Where to see whales
By Martha Hales
The world’s oceans are the playground of many thousands of whales, the biggest creatures in the animal kingdom. Their position at the top of the marine food chain makes them a vital part of the underwater ecosystems that they call home, and without them all other marine life would be greatly affected. Whales are endlessly fascinating; mammalian characteristics such as having warm blood, nursing their young and breathing air seem incompatible with a life spent underwater.
Mysterious whale songs and elaborate acrobatics on the surface of the sea are further reasons we are all intrigued by these marine giants. Opportunities for sighting whales are relatively widespread globally, so we've rounded up some of the best places to go whale watching to inspire and inform.
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Whale species: Humpback and southern right whales
Best time for whale watching: July to October
One of the main reasons whale watching is so popular in South Africa is that you can often spot lots of whale activity without leaving dry land. Hermanus is a major hub of activity for whale watching and in South Africa the season runs from June to November, with the most frequent sightings in September and October. It’s a prime location for sighting southern right whales, one of the most exciting species to get to know, and there is a chance you may see humpbacks, orcas, Bryde’s whales, and a variety of dolphins too.
Hermanus is just a short 100 kilometre hop east of Cape Town, making it an easily accessible destination for many visitors to South Africa, and because it’s so easy to see whales from the mainland it’s also a very popular stop on many itineraries. The town has even appointed a ‘whale crier’ who sounds the horn when whales are present offshore, using different blasts to signify location and number of whales, making it even easier for visitors seeking these marine giants to ensure they are not missing a sighting. Head for the cliffs around town for the best viewpoint over the coastline, which is where the whales enjoy spending time playing and nursing.
One of the reasons you are more likely to see humpbacks and southern rights rather than any other species is that they usually sticks close to the coast, and also because they are playful creatures which will frequently breach and splash back into the waves. As well as Hermanus you could also consider Gansbaai, Plettenberg Bay and Simon’s Town for alternative whale watching destinations.
Whale species: Humpback, orca, beaked, Bryde's and pilot whales
Best time for whale watching: December to April and July to November
Whales come to Costa Rican waters from both the north and the south, both groups travelling to tropical waters to avoid their respective winter season. This means that there are whales present off the coast of Costa Rica for several months of the year. In fact, humpback whales are present here more frequently than anywhere else on the planet, making it the best place in world to spot them. If you visit between December and April there will be whales present on both coasts of Costa Rica, though they are usually some distance offshore so a boat trip is generally the best way to see them. It is worth taking a professional whale watching trip with the specific aim of looking for humpbacks, as this gives you a far better chance of coming across them.
It’s probable that any trip by boat - to reach diving or snorkelling areas, for example - will encounter dolphins who frequently pop up alongside small boats and escort you to your destination, but for whales (as mentioned above) you are better off on a specific whale watching trip. If whale watching during your Costa Rica trip is a priority, plan to visit between August and October and head for the southern Pacific coast between Manuel Antonio National Park and the Osa Peninsula.
The whales that arrive in this area from around July onwards have undergone the longest migration in the whole of the animal kingdom, travelling from Antarctica right up the coast of South America until they reach the warm tropical waters of Central America where they give birth to their young. The appeal of seeing humpback whales in the wild centres on their exuberant behaviour, as they are incredibly playful, spending lots of time above water breaching and fluke flipping, spy hopping and fin slapping.
Whale species: Southern right whale, orca
Best time for whale watching: May to December, peak August - October
The Valdes Peninsula is the best location for whale sightings in Argentine Patagonia, and often the whales can be seen from land meaning boat trips are not necessary. The marine life visible at Valdes Peninsula is fascinating at any time of year, but if you are keen to see whales the best time to visit is between August and October, though cetaceans are present from May to early December. The most popular base for visitors to the area is Puerto Madryn, and in fact whales are often present just offshore here and can be spotted from the beach and the pier. Sometimes whales come very close to the pier offering an unrivalled close up of these marine giants.
A little way north of Puerto Madryn is Playa Doradillo, another great location for spotting southern right whales from the shore. They tend to congregate, sometimes in large numbers, right near the beach, and when you take advantage of the viewing platform high above the water the views of the whale pods can be incredible, especially when the water is calm.
Highly regulated whale watching boat trips are available at Puerto Piramides on the Valdes Peninsula itself. There are just a handful of operators to ensure the whales are not disturbed too much and they take groups out a mile or two to see whales offshore. The other big draw in the region are the orcas, much less frequently seen but famous for their unique hunting methods.
Orcas feed on baby seals and sea lions, and their strategy is to approach the shallows where the pups are frolicking in the breaking waves, beaching themselves deliberately in order to catch a meal. Orcas usually need to eat two or three pups daily to fulfil their needs, and the hunting season is quite a big deal for wildlife enthusiasts visiting Valdes. Be sure to visit in season - September to November - and plan enough time at one of the most likely beaches (Caleta Valdes or Punta Delgada). You need to coincide your trip with high tide in order to maximise your chances of seeing the hunting orcas in action.
