Humpback Whales

The World’s Best Whale-watching Destinations

Dominic CouzensBy Dominic Couzens
16th June 2021

Dominic is a Naturetrek tour leader and one of Britain's
best known and most prolific natural history writers.

There are few more thrilling – and emotional – wildlife encounters to be had on this planet than those with whales. Perhaps it’s their rarity, for many people have never enjoyed the privilege. Perhaps it is the combination of the wild lure of the sea and these tantalising large animals that only show themselves sparingly. Or perhaps it is that profound feeling of connection that we can sense with creatures that are close to us in intelligence but arguably edge us for gentleness. Whatever the reason, there is simply nothing else like an encounter with one of the largest animals on Earth. With dolphins likely providing an energetic supporting cast and like-minded enthusiasts beside you to share the experience with, whale-watching is high on almost everybody’s wish list. Here are some of our recommendations.

Baja California

The coast of Baja California offers arguably the best cetacean-watching in the world. That’s partly because it includes both the Pacific coast of the peninsula, with its many sheltered bays, and the Sea of Cortez on the east side, a waterway of deep underwater canyons and sea mounts which together usher nutrients up to the surface. Grey Whales are common along the Pacific and at San Ignacio can be seen almost in eye-to-eye contact. Meanwhile, the Sea of Cortez is literally a whale-watching paradise, with many Humpbacks, Bryde’s, Fin, Sperm and Minke Whales. It is also a magnificent spot for the best and biggest of all, the Blue Whale – even the ‘blow’ of this gentle monster has to be seen to be believed.

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Baja California & Sea of Cortez
A 14-day whale-watching and wildlife holiday, including an 11-night cruise ...

The Azores

Even without whales, the Azores have a certain allure – remote, mid-Atlantic islands with their lush, hydrangea-covered hillsides, volcanic calderas and sun-drenched vineyards. With whales, they are a must, and the whale-watching here is arguably the best in Europe. There are three sets of islands. The central group, including Pico, Faial and São Jorge, have long been known for their resident population of Sperm Whales; indeed, this was once a major whaling centre. Nowadays, professional spotters (or ‘vigias’) on the shore help guide the boats to where the animals are, which makes for very efficient whale-watching! We keep a respectful distance – although the whales can approach the ribs out of curiosity, a spine-tingling encounter. It has recently been discovered that Blue and Fin Whales stop by in these waters in the spring. You can look for these off the island of Pico (which is dominated by the volcano ‘Mount Pico’, and at 2,351m is Portugal’s highest peak), or visit the largest and easternmost of the islands, São Miguel, which has lots of other attractions, too, not least the endangered Azores Bullfinch.

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Whales & Dolphins of the Azores
A 7-day holiday searching the cetacean-rich waters of the Azores archipelago ...
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Great Whales of the Azores (Pico)
A 9-day holiday on Pico in the centre of the Azores archipelago ...
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Great Whales of the Azores (São Miguel)
An 8-day holiday in the eastern Azores ...

Norway

Norway has a lot of coastline, from the temperate to the Arctic, so it is perhaps not surprising that it is superb for whale-watching. We offer tours to three parts of the country: the region around the Arctic city of Tromsø, the Lofoten Islands to the south and, towards the North Pole, the ‘High Arctic’ archipelago of Svalbard (where Spitsbergen is the largest island). Every year in winter, huge concentrations of Herring seek shelter in the fjords near Tromsø, so we charter a ship to take us in search of Orcas, Sperm Whales and Humpback Whales, with a potential sighting of the Northern Lights as an extra. On the Lofoten Islands, Sperm Whales are the main feature, with Humpbacks and Long-finned Pilot Whales, along with the spice of experiencing the Midnight Sun. On the Svalbard cruise, the highlight for many, alongside possible Beluga and even the rare Bowhead Whale, is the King of the Arctic: the Polar Bear.

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Norway - Orcas, Humpbacks & Northern Lights
A 9-day winter holiday to northern Norway including a 7-night cruise ...
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Whales & Seabirds of Norway's Lofoten Islands
A 6-day holiday to the land of the midnight sun ...
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Spitsbergen – Realm of the Polar Bear
An 11-day wildlife expedition to the high Arctic ...

Canada

If you like your whale-watching amongst stunning scenery, then it is difficult to beat British Columbia, with its moss-draped forests, snowy mountaintops, dashing rivers and deep fjords. Every year, salmon make their way to the coast to find their spawning rivers and attract the resident bands of Orca, which follow their usual habit of turning up with thrilling unpredictability, while at the same time Humpback Whales lumber offshore. Along with these mighty animals comes another one, the Grizzly Bear, which will be fishing along the fjords and rivers, taking advantage of the bountiful supply of salmon. All viewed from the comfort of our own vessel, it’s an irresistible experience!

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Spirit Bears, Grizzlies & Humpbacks
A 10-day holiday to coastal British Columbia including a 7-night wildlife cruise ...
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Orcas & Grizzlies of Canada's Pacific Northwest
A 9-day holiday, including a 6-night cruise through the sheltered northern inlets ...

