Top 12 Hotspots for Whale Watching

June 16, 2008 / 18 Comments

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Image by Michae Dawes
What can be more fun than reading Finding Nemo or Moby Dick? How about actually finding and interacting with them, up close and personal. Watching animals in their natural habitat is a tremendous experience be it for recreational purposes, scientific or educational reasons and our recommendation for this month is whale watching. Here are our 12 picks for the best hotspots on the planet where these gentle giants can be observed in all their splendor.

Kaikoura, New Zealand

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The town of Kaikoura, New Zealand is a rare magical place of lush pastures and towering snow-covered peaks that drop into the sea to create deep undersea canyons and unusual currents that attract an extraordinary abundance of marine life. It’s located on the east coast of the South Island of New Zealand, and was the first local authority to reach the Green Globe tourism certification standard. Recently it became a popular tourist attraction when people from the world over learned they could come there to see the whales.

What you can see –

The stars are the Giant Sperm Whales. However, depending on the season you may also see migrating Humpback Whales, Pilot Whales, Blue Whales, and the Southern Right Whales. Kaikoura is also famous as home to the world’s largest dolphin – the Orca – and the world’s smallest and rarest – the Hector’s.

Cape Town, South Africa

Two of the world’s greatest oceans converge at the southern tip of Africa to offer an outstanding experience of land, sea and the rainbow culture of the Western Cape.

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From July to December a lot of whales can be seen swimming along the South African shores and if you’re thinking about Cape Town, plan your trip accordingly. The best time is mid-August to mid-October while the best spot is on the warmer False Bay, both west and east side. The Muizenberg – Simon’s Town coastal road, Boyes Drive above St James and Kalk Bay and the coastal road from Simon’s Town to Cape Point are perfect for a striking experience.

What you can see

Southern Right Whale which swim from the Antarctica to warmer waters, Humpback Whales, Bryde’s whales, killer whales, Dusky Dolphins, Bottlenose Dolphins and African Penguins.

Cape Cod, US

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The arm-shaped peninsula which is nearly coextensive with Barnstable County, Massachusetts and forms the easternmost portion of the Northeastern United States, Cape Cod, is also renowned for great whale watching experiences.

The best places to start your trip is from Plymouth, Provincetown at MacMillan Wharf and Barnstable Harbor. The areas around Cape Cod Bay and Steelwagen Bank above Provincetown, are well known for sightings of many types of whales during late spring, summer and early fall (May through October). Tip: make sure there’s a trained naturalist guide, because it will help you spot, identify and learn more about these big fellows.

What you can see –

Most people are familiar with the Humpback Whale, but you may also see Finback, Pilot, Right or Minke whales during your trip near Cape Cod, as well as the occasional sea turtle and dolphins.

Tadoussac, Quebec

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An important French trading post in the seventeenth century, Tadoussac is the oldest surviving French settlement in the Americas located about 200 kilometers east of Quebec City. It’s a very popular whale-watching area in Canada, with extreme depth and a mixture of cold fresh water from the Saguenay River into the inland end of the Gulf of Saint Lawrence.

What you can see –

Quebec is home to two types of whales you’re unlikely to see anywhere else: a nearly-extinct North Atlantic Right Whale (only about 250 remain) or beluga whales cruising down the St. Lawrence River. You can also see minke whales, fin whales, blue whales, humpback whales, and the harbour porpoise.

Tysfjord, Norway

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Situated in the heart of a spectacular area in Norway, the county of Nordland, the little fishing port of Tysfjord is the perfect place for an unforgettable vacation because of its unique wild life. The city is famous for the largest concentration (400 to 600) of killer whales (Orca) in the world and for the spectacular grey granite mountains, that stand proud as a granite obelisk.

What you can see –

Killer whales are the stars but you will also get to see Sperm whales, Fin whales, Blue whales, Minke whales, Humpback whales, Northern Bottlenose whales, Pilot Whales and Dolphins.

Tiverton, Nova Scotia

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Located on Canada’s southeastern coast on the northeast tip of Long Island, Nova Scotia, Tiverton is a small village with only 300 people earning their living by fishing lobster. Recently it became a very popular tourist attraction, mostly because the Bay of Fundy (part of the Gulf of Maine) is the summer feeding ground for many species of marine mammals and seabirds.

What you can see –

You can expect to see the majestic Humpback Whales, Fin Whales, Minke Whales, and the endangered North Atlantic Right Whales. Also commonly seen are the Atlantic White Sided and White Beaked Dolphins, Harbor Porpoise, Grey and Harbor Seals or the Basking Sharks.

