It is possible to see whales, dolphins, and porpoises almost anywhere in North America’s oceans. From the warmest waters of the Caribbean to the coldest places in Alaska, they can be seen from land along shallow coastlines and deep waters miles from anywhere.
Many whales, dolphins, and porpoises only live in particular areas and 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 a room.
This means it is easier to predict where to see specific species. Some dolphins are known to swim in certain areas at the same time every day. With a bit of preparation, your chances of seeing the animals you want to view can increase.
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 specific populations in the proper seasons.
The best recommendation for a whale-watching trip 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 if they would 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 different 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? (Essential, 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 to make your journey more comfortable.
Binoculars can be essential for finding whales, dolphins, and porpoises, studying behavior, getting better views, and identifying.
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; it may be worth looking for one with birds, fish, and other wildlife.
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 pictures with many different pieces of equipment, from the most straightforward smartphone to the most advanced DSLR.
If you are taking a DSLR camera, a variety of lenses is essential. I would suggest a medium-zoom, long-zoom, and wide-angle lens.
A notebook, 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 letters about what you saw can help you spot more whales in the future. If you can draw, then consider taking some small artistic materials.
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).
No matter how warm it is onshore, it can feel much colder once you are on the water. It is best to wear layers you can put on and take off, depending on your thoughts. It can also be much windier at sea than onshore. Make sure that the layers you take are not only warm but windproof.
If seas are rough, then waterproof clothing is a must. The sea spray can be cold, and a top layer of waterproof clothing will stop the rest of your clothes from getting wet.
You will likely get wet during whale watching unless you are on a cruise ship. Consider investing in waterproof trousers and a jacket if you are likely to go often.
Waterproof bags are crucial for keeping your stuff dry. If you have cameras, binoculars, or other equipment with you, a waterproof bag will keep them dry from the sea spray and rain.
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 reduce glare from the sun and are great for visiting through reflections on the sea’s surface.
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 that can be taken or applied in various ways.
There are pills, patches that you can place behind the ear, and wristbands that work by putting pressure on an acupressure point in your wrist. These can reduce the feeling of vomiting and nausea.
Seasickness can ruin your trip, and these items are inexpensive. I worked on cruise ships for six years, so please trust me.
A telescope can be great, but only in the right circumstances. If you are on a large cruise ship, they can be beneficial from land. I would recommend one with a tripod for either of these types of trips.
If you are watching on a small boat, 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 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 remember. I picked some good tips for spotting whales, dolphins, and porpoises.
Going with an excellent whale-watching tour operator will help as they have more experience recognizing the signs. The first thing you will see with whales is their blow or spout.
It is usually so quick that you may think that your eyes are playing tricks on you, but in this case, believe your eyes and refocus on the area you just saw.
It looks like a smudge you have seen as if something was wrong with your vision. If you wear glasses, you will be used to seeing what I mean.
Looking directly at it, it may look like a puff of smoke or a white flash. As there is generally a gap between them, they can be easy to miss, but if you see any of these signs, keep looking in that direction, as you will probably see it again.
As there is generally a gap between them, they can be easy to miss, but if you see any of these signs, keep looking in that direction, as you will probably see it again.
If you see anything suspicious, it is worth keeping an eye on that area. Most times, it may just be a wave, but now and then, you may see a whale’s head or back emerge.
If you see a glint of light or a flash, 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, this could be due to a whale’s presence. If there is a school of fish, there could be a whale or dolphin feeding on them.
Splashes are also an excellent indicator 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 that looks like whitecaps, this could indicate a pod of dolphins.
If you can get higher on the boat, then this will improve your vantage point. Look forward, backward, and to both sides. Check nearer the ship as well as far away. Whales, although huge, can sneak up on ships from underneath undetected.
If you want to maximize your chances of seeing whales, dolphins, or porpoises, the best advice I can give you is not to stop looking.
Having a chat, then a coffee, then five minutes of looking around will not give you the desired results, 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 intrusive whale-watching trips. 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.
Conservation groups and researchers suggest guidelines to help governments to impose regulations. Most tour operators stick by these rules, even forming associations with other operators in the area.
Considerate whale watching is better for all involved. There is no unnecessary stress for the whales, dolphins, and porpoises, no undue stress caused, and the people on board 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.
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 in 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, I may get a small commission on any purchases.