Whale watching is an amazing way to explore a new country. It makes you feel connected to nature as your boat glides alongside huge whales carelessly playing in the warm waters. Stare in awe as they jump right out of the water, and maybe even splash you if you're lucky.
Many countries with coastline have their own 'resident' whales -- or transient whales that pass through while they're migrating. South Africa has dozens of Right whales that come right up to the shore. The San Juan Islands out of Seattle are known for their famous resident Orca whales, which can be seen almost any day during the summer.
Whale watching tours can be as short as a day or as long as a week, depending on what type of experience you're looking for. Live the life of a sailor by sleeping at sea for the whole week during the trip, or relax at a luxurious hotel each night after your day on the water. The choice is yours.
The great part about whale watching is that it can be done pretty much all over the world as long as you go during the right time.
- Best time to go: May through December
- Highlight: Head to the southernmost tip of Africa at Hermanus to see dozens of whales flocking to the warm waters
Often called “the Riviera of the South,” summertime brings thousands of visitors for the arrival of right whales who love the shallow South African waters. You don’t even have to be in a boat to see them -- a six-mile stretch of land along the coastline provides idyllic viewing with benches and telescopes.
- Best time to go: May through September
- Highlight: Resident Orca whale pods can be seen playing in the waters around the San Juan Islands in Washington during the spring and summer months.
The beauty of the San Juan Islands is hard to beat. Tree-lined islands surround your boat as you look for Orca and humpback whales, along with seals, bald eagles, and otters to name a few. An onboard naturalist will be pointing out wildlife along the way to make sure you don’t miss anything.
- Best time to go: January through April
- Highlight: See multiple types of whales passing through the Mexican waters on their way south from Los Cabos
Go to Los Cabos during the dry season to see blues, grays, humpbacks, and sperm whales migrating from Alaska and Siberia. Boat tours will take you up close and personal to see mothers nursing and playing with their babies. During this peak tourist season, you might even see whales mating.
- Best time to go: December through March and June through September
- Highlight: Whales can be seen almost year-round at the seaside town of Kaikoura
Almost any time of year you want to visit, you’ll have a good chance of spotting whales. December to March brings orca whales to its shore, while June and July bring humpbacks and pilot whales. A rare blue whale might even be spotted from June to September. Along with whales, your boat might be surrounded by seabirds, dolphins, and fur seals.
What to Look For in a Tour
Decide what type of whale you want to see the most, and book according to the proper time of year for viewing. Toru providers with multiple years of experience operating in your destination are likely to have local/insider knowledge learned from working to locate and track the whales over the years; reviews from past tour guests can help you learn more about how successful each tour provider might be. Know if you want to have an intimate experience with fewer people or be around a large group before booking a tour.
Average Whale Watching Tour Cost & Length
Trips can be catered to the type of whales you’re looking for. Your tour provider will be able to tell you the ideal time to book a trip if you want to see Orca whales in the Pacific Northwest or grey whales in Mexico. Ships range from small with less than 10 people, to large boats holding dozens of tourists.
As such, the typical price for a while watching tour can range. Typically, you can expect $150-200 per day of a tour that includes whale watching activities -- potentially more if you're taking a multi-day whale watching cruise. That said, seeing whales in their natural environment is an impressive experience that's well worth the cost for travelers who love seeing wildlife.
Packing Tips & Gear Rental
Whether you’re going for a few days or for a week, there are a few items that are important to bring on a whale watching trip. Sunscreen is a must, as the sun’s reflection off the water can be harsh, especially when you’re at sea all day. Bring plenty of water to hydrate yourself since you’ll be in warm weather all day. Sunglasses and a hat are also recommended to decrease the sun’s glare off the water. If you're traveling to a region where rain is a possibility, be sure to pack water-repellant gear and layers to stay warm and dry.
Some people may find themselves getting seasick on the open water, so make sure you've prepared ahead of time. Dramamine can be taken in advance to help decrease nausea associated with sea sickness, but be aware it may make you a little drowsy. Sea bands are also available, which are worn for the duration of the trip and have pressure points on your wrist to help with any sickness.
As whale watching typically requires you to be on a boat, be sure to follow captain and crew instructions about boat safety including, but not limited to, safe practices for moving around the boat (three points of contact!), where your muster station is located in the event of an emergency, and how to use your life jacket.