How To Prepare For A Whale Watching Trip


It is possible to see whales, dolphins and porpoises almost anywhere in the waters surrounding North America. From the warmest waters of the Carribean to the coldest places in Alaska, they can be seen from land along shallow coastlines and in deep waters miles from anywhere.

Many whales, dolphins and porpoises only live in particular areas, and only at certain times of the year. These areas and times also depend on the sea conditions, the weather and how much food there is in an area.  

This does mean that it is getting easier to predict where you can see certain species. Some dolphins are known to swim in certain areas at the same time every day. With a little preparation, your chances of seeing the animals that you want to view can be increased.  

Want to know where you can watch whales in North America. This article I wrote will tell you all you need to know.

Gray whale
Gray whale in shallow ocean. Whale on top.

How To Choose A Whale-Watching Operator

With more commercial whale-watching trips leaving shore every day, Captains are getting better at predicting which species you are likely to see, where you will see them and when.

With their knowledge, a whale-watching trip can be very successful as they can concentrate on finding certain populations in the right seasons.

The best recommendation for which whale-watching trip to go on has to be from someone you know that has already been.

Ask your friends, family members and colleagues if they have been on a whale-watching trip, and if they have, would they recommend them.  

If you are unable to get any recommendations, then do some research. Some questions to ask yourself are:

  •  How big is the boat?  
  • Does it have 360-degree views?
  • Are there any facilities onboard? (lavatory, food, drinks)
  • Is the boat maintained?
  • Is there plenty of deck space, and can you go out onto the deck?
  • Does the boat have any shelter from the sun or rain?
  • How many other people will be on board with you? (Are there going to be so many other people on board that you will not be able to take a photo without someone else being in the picture)
  • Are there any facilities onboard? (lavatory, food, drinks)
  • What is their success rate for finding the species you want to see?
  • Do they offer a free return trip if there are no sightings?
  • Do they have a naturalist on board? (A guide that is skilled at finding the animals and giving information on them, not someone who will take their clothes off)
  • Do they adhere to a code of conduct?  (Very important, more information on this later)

What To Take on a Whale-Watching Trip

What you need to pack for your trip will depend on when, where and how you intend to watch whales. Here are a few suggestions that can make life more comfortable on your trip.

Binoculars

Binoculars can be essential for finding whales, dolphins and porpoises, along with studying the behavior, getting better views and for identification.

Field Guides

There are some fantastic field guides on the market. These are crucial for identifying the whales, dolphins or porpoises you may see on your trip. Some field guides include more than just marine mammals, and it may be worth looking for one with birds, fish and other wildlife in.

Cameras

If you want a memento of your trip, then a photo of the marine mammals you encounter is the best you can get. You can take photos with so many different pieces of equipment now, from the simplest smartphone to the most advanced DSLR.

If you are taking a DSLR camera, then a variety of lenses is essential. I would suggest a medium-zoom, long-zoom and a wide-angle lens.

Notebook

A notebook, or even a piece of paper and a pen are great for capturing moments. You can improve your identification skills by writing notes about the marine mammals you see, and writing notes about what you saw can help you spot more whales in the future. If you can draw, then consider taking some small artist materials.

Shoes

The deck of a boat can be slippery when it gets wet. Rubber-soled shoes can help keep you safe and not slipper over(board).

Warm Clothing

No matter how warm it is onshore, it can feel much colder once you are on the water. It is best to wear layers that you can put on and take off, depending on how you feel. It can also be much windier at sea than onshore. Make sure that the layers you take are not only warm but windproof.  

whale tail
People watching whales from a yacht at sunset, western Greenland. Shallow depth of field

Waterproof Clothing

If seas are rough, then waterproof clothing is a must. The spray from the sea can be cold, and a top layer of waterproof clothing will stop the rest of your clothes getting wet.

Unless you are on a cruise ship, you are likely to get wet while whale watching. Consider investing in waterproof trousers as well as a jacket if you are likely to go often.

Waterproof Bags

Waterproof bags are crucial for keeping your stuff dry. If you have cameras, binoculars, or any other equipment with you, a waterproof bag will not only keep them dry from the sea spray, but also rain.

Sunglasses

The glare from the sea can be very bright, stopping you seeing what you from seeing the whales, dolphins and porpoises that you are there to see. Polarised sunglasses help to reduce any glare from the sun, and are great for seeing through reflections on the surface of the sea.

Polarised sunglasses will help you to see whales and other marine mammals approaching the boat underwater.

Suntan Lotion and Sun Hat

The glare from the sea can cause sunburn very quickly, even on an overcast day. You are more likely to burn when at sea than you are on land, so make sure that you not only take suntan lotion with you but that you also use it.

A sun hat will keep the sun off your head, especially if you are follically challenged.

