A Bucket List Look at the World’s Best Whale Watching
In the world of whale watching, the rewards are great for those seeking close encounters with the magnificent mammals of the sea. Few experiences in life rival the adventure of a humpback breaching mere feet away, or watching the majestic sea creatures swim alongside, making eye-to-eye contact.
Endless online lists dive into the where and when, the do’s and don’ts, but why bewilder curious whale watchers when you can ask experienced whale watching experts what their whale watching destination bucket list is?
Whale watching was born here when Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching began offering locals and visitors trips to see and experience the abundant sea life from the Dana Point Harbor since the Harbor opened in 1971. Captain Dave’s Whale and Dolphin Watching Safari was the first company in So. CA to offer year round dolphin and whale watching trips from a variety of vessels, primarily catamarans, since 1995. Dana Wharf General Manager Donna Kalez, and Capt. Dave and wife Gisele Anderson have some sea worthy advice for travelers who are creating their whale watching bucket list.
When they’re not ferrying whale-seeking, Instagram-ready locals across Dana Point waters, Capt. Dave & Gisele travel the globe and create their own “krill list” of top whale watching hot spots in the world.
The results surprised even them. “Never fails — every time we venture worldwide for whale watching, we return grateful and humbled by what we have here in Southern California. Dana Point really has the best whale watching in the world,” Gisele Anderson admits.
Say, what? Let’s go below the surface.
Elsewhere, many excursions can easily end up whale-less or impacted by poor weather conditions, (cue the vomiting emoji) so timing and weather can mean everything when you plan.
“Dana Point’s nutrient rich coast and fabulous Southern California weather are two factors that create unbeatable world class whale watching conditions. Just eight minutes out of the harbor there are deep coastal canyons where the food supply draws thousands of dolphin to our coast. We can even see gray whales from the beach. Our whale watching is spectacular and year round,” added Capt. Dave. (And Dana Point excursions rarely cancel for weather.)
“It’s been said that Dana Point truly is the year-round whale watching capital of the world,” Donna Kalez adds, “and with four seasons of mega pods of dolphin (thousands) and plentiful whale sightings including the blue whale, gray, fin, humpback, minke, orca (killer whale), short-finned pilot whale, false killer whale and sperm whales – it’s hard to argue.”
Here’s a quick list of our local experts favorite world hotspots for whale watching:
Iceland has some of the best whale watching in Europe. There are more than 20 different species living around the waters in Iceland and whale watching fans can see about eight of the species. Husavik typically sees Humpbacks, Minke and Blue whales on their prolific trips. And when on land, there is a whale museum in Reykjavik, which is also a great location to spot minke and humpback whales during the summer. Snæfellsnes peninsula (Grundarfjordur and Olafsvik) offers excellent orca watching opportunities in winter and early summer. While whale hunting is still allowed here, there has been a huge push to end it. An App called ‘icewhale’ encourages visitors and locals alike to support whale friendly businesses.
Home to the elusive sperm whales, Dominica is located in the Caribbean Sea in the Lesser Antilles archipelago and is known as the #1 whale watching spot in the Caribbean. Since juvenile and female sperm whales do not migrate, they remain in Dominica year round. Dominica’s sheer underwater drop-offs create deep sheltered bays along its western coastline. These waters are the feeding grounds for six different species of whales seen regularly. Whale sightings include short-finned pilot whales, false killer whales, melon-headed whales, pygmy sperm whales, and the humpback whale. At least 22 of the 33 species known in the Caribbean have been seen in Dominican waters. Large pods of dolphin are also sighted regularly, such as spinner dolphin, spotted dolphin, Fraser’s dolphin and bottlenose dolphin. Sightings are best November through March.
DANA POINT TIP: Sperm whales sighted in Dana Point 3-4 times! NBC National News covered.
