Our world is full of incredible wildlife, and whales without a doubt rank as some of the most majestic and magnificent creatures on the planet. Witnessing their grandeur in their natural habitat, emerging from the deep ocean into the fresh air, is enough to bring goosebumps and inspire awe in any travel lover. From Orcas to Minkes to gigantic Humpbacks, these are the top places in the for exceptional whale watching tours and experiences.
Best places in the world for Whale Watching
Although Juneau is the only city in America that can only be reached by land or sea, it is worth the trek. Tucked between the Gastineau Channel and the steep mountains of the Boundary Range, Juneau is a must-visit for unique natural experiences and amazing wildlife, including whales, of course! From May to September, it’s common to see humpback whales, who travel up to 3,000 miles from warm, tropical waters to the cool Alaskan waters to feed on the abundant krill and schooling fish. Orca whales can also be spotted here, feeding on larger prey like sea lions, squid, seals, and dolphins.
To experience majestic whales and bountiful birds and marine mammals, Alaska Shore Tours provides an unforgettable experience. Whale sightings are guaranteed, and all trips are led by experienced captains who provide a detailed background on Juneau, and expert insight into the feeding and behavioral patterns of all the wildlife spotted. On their tours, guided on boats specifically designed for ample viewing space, it is common to see sea lions, seals, bald eagles, and porpoises apart from whales. With raw, untouched nature, magnificent snow-capped mountains, and an abundance of beautiful whales, whale watching in Juneau is in a class of its own.
As if the sandy beaches with crystal clear water and welcoming culture wasn’t enough, Maui is one of the best places in the world to spot Humpback Whales. Between December to April, over 10,000 humpback whales flock here, migrating all the way from their feeding grounds in Alaska to mate, rest, and give birth in the warm waters of Maui. Although less common to see, other species of whales that prefer deeper water, including Pilot Whales, Sperm Whales, and Melon Headed Whales, can be spotted near the deep offshore trench.
To see these gorgeous whales in person, there’s no better organization to book a trip with than Pacific Whale Foundation. Guided by certified Marine Naturalists, their whale watching ecotours provide fun and informative interpretation of humpback whale behaviors and characteristics. Through their Whalewatch out of Lahaina or Ma’alaea Harbors, you can witness mothers and calves interacting, see males compete for females, and even hear whale songs through underwater hydrophones. Founded in 1980, this non-profit organization conducts non-invasive whale research to protect our oceans and address threats to whales and other marine life. To experience top-rated whale watching and support efforts to save whales from extinction, we highly recommend Pacific Whale Foundation.
Deemed one of the “Top 5 Whale Watching Destinations in the World” by the World Wildlife Fund, Gloucester is a small town brimming with history and art on the east end of Cape Ann. As America’s oldest seaport, founded in 1623, much of this town’s history is centered around the water, and the town is full of experienced boatsmen.
Travel off the rocky shore to the two main feeding grounds for whales, Stellwagen Bank and Jeffrey’s Ledge, where the mammals feed on herring, mackerel, krill, and other schooling fish between April and November. The most commonly seen whales in these waters are Humpback, Finback, and Minke Whales.
Monterey Bay, California
Located 32 miles south of San Jose, with the city of Santa Cruz at the northern end, and Monterey at the southern tip, lies Monterey Bay. Home to deep blue waters and the Monterey Canyon, the largest and deepest submarine canyon in North America, this bay is a host to a variety of incredible marine mammals. Bottlenose dolphins, elephant seals, sea otters, and, of course, whales, can be found here! Although Monterey Bay is visited by many whales, the most commonly found species from April to November are majestic Humpback whales.
Baffin Island, Nunavut, Canada
The elusive narwhal is one of the most sought after whale species to see in the Arctic. Narwhal live there year round generally above 61 degrees North and have never successfully been kept in captivity. The only way to see them is in the wild. They are often called the “unicorn of the sea” because of their iconic tusk. The Canadian Arctic is home to an estimated 80,000 narwhal accounting for 75% of the world population.
The best time of year to see narwhal is spring and summer. In May and June narwhal can be seen at the floe edge of Lancaster Sound, at the northern reaches of Baffin Island, Nunavut, during the annual migration to their summer feeding grounds. Travellers can get rare opportunities to view narwhal up close from the sea ice in their presence.
San Juan Islands, Washington
With rocky shores, historic lighthouses, backdrops of snow-capped mountains, and of course, loads of majestic whales, there is no shortage of beauty on the San Juan Islands. Located between Seattle, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia, the islands are one of the best places in the world to spot magnificent Orca (or killer) whales.
