Every year, around 13 million people go whale watching, with activities in 119 countries and overseas territories valued at around US$2 billion. Whales are big business. They always have been. The challenge now is to ensure that whale watching never becomes a mindless pursuit for profit, but instead acts as a catalyst for safeguarding these mysterious, mesmerizing creatures and the oceans they roam.

Humpback whales are undoubtedly the extroverts of the cetacean world – the big show-offs. However, the majority of whale watching experiences (whether they’re organised trips or impromptu sightings from a ferry or cliff top) involve little more than tantalising glimpses – a smoky plume of breath hanging above the sea, a smooth back rolling through the waves, or perhaps a tail fluke arching briefly above the surface, like a giant hand waving goodbye.


Whales are masters of suspense. They have a hypnotic power over humans – show us a flipper, maybe a fluke, then nothing for an hour and we’ll still be riveted to the sea. Can you imagine going on a three-hour game drive and being as elated having only glimpsed the left shoulder of an elephant, or the rump of a rhino?


At times, whale watching can almost feel like an attempt to make contact with creatures from another world. The insignificance of our presence – drifting on the surface of their vast oceanic realm – seems entirely appropriate. Responsible whale watching is always on the whales’ terms, and has the power both to captivate people and to inspire them to support cetacean conservation projects around the world.


Many species of cetacean migrate during winter months to warmer latitudes where they mate and give birth. One of the most well known leviathan journeys is that of the grey whale, which leaves its feeding grounds in the Bering Sea each October and heads south to Baja California. Humpback whales move between the Caribbean and Greenland, Antarctica and Queensland and Alaska and Hawaii, although a resident population in the Arabian Sea suggests that not all humpbacks have such itchy flukes. Southern right whales spend the austral winter off the coasts of South America, South Africa and Australasia, cruising back to Antarctica for the summer. Orcas, meanwhile, pop up in places where potential prey is abundant. Some trail the salmon runs off British Columbia, while others snatch seal pups off beaches in the Falklands and Argentina’s Valdés Peninsula.

Whale Watching Q&A

There are dozens of boats at the marina. How do I choose the right one?

Look for an operator that’s signed up to a strict code for responsible whale watching. If in doubt, ask questions about how they minimize disturbance to whales. A good operator will talk about the correct way to approach cetaceans (sideways, never from the front or rear), minimum distances, no-wake speeds etc. Whale watching should be an educational experience with experts on hand to interpret behaviour, describe conservation measures and so on. Whale sightings should be logged for research purposes, while additional activities, like using hydrophones to listen in on whale and dolphin calls, provide a more rounded experience.

Where should I sit on the boat?

That often depends on weather and sea conditions! The bow and raised areas like fly decks provide the widest field of view for sighting spouts, but are more exposed to wind, spray and waves. It’s not essential to be next to the guide as most use a clock system to direct your gaze (ie humpback at three o’clock) with the bow representing 12 o’clock.

What special gear do I need for whale watching?

You may spend long periods waiting and watching, the boat idle, rolling broadside on a swell, so if you’re prone to seasickness take precautions before setting off. Windproof and waterproof clothing, sunscreen and hat are essential, even if the forecast is sunny and warm. Polarizing sunglasses are useful for reducing glare and cutting through reflections on the water surface to see whales and dolphins that approach the boat. Take a pair of x8 or x10 binoculars or, if you’re watching from land, a spotting telescope. Other useful extras include camera, a notebook for recording sightings and a field guide.

How do you photograph whales?

It’s not easy photographing whales. They’re moving, the boat’s moving and salt spray is a camera’s worst enemy. Protect your gear in a splash-proof vinyl housing (aquapac.net) or use a lens hood to cut glare on the lens. Choose a telephoto zoom, select as fast a shutter speed as possible and switch to continuous shooting mode. Whales that raise their flukes are often preparing for long, deep dives, so you may only get one or two chances at a decent fluke shot. Keep your camera focused on the whale while it rests on the surface, then take a sequence of photos as the back and tail start arching through the water. The closer you are to the water surface, the more impressive the fluke shot.

Where can I swim with whales?

Very few countries permit whale swims. The risks to humans are obvious. Whales are not only massive animals with potentially lethal flukes and flippers, but they also tend to be found in deep waters with strong currents and surface chop – conditions that rapidly cause fatigue in swimmers. Sharks have also been known to attack swimmers, presumably mistaking them for whale calves. As with dolphins, potential adverse effects on whales stem from vessels approaching too close or inappropriate behaviour from swimmers. Swimming with humpback whales is permitted in Tonga, but opponents claim it can disturb mothers and calves when they are most vulnerable.