Iceland

Iceland, with its stark landscapes and light touch from humanity, is a classic wildlife destination. For many years its North Atlantic waters have been appreciated for their whale-watching possibilities, and there are two points on the island where encounters can be particularly special. Husavík is in the north-east, not far from the wildfowl-heaven of Lake Mývatn, and is a pretty sure bet for Minke Whales (as are trips from the capital, Reykjavík.) In the west, early spring off the Snaefellsnes Peninsula sees the congregation of hordes of Herring, and these, in turn, attract the attention of the A-list cetacean: the Orca (a dolphin, but an honorary whale). Both areas also host Humpback Whales, so with stunning landscapes of geysers, volcanoes (including a new one which started erupting on 19th March 2021) and spectacular waterfalls, Iceland is sure to provide a fabulous whale-watching break. 

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Iceland in Spring
A 9-day holiday amongst dramatic scenery ...
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Iceland - Northern Lights & Winter Wildlife
A 5-day winter break to west Iceland ...
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Undiscovered Iceland
A 9-day tour of lesser known eastern Iceland focusing on the stunning scenery ...

Antarctica

It’s the world’s least-visited continent, a pristine wilderness, it has penguins, albatrosses and towering icebergs – does anyone actually not want to go to Antarctica? Well, in case it sways you, you can also enjoy some superb encounters with whales here. The vast concentrations of krill and fish in these waters attract impressive congregations of such species as Humpbacks, Sei and Fin Whales, Orcas and Antarctic Minke, with a chance of something less common, such as Southern Bottlenose or Gary’s Beaked Whales. Accompanying these are some terrific dolphins, including Commerson’s and Hourglass Dolphins.


Maldives

Although well known as a high-end tourist location, the Maldives are also exceptionally good for whale-watching and have become one of the very best places to see a wide variety of cetaceans. Indeed, you have the unique opportunity to observe the world’s smallest whale, the Dwarf Sperm Whale (rare everywhere else) and the world’s largest, the Blue Whale. Our cruises (lasting 7 nights) have recorded 18 species in these waters, and they usually include Spinner Dolphins, Short-finned Pilot Whales and (‘normal-sized’!) Sperm Whales. What’s more, before embarking upon our private cruise, we enjoy a full day of rest and relaxation on a small island, during which time you can snorkel, birdwatch, be pampered in the spa or simply bask on the white sandy beach and sip from a fresh coconut as the waves lap your feet. It’s no wonder this is such a popular cruise!

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Mantas, Dolphins & Coral Reefs - A Maldives Cruise
A holiday through the warm, turquoise waters surrounding the Maldives ...

Indonesia

Until recently, Indonesia would not have been on the whale-watching map, but the waters between Bali and Komodo are replete with fantastic cetaceans, including some of the most sought-after tropical species. Chief among them is perhaps the Eden’s Whale, a mysterious close relative of Bryde’s Whale, with False Killer and Melon-headed Whale also stars of the show. There is even a possibility of Blue Whale. There should be plenty of Spinner and Fraser’s Dolphins, too. This tour also offers Dragons (the Monitor Lizards of Komodo) and even a Mermaid – the name of our vessel for this spectacular 9-night cruise!

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Bali to Komodo - In Search of the Dragon!
A wildlife holiday cruising from Bali to the Komodo National Park ...

California

Everyone knows that millions of human visitors flock to California’s beaches, but it’s almost a secret that just offshore, cetaceans flock with equal enthusiasm to its deep water trench. In the autumn, relatively short boat excursions can produce some spectacular sightings. The commonest and easiest whales to see are Humpbacks, which appear on almost every trip, but with a bit of luck, this area has an excellent track record in producing sightings of the mighty Blue Whale, too. The California coast is one of the best places in the world to track it down. If you add in the chance of Orcas, plus extras such as Pacific White-sided Dolphin, as well as a host of exciting seabirds, you will see that this stretch of coast offers a different kind of glamour to what you might expect.

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Whales & Dolphins of Monterey Bay
A 9-day holiday to California's Pacific seaboard ...

Sri Lanka

It might be surprising to think that a country home to wild elephants, leopards and unique birds, should also offer sensational whale-watching. On the southern and western coasts of this wonderful tropical island you can catch sight of the largest animal that is ever known to have lived and enjoy one of the most sought-after encounters in the world – witnessing a Blue Whale. There are some other species, too, including Humpbacks and Bryde’s Whales but to see the gigantic Blue Whale in the Elysian setting of these tranquil waters is a truly life-enhancing experience.

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Sri Lanka - Wilpattu National Park & Kalpitiya
An 11-day holiday to north-west Sri Lanka ...
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Sri Lanka - Blue Whales & Leopards
A 10-day holiday in search of Blue Whales off the south coast ...

South Africa

You don’t need much excuse to visit Cape Town; scenic Table Mountain, the Cape peninsula and world-famous wines are already a draw! But if you like whales, there is extra incentive, because in these southern waters, the cold Benguela Current meets the continental shelf and causes huge upwellings of nutrients, which attract an extraordinary variety of exciting marine-life, including Southern Right, Bryde’s and other whales. In fact, you can easily see the Southern Right Whales from the shore, with minimal effort. This two-centre holiday, based at Cape Town and Hermanus, also offers a sensational supporting cast, including Great White Sharks, African Penguins and myriad seabirds.

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South Africa - Best of the Cape
A 10-day holiday, based in Cape Town and Hermanus ...