Seasickness Tablets and Remedies

When the sea is rough, even the hardiest person can feel ill. There are plenty of remedies on the market which can be taken or applied in various ways.

There are pills, patches which you can place behind the ear, and wristbands that work by placing pressure on an acupressure point in your wrist. These can reduce the feeling of vomiting and nausea.

Seasickness can ruin your trip, and all of these items are relatively inexpensive. I worked on cruise ships for six years, so please trust me on this.

Telescope

A telescope can be great, but only in the right circumstances. If you are on a large cruise ship, they can be beneficial, and also with whale watching from land. For either of these types of trips, I would recommend one with a tripod.

If you are watching on a small boat, then they are almost useless because of the high magnification.

How to Find Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises

Looking out at the ocean can be daunting when you are trying to find a whale, dolphin or porpoise. I was lucky to spend six years on a cruise ship, and in that time I spent two seasons in Alaska.

I saw more humpback whales in those two seasons than I can even remember. I picked up some good tips for spotting whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Going with a good whale-watching tour operator will definitely help as they have more experience to be recognize the signs. With whales, the first thing you will see is their blow or spout.

Ever wondered why whales slap their tails on the surface of the water. Find out here in an article I have written.

It is normally so quick that you may think that you’re eyes are playing tricks on you, but in this case believe your eyes and refocus on the area you just saw it.

Whale

It generally looks like a smudge that you have just seen, as if something was wrong with your vision. If you wear glasses, you will be used to seeing what I mean.

If you are looking directly at it, then it may look like a puff of smoke or a flash of white. As there is generally a gap between each one, they can be easy to miss, but if you see any of these signs, then keep looking in that direction as you will probably see it again.

For information on which whales you can see, check out this guide I have written here.

As there is generally a gap between each one, they can be easy to miss, but if you see any of these signs, then keep looking in that direction as you will probably see it again.

If you see anything suspicious then it is worth keeping an eye on that area. Most times it may just be a wave, but every now and then, you may just see the head or the back of a whale emerge.

If you see a glint of light or a flash, then keep your eyes on that area. It could be the sun reflecting off the head of a whale.

If there is a collection of seabirds that appear to be feeding then this could be due to the presence of a whale. If there is a school of fish, then there could be a whale or dolphin feeding on them.

Whale

Splashes are also a good clue to the presence of a whale, dolphin or porpoise.

All three sea mammals have different behaviors such as breaching, bobtailing or flipper-slapping which can look like ripples on the sea. If the sea is calm and you see a patch of rough water which looks like whitecaps, this could indicate the presence of a pod of dolphins.

If you can get higher on the boat, then this will improve your vantage point. Look forward, backwards and to both sides. Check nearer the boat as well as far away. Whales, although huge can sneak up on boats from underneath undetected.

If you want to maximize your chances of seeing whales, dolphins or porpoises the best advice I can give you is to not stop looking.

Having a chat, then a coffee, then five minutes of looking around will not give you the results you want, so look, look again, and keep looking. Even when you are on your way back to shore, keep looking, you may be surprised by a pod of dolphins riding the bow of your boat.

The more you look, the more you will see.

Code of Conduct

Whales, dolphins and porpoises can be sensitive to poor boat handling and disturbances from whale-watching trips that are intrusive. Some operators cause a lot of stress to the animals.

The animals sometimes have to abandon their feeding or breeding grounds due to these types of operators. Animals are forced to steer clear on the boats, but collisions and other accidents can cause severe injury or death.  

Whale

Conservation groups and researchers suggest guidelines to help governments to impose regulations. Most tour operators do stick by these rules, even forming their own associations with other operators in the area.

Considerate whale watching is better for all involved. For the whales, dolphins and porpoises there is no unnecessary stress caused, and for the people on board, they get a more prolonged, closer encounter with the animals.  

If you feel that the Captain is putting pressure on the animals, do not keep quiet about your displeasure, and do not be the one to put pressure on the skipper to get closer to the mammals.

Blue whale and calf

Here are some good practices for when on a whale-watching trip.

  • Observe the animals before approaching
  • Evaluate their behavior and travel direction
  • Do not approach them head on or from 90 degrees
  • Approach slowly
  • Avoid loud noises
  • If the animals try to avoid you, do not chase them
  • Never overtake or pursue them 
  • Do not cause groups to separate
  • Do not stay too long in one area (20 – 30 minutes should be long enough)
  • If the propellers are unguarded and an animal approaches the boat, then keep the engine in neutral
  • Switching off the engines around whales that are breaching stops them from knowing where you are
  • Move slowly when leaving
  • Do not go closer than 300 foot
  • Avoid sudden changes of speed
  • Never have more than three boats around one or more whales

My Favorite Books on Whales

All of these books can be found on Amazon.  If you purchase any of them then I may get a small commission on any purchases you make.

Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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