What is the Whale Watching Code?

• Slowly approach whales sideways, never from head-on or behind.
• Do not cross the paths of cetaceans to intercept them or anticipate their next move in order to increase the chances of a close encounter. This will only make them feel chased and avoid you.
• Slow down to ‘no-wake’ speed and maintain a constant direction, making the whales feel more secure.
• Never split a pod or group of cetaceans.
• Be aware of other boats. If it’s already busy, consider leaving the area and looking elsewhere. Always avoid a situation where whales are encircled by tour boats.
• Be especially aware of the presence of mothers and calves.
• Never spend more than 20 minutes with cetaceans, unless they have approached you and choose to prolong the encounter.
• Never feed cetaceans or influence their natural behaviour in any way.
• Try to make as little noise as possible and leave the area slowly if you notice any possible signs of distress.

Read the latest posts on Whale Watching


When it comes to wildlife holidays, responsible tourism is not just an option – it should be considered an intrinsic part of the whole process. When planning your whale watching holiday, read these 10 steps to minimise your impact on the environment, reduce your carbon emissions and support wildlife conservation and the livelihoods of local communities.

Whale Watching: Field Notes

Blow by Blow

Even from a distance you can identify a whale by the shape, size and direction of its spout. The fin whale (left) has a powerful, straight blow rising as a narrow column up to 6m high, while the sperm whale has a blow projected forwards and to the left due to the fact that its blowhole is on one side of its forehead.


Try to develop a roving eye. In other words, don’t let your gaze become fixed on any one point for too long. Scan 360 degrees around the boat, from the horizon to near distance, looking for clues that might reveal the presence of whales. One of four things is likely to catch your eye: blows, backs, splashes and seabirds. When whales surface they blow (see right). In calm conditions this forceful exhalation can hang above the surface, like a puff of telltale smoke – sometimes distinctive enough for you to identify the species. Splashes should also make you look twice. They could be made by distant whales breaching, flipper slapping or lob tailing. Seabirds feeding can also create white water (especially plunge-diving gannets). Look carefully – there might be whales feeding from below. Finally, keep your eyes open for whales surfacing, their backs rolling above the surface, gleaming wet and smooth.

It's a Wild Life: Brian Jackman

"La Paz, Mexico. I’m in the Sea of Cortez on board a whale watching catamaran. Already I have seen 60 humpbacks and nine blue whales, but it’s the dolphins I will remember most. Joyfully they race towards us and within minutes we are engulfed by a Mexican wave of leaping bodies. They are chasing fish as they charge along. It’s a feeding frenzy and we are at the heart of it, with thousands of dolphins strung out on either side of us."

BRIAN JACKMAN is an award-winning travel writer


“Bubble net to starboard!” The cry comes from an officer on the fly bridge of the Matanuska ferry as she edges through Southeast Alaska’s Frederick Sound. I turn just in time to witness at least eight humpback whales burst through the mirror surface of the sea, tiny silver fish leaping from their gaping mouths like shards of broken glass. There is a stunned silence onboard the ferry as we watch the whales wallow in an orgy of feeding before slowly sinking underwater again. The captain stalls the ship’s propellers and we drift to a standstill, ferry schedules forgotten as all eyes rove the sea. “There!” Another shout, heads spinning to port as several hundred tons of humpback rear once more from the sound.


To whale watchers, bubble-net feeding is the Holy Grail. “They circle a big shoal of fish, blowing bubbles to form a kind of net; the fish panic, bunch together and then those guys just come up through the middle, mouths open and wham, bam, thank-you ma’am!” A fellow passenger barely has time to gabble his description of the humpbacks’ unique feeding method before the spectacle repeated itself – this time barely 10m off the Matanuska’s bow. Gradually, it dawns on us that there are other humpbacks nearby: lone feeders, females with calves and exuberant males breaching in jaw-dropping synchrony – leaping vertically from the sea like a pair of plump exclamation marks.

Whale Watching: 9 Greatest Ticks


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Wildlife Wishlist was founded by zoologist, conservationist and award-winning travel writer and photographer William Gray. Sharing his passion for wildlife and recommendations for responsible travel, Will has spent around 30 years tracking down the world's best wildlife holiday experiences.