Whale species: Minke whale, humpback whale, orca, blue whale
Best time for whale watching: May to September
The deep, clean waters around Iceland flow with warm and cold currents into the calm and sheltered fjords and bays. This makes the Icelandic coast the perfect environment for plentiful fish and krill to breed which in turn attract lots of whales, along with many other interesting marine species. The northern hemisphere summer months from May to September are the prime time for Icelandic whale watching, which can be organised all around Iceland’s coast but particularly from Reykjavik in the southwest and Húsavík in the north.
The Icelandic landscapes are magical when viewed from the sea, so your tour is guaranteed to be scenic and impressive even before you begin looking for marine life. There is a good chance of spotting whales in the summer, and while you are looking you might also come across lots of other exciting wildlife such as porpoises, white-beaked dolphins, seals, basking sharks and a variety of sea birds such as puffins, gulls and arctic terns among others. The wildlife possibilities obviously depend on the season, so ask your boat crew for more information on what to look for. The most common whale species in summertime Icelandic seas are minke and humpback whales, with rarer sightings of orcas, sei whales and blue whales.
Iceland’s long history as a whaling nation has endured into modern times, and there is still some commercial whaling activity in the area, though it is much reduced from past levels. It remains a highly controversial and divisive activity but nevertheless it has always been part of Iceland’s traditional fishing economy. There is little demand for whalemeat from native Icelanders and in fact the vast majority of the meat obtained is actually served to curious tourists; perhaps something to avoid if you don’t agree with whales being fished for their meat. One of the most famous whales that ever lived, Keiko aka Free Willy, came from Iceland and was returned to freedom there after half a lifetime in captivity.
Whale species: Humpback whale
Best time for whale watching: June to November
Many thousands of humpback whales leave the Antarctic winter behind them and migrate north to Madagascar to give birth to their young in warmer seas. They also mate during their time in Madagascan waters, which entails elaborate displays of acrobatics - wonderful to watch. It is interesting to note that the large whale pods tend to follow a set route around the island of Madagascar, so it is quite easy to predict when and where the groups of humpbacks can be seen.
When they first arrive in Madagascar, some whale pods head for the Île Sainte Marie off the eastern coast, and generally spend much of their time in the Sainte Marie Channel which divides the island from Madagascar itself. There are reliable whale sightings between June and September from dry land on the island of Sainte Marie - which also boasts stunning white beaches and beautiful azure water - or from the deck of a whale watching boat.
Other pods of whales head straight for Tsarabanjina and Nosy Be on the western side of Madagascar, and they can be seen most reliably from August to November, breaching and slapping their fins into the waves in a gregarious manner. You are also in with a very good chance of seeing adult females with their calves, always swimming together in pairs. Again, the humpback whales are present in significant numbers and can be seen without too much effort both from land or for a close up view from a boat. Madagascan authorities have introduced stringent requirements for operators to ensure the presence of boats is not stressing the whale pods, so you can rest assured that your whale watching trip is not upsetting the giants of the deep. Whale sharks are also common in this area, and although not strictly part of the whale family they are fascinating creatures nevertheless and can easily be spotted on underwater dives or snorkelling trips.
Whale species: Sperm whale, blue whale
Best time for whale watching: South - November to April; Northeast - May to October
The big thrill for whale enthusiasts visiting Sri Lanka is the opportunity to see the largest living creature on earth - the blue whale. These giants of the deep can grow to an enormous size, reaching 30 metres long and weighing up to 170 tonnes, which equates to around 30 average sized elephants.
Blue whales are part of the baleen family of whales, meaning they feed by straining large quantities of tiny crustaceans from the water using their brush like filter. An adult blue whale needs to consume around 3,000 kilograms of krill every day to maintain itself. In actual fact, whales tend to spend a lot of time in colder waters overeating so that they build up enough blubber to keep them going while they migrate to warmer waters where krill is not so abundant.
In Sri Lanka, the south coast around Mirissa and Dondra Head are the favoured stomping ground of blue whale pods, and it is thought that at certain times of the year there is a larger number of blue whales at this location than anywhere else. Usually a boat trip is required in order to see the whales up close.
There are other destinations in Sri Lanka where whale watching is a possibility, namely Trincomalee in the northeast and Kalpitiya in the northwest. Kalpitya is one of the best places in the world in which to see pods of sperm whales. These remarkable mammals are the deepest diving of all the cetaceans and if you see them close enough you can sometimes spot the scars and sucker marks on their enormous heads where, on deep sea hunting expeditions, their favourite prey - the giant squid - has fought back.
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