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There are few things more exciting than watching whales in their natural environment, far better than viewing them in captivity. If your goal is to check off this bucket list experience, you have many options. Whether you’re looking for something closer to home or hope to jet off to a corner of the world with the highest concentration of these animals – from Alaska and Canada to the Azores, Iceland, and beyond – these tours offer some of the world’s best opportunities.
Baja Sur Tours - La Paz, Baja California Sur, Mexico
The Sea of Cortez is renowned for its marine life, but the opportunities it presents for getting close to gray whales are unrivaled, and whale watching is certainly one of the most unforgettable things you can do in the Baja Peninsula. The gray whales come into the protected lagoons used for mating and birthing, as they have been for centuries. Known as the “friendlies,” they seek out human contact, coming right up to the boats and sometimes even lifting their calves up for humans to touch. This experience of a lifetime can be enjoyed through Baja Sur Tours. The tour includes pick-up from your accommodation in La Paz, two hours with the whales alongside certified bilingual naturalist tour guides, breakfast and lunch, as well as personalized beverages and snacks. Alternatively, opt for an adventurous whale shark swim adventure with certified guides.
Sea of Whales Adventures - Trinity, Newfoundland, Canada
In Canada’s easternmost province of Newfoundland, you can enjoy one of the world’s best whale-watching tours in the postcard-perfect small town of Trinity. While it’s worth a visit as a destination in its own right, during the summer, the waters are inhabited by humpback, fin, sperm, minke, pilot whales, and occasionally orcas. Sea of Whales Adventures will bring you on a small group tour in a Zodiac boat for a personalized experience and an up-close look at the animals. The greatest concentration of whales can be seen in July and August, but if you come in late June (and sometimes into July), you may be able to marvel at icebergs and whales at the same time. In Bay Bulls, Canada, this puffin and whale watching cruise travels through the Witless Bay Ecological Reserve, which is home to one of the largest populations of whales in the North Atlantic.
Jayleen's Alaska - Juneau, Alaska
Juneau is often named the best destination in Alaska for whale watching, and it’s arguably one of the top spots in the world to watch countless humpbacks from May through early September. For an intimate experience with a local expert, Jayleen’s Alaska is unrivaled, with owner Jayleen growing up in a local whale-watching family. She’ll take you out with just a small group to see the humpbacks, and you might get to see orcas, too, especially if you’re here in July or August. Any time of the year, watch for a myriad of sea lions, seals, and bald eagles. A highly rated whale watching tour in Juneau, this epic excursion also offers a glimpse of the famous Mendenhall Glacier.
Laki Tours Whale Watching - Olafsvik, Iceland
Iceland is one of the world’s best places for whale watching, so it’s no wonder this activity is a top thing to do in Iceland. Laki Tours offers unique trips into the waters surrounding the stunning Snaefellsnes Peninsula, the top spot for viewing toothed whales like orcas, sperm, and pilot whales. Orcas are more frequently seen from February through early July, although they’re occasionally spotted through early September. Male sperm whales typically make an appearance between March and June, while late summer and autumn bring sightings of minke whales and humpback whales, and white-beaked dolphins are here year-round. From Reykjavik, you can experience the magic of whale watching on this top-rated tour, which cruises the coast of Iceland to see humpback and orca whales in their natural habitats.
Sub Sea Tours - Morro Bay, California
One of the best things to do on California’s Central Coast is to go whale watching at Morro Bay. Sub Sea Tours will take you out to look for the three whale species that can often be viewed from the deck of a boat: gray whales, humpbacks, and blue whales. The occasional orca may be spotted too. Depending on the type of whale, some behaviors that might be witnessed include breaching, tail slapping, and lunge feeding. The Central Coast is known for its mild Mediterranean climate, which makes it a comfortable endeavor year-round. Over in San Diego, you can also join a popular whale watching excursion aboard a replica of a historic sailing schooner as you spot migrating whales and dolphins in the Pacific Ocean.
Boston Harbor Cruises Whale Watching Tour - Boston, Massachusetts
Fin, humpback, and minke whales are regularly spotted in the Atlantic waters off the coast of Boston between April and October. Plan a day trip with the highest-rated tour operator, Boston Harbor Cruises, which has partnered with the New England Aquarium. Their tours are led by naturalists from the aquarium, which means they’ll share their expert insight, and you can ask them questions about the whales as you watch from the comfortable high-speed catamaran. The tour lets you experience the best of New England’s marine wildlife, including humpback and fin whales.
Maui Snorkeling - Maui, Hawaii
A small, family-owned business, Maui Snorkeling offers whale-watching tours in Hawaii between mid-November and mid-April. You’ll get a chance to see the humpback whales that visit Hawaii as a part of their annual migration. While they do have combined whale watching and snorkeling trips in Maui (that include glass-bottom boogie boards, a 25-foot water slide, swimming noodles, and jumping platforms), Maui Snorkeling also offers an Afternoon Whale Watch Only tour. This afternoon Whale Watching excursion will provide an ideal setting for nature lovers that want to learn about humpback whales and watch the majestic creatures in their natural habitat. Hop aboard the Lani Kai for a 2.5-hour bucket list-worthy journey.
Capt. Dave's Dana Point Whale Watching Safari - Dana Point, California
Capt. Dave’s Dana Point Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari is often ranked among the world’s best, with the chance to spot the animals year-round, including everything from gray whales, fin whales, minke, and humpbacks to orcas and blue whales. Dana Point is where the highest concentration of blue whales can be found on the planet, meaning this is one of the top things to do in California’s outdoors. The largest mammal in the world, blue whales can weigh over 100 tons and reach over 100 feet long, about as long as three school buses lined up end to end. The friendly and curious gray whales can be seen between November and April, while blue whales inhabit the waters from May through November.