#11. NEW ZEALAND
Sperm whales can be sighted year-round in Kaikoura, on the east coast of the South Island, and small groups of dolphin (100-200) are also spotted. Sperm whales can be watched by boat or helicopter or ultralight. Whales thrive close to Kaikoura because of its unusual submarine landscape. Orca show up from December to March, and humpback whales in June through July. The Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, outside Auckland city, is also a significant whale watching area with a resident population of the endangered Bryde’s (pronounced broo-dess) whales, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins and orca. Plan carefully, as 1/3 trips are routinely cancelled year round due to blustery weather.
Between the months of May-June to November-December, visitors to coastal Australian towns can catch a glimpse of varied species such as humpbacks, southern rights, pygmy blue whales and orcas. Whale watching in Australia can be found in Storm Bay in Tasmania, The Gold Coast, Byron Bay, Stradbroke and Hervey Bay in Queensland, Point Hicks in Victoria, Shark Bay, Ningaloo and Cape Leeuwin in Western Australia, Ottway Coast in Victoria to name a few. With nearly 60 percent of the world’s whales found in Australia’s waters, Australia is a very popular whale watching destination.
# 9. AZORES, PORTUGAL
In the middle of the Atlantic Ocean is an archipelago of nine islands and one of the largest whale sanctuaries in the world. Sperm whales can be sighted year round, but weather permits whale watching from April to October, on three-hour trips. Azores has recorded 26 different whale and dolphin species in their waters. Spotted dolphin, sperm whales, sei whales, fin whales and other baleen whales are sighted more often in summer. Blue whales have been sighted in the channel between the islands of San Miguel and Santa Maria. Several whale watching operators are on the island of San Miguel, particularly in Ponta Delgado and Villa Franca do Campo. Pico Island offers whale watching and the popular ‘swim with the dolphins’ packages. Locals cite April & May as the best months for whale watching. Keep in mind that adverse weather conditions can keep the boats from venturing out in the ocean.
# 8 . TONGA
Gorgeous azure waters are the backdrop for the Southern Humpbacks visiting here July through October. Beautiful nearby reefs and friendly locals make the visit something to relish. Be sure to plan ahead as the number of ‘approved’ companies is limited and they book up.
# 7. TAHITI
Opportunities to swim alongside humpback whales in Tahiti make this a popular destination. Moorea is one of the only places in the world where you can swim with humpback whales. Humpback whales travel from the Antarctic to seek refuge around Tahiti islands, where they give birth and raise their young. The Tuamotu and Society Island archipelagos attract nearly a third of all dolphin species from every ocean. French Polynesia declared itself a Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 2002 and protects all of the 16 species of whales and dolphins found. Peak season is from mid-August through the end of October, which is great to coincide with their good weather.
# 6. BOSTON AREA
Both Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary and Jeffreys Ledge boast incredible encounters with Humpback whales, plus other sightings such as fin, minke, pilot and the rare, endangered North Atlantic right whales. Bank Marine Sanctuary is a rich feeding ground for whales, dolphins, sea birds and other marine creatures. For Boston whale watching, you can depart from Gloucester or Boston harbor. It takes about an hour for the boat to get to the feeding ground, so plan on a tour of between three and four hours for your tour, with a majority of that being travel time. The whale watching season lasts between Mid-April and October.
# 5. ALASKA
Summer months can bring several pods of orcas (killer whales) to the Prince William Sound area as well as humpbacks. There are also the belugas and gray whales during different times of the year. In Alaska, you can see whales create a bubble net to drive fish to the surface then lunge upwards to propel themselves through the group of fish. (Lunge feeding happens when whales propel themselves rapidly through a group of fish or krill with its mouth wide open.) The best whale watching in Alaska is in the summer months, between May and September. After August, the weather can be too cold to enjoy. Whales then begin their migration to warmer waters near Mexico to breed and bear their calves.
DANA POINT TIP:
“We see lunge feeding humpback whales here throughout the year!”