Hervey Bay, Australia

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Situated on the shores of the South Pacific Ocean, just three and a half hours drive north of Brisbane, Hervey Bay is a rapidly-growing city in south eastern Queensland, Australia. It’s the gateway to Fraser Island, the world’s largest sand island, and Lady Elliot Island, a pristine resort island on the Great Barrier Reef. The economy relies on tourism (some 600,000 people visit the city each year) and some call it the Whale Watching Capital of the World.

What you can see –

The stars of the experience of a lifetime in Hervey Bay are the magnificent Humpback whales, the fifth largest of the families of whales on this planet. Occasionally you’ll get to see the Minke whale, large turtle dugongs and hundreds of Bottlenose dolphins.

The Azores

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About 950 miles from Lisbon, in the middle of North Atlantic, the Azores Archipelago is an autonomous region of Portugal earning its living through tourism, cattle raising for milk and meat, and fishing. It must be one of the few unspoiled paradises on the planet. There are nine major islands and eight smaller ones, all with volcanic origins, and the Azores are also famous for having some of the tallest mountains on the planet, as measured from their base at the bottom of the ocean.

The Azores is one of the best sites in Europe for the observation of Cetaceans and one of the few places on earth where it’s possible to meet sperm whale pods of females with their offspring. April to October is the best time of the year to visit the archipelago if you want to have the perfect experience with whales.

What you can see –

Except for the Sperm Whales, from February to June there’s also a possibility to see Blue whales, Fin whales, Humpback whales, Sei whales, Killer whales (Orcas) and different types of dolphins.

The Island of Dominica

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An Island nation in the Caribbean Sea, the Commonwealth of Dominica, was discovered by Christopher Columbus and because of it’s spectacular natural beauty it’s been nicknamed the “Nature Isle of the Caribbean”. Dominica is the youngest island in the Lesser Antilles and is famous for its lush mountainous rain forests, and being home of many very rare plants, animals, and bird species.

Those tourists interested in whale-watching should know that Dominica is a very popular attraction with many types of whales “living” on the Caribbean Sea offshore.

What you can see –

Groups of Sperm Whales live in this area year round, while from time to time you’ll get to see the Killer Whales, false Killer Whales, Pygmy Sperm Whales, Dwarf Sperm Whales, Risso’s dolphins, common dolphins, Atlantic spotted dolphins, Humpback Whales and Bryde’s Whales.

San Diego

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For those who want to see whales, SeaWorld is obviously a good choice but not if you need a little adventure. Why not go for a whale watching trip and see one of nature’s great spectacles? The annual migration of some 26,000 California Gray Whales, one of the largest mammals on earth, while they pass San Diego on their way to the warm water lagoons of Baja California is a great experience that you don’t want to miss. Watching a whale breach and spyhop makes you understand how big these animals really are.

What you can see –

Wildlife sometimes seen on San Diego’s coastline include the California Gray Whale, Humpback Whale, Pilot Whale, Fin Whale, Blue Whale, Killer Whale, Southern Right Whale, Minke Whale, California Sea Lion, Harbor Seal, Pacific White Sided Dolphin, Bottlenose and Common Dolphin.

Los Cabos, Mexico

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Los Cabos is a popular tourist destination in Mexico located at the tip of the Baja California Peninsula and home to many luxurious beach resorts, numerous golf courses and sport fishing spots. Divided into the two main communities of Cabo San Lucas and San José del Cabo it is also renowned for being a great whale watching place. Just as visitors come here to enjoy the nice weather and beautiful beaches, grey whales migrate to the area each season to swim in the warm waters and give birth to their calves.

What you can see –

The Gray whale is the most commonly seen whale in the area but others such as the blue whale, humpback whale and the sperm whale are known to venture by. You’ll most likely see calves, too.

Hermanus, South Africa

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Hermanus is a town in Wes-Kaap province on the southern coast of South Africa, famous for being the best land based whale watching destination in the world and often referred to as the Riviera of the South. It’s also famous for holding the annual Hermanus Whale Festival, celebrating the return of the Southern Right whales to the waters of Walker Bay and the arrival of Spring. The whales start arriving in May in order to calve and to mate in the shallow water while peak time is October. Good restaurants, quality accommodations and great attractions will certainly make it a great place for your vacation.

What you can see –

Bryde’s Whales, Humpback Whales, Killer Whales, and the most common the Southern Right Whale are supposed to particularly enjoy Hermanus for the high calcium content in the water (although there are many different tales and rumors about why they are there).

So, you are a whale watcher, eh? Which of these 12 hotspots have you visited, what’s next on your list, have we missed your favorite place or have we gotten any of them wrong? We’d love to hear from you, learn of your experiences and your opinions about our top 12 choices, but if you don’t have time to write because you are out and about whale watching, well, we understand.