Puget Sound Express - Port Townsend, Washington
The Strait of Juan de Fuca is an area that borders Canadian waters and stretches from the northern Olympic Peninsula and the San Juan Islands in Washington State. It has been called the “American Serengeti,” boasting some of the world’s highest concentrations of whales, along with dolphins and other marine life. While the orcas are the star of the show, it’s also possible to see gray whales, humpbacks, minke whales, seals, sea lions, bald eagles, and more. Puget Sound Express, based in Port Townsend, will take you to see the gray whales in March and April, and from late April through late October, there are four-hour guaranteed whale watching tours.
Lazy Bear Expeditions' Beluga Whale Tour - Churchill, Manitoba, Canada
Along the coast of Hudson Bay in Northern Manitoba, over 55,000 beluga whales inhabit the warmer waters of the Churchill River after the ice breaks, making it one of the best destinations in the world to see wildlife. A stay in Churchill with Lazy Bear Lodge during the summer allows you to embark on various expeditions that will bring you up close to these playful “sea canaries.” The white whales are known for their high-pitched whistles that sound like they’re singing and can be viewed right from the shore. The lodge offers close encounters via kayak tours, boat tours, and even Aqua Gliding, where you’ll float on a mat pulled by a Zodiac boat, immersed in the animals’ environment while watching as they approach. While you’re here, there’s a good chance you’ll spot at least a polar bear or two.
Terra Azul Azores Whale Watching - Ponte Delgada, The Azores
The Azores, an archipelago that belongs to Portugal and is located almost halfway between Europe and America, is already an epic destination for nature travel. Then add in the fact that it’s the permanent home, or part of the migration route, for blue whales, sperm whales, Sei whales, humpbacks, and fin whales, and it’s an absolute must-visit spot for wildlife lovers. In February, blue whales are sighted regularly, and their presence peaks in March. The best way to spot them is by boat and guided tours, which are available through a number of outfitters, with most departing from Ponta Delgado on the island of Sao Miguel, including trips offered by Terra Azul Azores Whale Watching. While you’re here, the island offers a hiker’s paradise with miles and miles of scenic trails that will bring you to lagoons, volcanic craters, streams, and waterfalls only accessible on foot.
WhaleSwim Adventures - Tahiti
There are many reasons why Tahiti is one of the best Pacific Islands to visit, but this reason trumps the rest: when conditions are right, you can enjoy one of the rarest and most unforgettable animal encounters, the chance to swim with humpback whales. Head to Moorea, as this island is known as the “humpback whale nursery” and has the most humpback whales in the area throughout the season in French Polynesia. The best time to visit is between early August and early November and one of the top outfitters for this tour is WhaleSwim Adventures.
Whale Watch Kaikoura - Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura, near the north end of New Zealand’s South Island, is one of the few places on Earth where sperm whales can be seen year-round (and one of many reasons why New Zealand might be the best country to visit). The marine environment off the coast here is so rich in nutrients that it attracts these magnificent creatures that can weigh more than 50 tons and grow to up to 65 feet in length. They congregate here as the over-a-mile-deep Kaikoura canyon runs right up against the coast, creating a rare system of sea currents that contain an exceptional marine food chain. It’s also possible to see dusky dolphins, the rare and endangered hectors dolphin, and New Zealand fur seals. The top tour is through Whale Watch Kaikoura, which offers various options that include indoor and outdoor viewing.
Southern Right Charters Whale Trips - Hermanus, Western Cape, South Africa
In South Africa, not only can you see the famous Big 5 on land, but you can see whales too, and it’s one of the best things to do in South Africa. Southern right whales are the main feature for whale watchers here between June and November, with July through October being the peak time. Occasionally, orcas, humpbacks, Bryde’s whales, and all sorts of different dolphin species can be seen too. Hermanus is the place to go, with Southern Right Charters offering the highest-rated tours.
Monterey Bay Whale Watch - Monterey, California
Monterey Bay is one of the best places for whale watching year round. April and May are the peak months for sighting orcas, but they can be seen in every season. From December through April, the bay will be teeming with gray whales, and humpbacks are often seen from March through November, with peak sightings typically during the summer. Lots of other marine life can be spotted, too, like sea otters, sea lions, porpoises, and Risso’s dolphins. While multiple tour operators can take you out to see them, Monterey Bay Whale Watch is among the highest rated. If you’re short on time, try this half-day whale-watching excursion from Monterey.
Wildheart Adventures Sea Kayak Tours - Telegraph Cove, Vancouver Island, Canada
Johnstone Strait, between mainland Canada and northern Vancouver, is renowned for orca whales. Telegraph Cove, which sits at the entrance to Robson Bight, sees as many as 200 of these animals during the summer months following the annual salmon runs. it’s one of the top destinations in the world to see animals in their natural habitat. There are multiple ways to enjoy close encounters, but the best is arguably Wildheart Adventures‘ multi-day kayaking trip. During the day, you’ll paddle alongside them in their natural habitat, and at night you’ll camp near the shore, allowing the sounds of the whales that pass by to lure you to a peaceful night’s sleep. You can also get a quick glimpse of the whales on this half-day adventure from Telegraph Cove, which also offers great views of the San Juan and Gulf Islands, plus Howe Sound.