# 4. HAWAII
Humpback and gray whales visit Hawaii, and the peak season is just a few months — January to March. The best viewing spots is the shallow Auau Channel between West Maui, Lanai and Molokai. Most tours are around two to four hours long. Poipu Beach in Kauai is beautiful spot to whale watch, as is Kilauea Lighthouse and the Na Pali Coast’s Kalalau Trail on the north shore. On Oahu, humpbacks can be spotted from Hanauma Bay or overlooks near Diamond Head. Scientists estimate that two-thirds of the entire humpback whale population returns to Hawaii to breed, calve and nurse their young. In Hawaii, the return of the whales (kohola) is more of a ‘welcome home’ than a visit. Humpback calves are born in Hawaiian waters, making them native born. Whale watching tours are the best option to see the whales up close.
# 3. CAPETOWN
The best time for watching the southern right whales in South African waters is from June to November, but peak calving season is July and August. These playful giants are a delight but locals do encourage you to watch from land so they can better protect their friendly whales from unintentional boat strikes. Humpbacks can be glimpsed between May to December, and the medium-sized Bryde’s whale is seen year round. Two hours from Capetown, Hermanus is in the heart of the Whale Route and there is an annual whale festival each fall. In Cape Agulhus, southern right cows and calves have been seen near the southernmost tip of Africa. The Whale Trail, a five-day hike along the cliffs, dunes, and beaches, offers a wonderful opportunity to view these mighty mammals and their offspring.
# 2. BAJA CALIFORNIA
Incredible encounters with Pacific gray whales. Indescribable! Magdalena Bay does not disappoint. The whales migrate here to give birth, and the calves can be just days old. The time of year you visit the Baja Peninsula coast and lagoons will influence your chance of seeing them. The Sea of Cortez is phenomenal for whale watching. San Ignacio has the longer whale watching season, from January through April, while Magdalena’s prime season is from mid-January through March. Because of the limited season, trips fill up well in advance, so plan ahead if you are Baja-bound.
# 1. Dana Point — World’s Whale Watching Capital
The picturesque coastline in Southern California has always attracted scores of wannabe whale worshippers. “Dana Point Harbor, the most romantic harbor on the west coast, is an unparalleled standout. This stretch of coastline sees five species of whales year-round,” Capt. Dave says. “Gray whales migrate by just outside the harbor’s jetty every winter, blue whales are seen by the hundreds every summer, humpback, fin and minke whales are seen regularly throughout the year.” Other species such as killer whales, pilot whales, sei whales, false killer whales, sperm whales, and Bryde’s whales periodically visit. On a daily basis, a mere 10 to 20 minutes from the harbor, passengers are treated to more wild dolphins here than anywhere else. Donna Kalez reminds us that “with one of the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world, it isn’t surprising that the waters off Dana Point are home to over 400,000 common dolphins plus bottlenose, Risso’s, and pacific white-sided dolphin!.”
Home to the annual Festival of Whales, initially started by Kalez’s father Don Hansen, for almost 50 years now, Dana Point has quietly accepted the mantle of the World’s Whale Watching Capital™ for a few weekends each year, but as the owners and crew of both Captain Dave’s and Dana Wharf attest, there is no better time to let the world know about the year-round near perfect conditions to enjoy exceptional and unrivaled whale watching.
“We’re on a mission,” Gisele Anderson said. “We want to enlighten and educate everyone about our local aquatic year round wildlife—to let everyone know that Dana Point really is the Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World®.”
Dana Point Whale Watching Experiences
Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Safari, 24440 Dana Point Harbor Drive
Daily year-round trips on unique, hi-tech catamarans with underwater viewing.
www.dolphinsafari.com | (949) 488-2828
Dana Wharf Sportfishing and Whale Watching, 34675 Golden Lantern
Daily year-round trips on a variety of vessels, also sportfishing, kids camps, live music harbor cruises.
www.danawharf.com | (949) 496-5794