Kohola” to the locals) are frequenting the shallows, it is possible to view their activities from on land. Makapu’u lighthouse and the high ground around Hanauma Bay make good vantage points. However, there are still plenty of whale watching cruises that depart from Waikiki daily.
The waters off the coast of Exmouth are teaming with marine life and it is a special place to visit all year round. As well as perfect snorkelling conditions, the waters around Ningaloo Reef are fantastic for scuba-diving with multiple wrecks and reefs to explore. Turtles nest and hatch along the beaches of this part of Western Australia from November through to March, but other marine life such as dolphins, dugongs and manta rays can be seen all year round.
The humpback whale season around Ningaloo starts in early August and continues through to mid-October. There are various cruises available from Exmouth harbour, with some boats providing the opportunity to swim alongside these gentle giants.
It was not the humpback whales that drew me northbound to Ningaloo Reef. The most famous visitors to the waters around Exmouth are whale sharks. I do appreciate that whale sharks are not a member of the whale family, but their size, and your ability to view them off the coast of Australia, enables me to add them to my list. These slow-moving beautiful creatures frequent Ningaloo Reef in large numbers between March and August (so just before the humpbacks arrive). The whale sharks are drawn to the reef by the coral spawning and the abundant food source that this provides for them. Usually around a full moon the whale sharks gather at the reef and begin their slow-motion feeding frenzy.
The Ningaloo Reef is a protected world heritage site, and the whale sharks are also protected, but by joining a specialist licensed operator from Exmouth, it is possible to venture into the water and swim alongside these magnificent creatures.
Unless you are a whale fanatic, it is unlikely that you are going to travel around the world just to watch whales, however, a whale watching experience can be a great addition to any holiday itinerary. Whether you prefer to stay on land, join a whale watching cruise or get in the water with these impressive marine mammals, I heartily recommend seeking out a whale watching experience as part of your next holiday.
Richard has more than 25 years of experience working within the travel industry. He has travelled widely in the USA, Australia and Africa and enjoys exploring National Parks and other wilderness areas.