Unlike the Humpbacks, Minkes and even Gray whales that can be seen here in the summer due to migration patterns, Orcas flock here year-round because they do not follow a typical migration pattern. Instead, Orcas simply follow the food, and due to the abundance of their favorite fish, Chinook salmon in these waters, sightings here are incredibly common.
Bar Harbor, Maine
Granite cliffs, a rocky coastline, and natural wonders abound in this seaside town on the edge of Acadia National Park on Mount Desert Island. Adding to this New England town’s appeal, are the glorious whales that reside in the surrounding waters, including Humpback, Finback, Minke and Right whales.
The best time for whale watching tours is between April and September, when the whales migrate north from warm waters to feast on eels, copepods, plankton, and fish. Other marine life you may spot when you travel here include porpoises, dolphins, osprey, eagles, sharks, and of plenty adorable puffins!
Cumberland Sound, Canada
Beluga are one of the most recognisable and popular whales because of their white colour, “smiling” mouth and comical demeanor. A smaller species of whale, beluga are social mammals often seen in pods. They live in Arctic an subarctic waters, especially the Canadian Arctic.
An estimated 2/3rds of the worlds population of beluga (approximately 150,000) summer in the Canadian waters. They have adapted to the sea ice by evolving without a dorsal fin. The sea ice is important for beluga’s food web as well as protection from predatory killer whales. This makes the floe edge an excellent place to spot pods of beluga. As they migrate south, the summer months offer great opportunities to encounter beluga. You can get a chance to view them in July and August in and around Cumberland Sound.
Santa Barbara, California
Though best known for its tall palm trees, Mediterranean stucco buildings and the beautifully dramatic backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains, Santa Barbara is also a fantastic travel destination for whale watching tours year round. The Santa Barbara Channel, protected by the Channel Islands, is a favorite migration path for whales because of the shallow waters that protect the new born calves from attacks during their migration north for the summer.
From February to April, Gray whales are easily spotted, and from May to September, the water is abundant with Blue whales, Minke whales, and Humpback whales. No matter when you travel to Santa Barbara, you’ll leave having witnessed these incredible mammals in action.
Cape May, New Jersey
As one of the country’s oldest vacation resort destinations, Cape May, located on the southernmost tip of New Jersey, is full of historic Victorian charm, incredible restaurants, quaint shops, and yes – whales! Humpback, Finback, and Minke whales are most commonly seen in the surrounding waters, and in recent years, there have been more humpback sightings than ever before.
This is due to the increasing abundance of one of their favorite fish, Atlantic menhaden, and the fact that the fish have slowly moved closer to the coast line. For peak sightings, visit between March and November.
Lancaster Sound, Canada
Giant bowhead whales live year round in the Arctic. They have an average size of 15 – 18 metres but have been reported up to 20 metres and can weigh up to 100 tonnes. Bowhead are known for their massive bow shaped head that make up one third of their total length. They use it to break through the ice as thick as 60 cm.
Like narwhal and beluga, bowheads also lack a dorsal fin, helping them navigate their icy environment. Approximately 90% of the estimated 200,000 bowhead whales spend their summers in Canadian waters.
In the summer they inhabit waters throughout Davis Strait, Baffin Bay, Lancaster Sound and the channels and fjiords of the Arctic Archipelago, Hudson Strait, Foxe Basin and northwest Hudson Bay. In May and June you can get the chance to see them at the floe edge of Lancaster Sound whilst in July and August they can be seen in Cumberland Sound and in August you can also get the chance to see them at a Bowhead Molting location where operators return each year in hopes of witnessing molting behaviour.
Big Sur, California
Tucked between the Santa Lucia Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, Big Sur, California is rugged, rocky, and undeveloped, making it the ultimate natural destination to experience whales in their element. The Big Sur coastline is a direct migration path of many whales, but baleen whales, including Gray whales, Blue whales, and Humpback whales, are most commonly seen due to the abundance of krill.
In these beautiful waters, decorated with a backdrop of organic and unspoiled coastline, Gray whales are best seen between February and April, Blue whales between June to October, and Humpbacks between April and December.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
As if the quaint harbors, serene dunes, seafood shacks, and gorgeous beaches weren’t enough to lure you in, Cape Cod is also an absolutely incredible destination for whale watching tours. From April to October, whales, most commonly Humpback, Finback, and Minke whales, migrate to Massachusetts to feed on the fish that breed in the nutrient rich waters off the coast.
In particular, Stellwagen Bank, a national marine sanctuary, and Jeffrey’s Ledge, both located between Cape May and Cape Ann to the north, serve as prime feeding grounds for the whales due to the abundance of schooling fish.
Here are some tips for responsible Whale Watching
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