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Whale Watching: The Greatest Show on Water

Seeing these beautiful animals up close will take your breath away


A 60-foot-long animal hurls its sea-slick, 40-ton body up and out of the ocean. The whale’s 15-foot-long flippers extend fully, rivulets of water race down its pleated throat and then, with a quick twist, the whale falls back into the sea with a tremendous splash.

Your pulse quickens, your jaw drops and every cell in your body sings.

At least, that’s what happens to me every time I see a humpback whale breach. It can happen to you, too — you don’t have to be a whale scientist to see the greatest show on water.

For 32 years, I have headed out to sea to watch whales in the wild off both U.S. coasts, in Hawaiian and Alaskan waters and off Canada and Mexico.

More than 13 million people in 119 countries go whale watching every year on trips offered by some 3,300 tour operators, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare. Laws protect whales by restricting how close boats may come, but the animals, unaware of the laws, often cozy up to boats to do a bit of people watching.

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Not every whale sighted breaches, of course, but even seeing a lusty spout or a waving flipper or a 10-foot-wide tail sinking below the waves is exhilarating.

Where to See Whales When

From late spring through early fall, humpback whales and fin whales are commonly sighted off the East Coast. The humpbacks, which have arteries so large that a toddler could crawl through them, are the most acrobatic.

It’s also a thrill to watch a 70-foot-long fin whale lunge, mouth agape, into a swirling ball of herring for a bit of lunch. The fin is the fastest of whales and the second largest animal to live on Earth, surpassed only by the mighty blue whale, which is more elusive. Trip operators’ kiosks dot the coasts of Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and New Jersey.

Summer is prime time for humpbacks in Alaskan waters and off the coast of eastern Canada, where you also may catch a glimpse of the rare North Atlantic right whale in the Bay of Fundy. Orcas, or killer whales, routinely are sighted in June, July and August off British Columbia in western Canada, often swimming up to 100 miles a day in family groups.

The ‘Whale Highway’

From late fall through early spring, gray whales travel what tour operators call “the whale highway” just off the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington, making the trip from the Bering and Chukchi Seas to Baja California, Mexico and back. Tour operators are located in all three states. Some coastal towns — including Dana Point, Fort Bragg, Mendocino and San Diego in California — sponsor annual whale festivals timed to the migration.

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From late December through March, the best place to view humpback whales is Hawaii. Tour operators are stationed on most of the islands, offering trips on everything from large excursion boats to sailboats to Zodiac rafts to kayaks.

Maybe you’ve seen photos of people petting gray whales from boats about half the length of the animals. That thrill of a lifetime is available from February through early April in the warm lagoons off Baja California. Some tour operators offer day trips and others set up comfortable campsites where whale lovers can spend a week in the company of the grays, known as “amistosas,” or the “friendlies.”

How to Choose a Tour Operator

Booking a whale trip is not a big risk. Year after year, a number of whale species migrate to their favorite feeding grounds and to places where they mate or give birth. Many tour operators report recent sightings on their websites, and they offer “whale checks” for a second ride free if your trip comes up empty.

The cost of a whale-watch trip varies widely, from $18 for an hour-long trip with Tradewinds Charters out of Depoe Bay, Ore., to $49 for a three-hour trip with the New England Aquarium in Boston to $128 for a daylong trip with Oceanic Society out of San Francisco to $2,775 for a five-day trip with Baja Discovery in Baja California, Mexico.

Other factors to consider when choosing a tour operator include:

  • place of departure
  • departure time
  • length of trip
  • size or type of boat
  • amenities available (the smaller the boat, the fewer the amenities)

Naturalists who will help you understand what you are seeing accompany many whale-watch trips and that always adds value to the experience.

How to Be Comfortable on a Whale-Watch Boat

People who have been to Maui will tell you they saw whales from their lanai or from the beach. They did. Once, staring out the window of a beachfront home in San Diego, I saw a gray whale spout and slowly swim by. But these experiences pale in comparison to being in a boat next to a whale, where you not only can see the animals, but hear that unforgettable “chuff,” the explosion of air when they breathe.

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Concerned about seasickness? Bonine, a non-drowsy medication, is sold over the counter. A boat captain I know who takes people on the rough ride to the Farallon Islands off San Francisco recommends taking one Bonine tablet the night before a trip and a second one an hour before leaving the dock. Some folks rely on wristbands that hit pressure points, or ginger-flavored candies.

Usually, the uncomfortable people on a boat are those who disregarded the tour operators’ tips about what to wear. Tank tops and short shorts won’t work, except in Hawaii. It’s cooler on a moving boat than on the dock, plus you’re at a higher risk of sunburn when out on the water. Bring layers, sunscreen and a hat and wear tennis shoes or sport sandals with straps — not cute kitten heels or flip flops. And if the tour operator recommends bringing a waterproof jacket and pants, do it.

Still worried about those rare days when you pay the fare and see nary a whale? Keep in mind that this is nature, not Disney. Besides, any time spent on a boat — especially looking for whales — is time well spent.

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