The world’s best whale-watching destinations

24/04/2017 11:08

Written by Bradt Travel Guides

Whale and dolphin watching has become a major focus of ecotourism and the increase in its popularity is phenomenal; it’s the fastest-growing tourist activity worldwide. Here are some of the best destinations to visit, should you want to go out and spot a whale or two yourself. 


Whale, Pico, Azores, Dennis Van De Water, DreamstimeA whale in the waters off Pico island © Dennis Van De Water/Dreamstime

For many visitors, a tour on a whale-watching boat is a must-do (and highlight) of a summer or early autumn visit to Nova Scotia. Seeing a huge humpback whale breaching at close quarters or watching a huge fluked tail disappear into the sea are memories that will last a lifetime. On many tours, porpoises, dolphins, seals and pelagic seabirds join in the action and are added bonuses. With 27 species now recorded in Azorean, this makes the Azores one of the world’s top places to observe whales, dolphins and porpoises. In January 2009, the first northern right whale for 110 years was recorded in the Azores, five miles south of Faial. The islands most geared up for organised excursions are Pico, Faial and São Miguel. Typically there are two departures each day, around 09.00 and 14.00, each lasting about three hours. Thirty minutes before departure there is usually a pre-trip briefing. The cost varies, but is generally around €40–65 per person. A seven-night whale-watching programme staying on Pico or Faial costs from around £700 excluding flights. Additionally, several tour operators also offer whale-watching packages including international flights and various extras. Should you like more information, then Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), the world’s most active charity dedicated to the conservation and welfare of all whales, dolphins and porpoises, has an excellent website.  

Nova Scotia

whalewatching, bay of fundy, nova scotia by tourism nova scotiaWhale-watching in the Bay of Fundy © Tourism Nova Scotia

Nova Scotia is one of the best places in the world to go whale-watching, both in terms of quantity, and variety – 21 whale species cruise the province’s coastal waters. Baleen whales (such as minke, humpback, fin and the critically endangered north Atlantic right whales) are drawn by huge amounts of plankton, krill and schools of small fish, particularly where the cold outflow of the Bay of Fundy meets the warm Gulf Stream waters. Toothed whales (such as pilot, killer (orca) and sperm whales) tend to eat fish and squid and are common in the Gulf of St Lawrence and Cabot Strait. Although it varies from species to species, whale numbers tend to be highest from late July to mid September. 


Húsavík, Iceland, Adalbjorg Kristbjornsdottir/Wikimedia CommonsHúsavík is known as Iceland's whale-watching capital © Adalbjorg Kristbjornsdottir, Wikimedia Commons

The town of Húsavík, on the north coast of Iceland, was dubbed as the country’s whale-watching capital after the townspeople refitted a couple of retired fishing boats. Since then, the slaughterhouse turned into the internationally acclaimed whale museum. A local population of uninhibited whales play along willingly, coming to feed in the shallows of Skjálfandi Bay in summer and putting on quite a show if they’re in the mood. Now it’s one of the best spots to catch an up-close look at Iceland’s biggest animals – definitely worth the northern detour


Humpback whales, Wilhelmina Bay, Antarctica, Lewnwdc77, Wikimedia CommonsA group spots a humpback whale © Lewnwdc77, Wikimedia Commons

The Antarctic waters are home to several species of whale, including the Antarctic minke, humpback, and fin – a regular summer visitor. In the Antarctic summer blue whales feed on krill, taking some 8,000kg in a day , which may amount to 8 million shrimps. When the pack-ice extends north at the onset of the Antarctic winter, blue whales in turn move north towards the warm tropical waters where they live off their blubber reserves and gather in discrete groups for courtship and mating at about ten years of age.


beluga whale, artic, Angsar Walk, Wikimedia CommonsThe beluga whale is common in Arctic waters © Angsar Walk, Wikimedia Commons

The three truly Arctic whales, bowhead, narwhal and beluga, do not have dorsal fins, an adaptation that fits them for working under ice (and of course they are well supplied with heat-retaining blubber). But it is possible to see several other species of whale in Arctic waters, especially in the summer. Fin, humpback, minke and pilot whales have been recorded commonly , and even the blue whale is sometimes seen in the coastal waters of the Denmark Strait in summer. There is always the chance of killers.


Mafia Island, Zanzibar, Jens Klinzing/Wikimedia CommonsHumpback whales can be seen in the waters surrounding Mafia island © Jens Klinzing, Wikimedia Commons

Zanzibar’s Mafia Island offers an immensely rich marine environment, which provides some of the finest snorkelling and diving sites in the Indian Ocean. The lowland coastal forest of the eastern seaboard of has been ‘recognised as a critical site for biodiversity’, and the intertidal flats are important for octopus, while in the open sea marine mammals like the humpback whale give birth and nurse their young.


At least ten species of cetacean (whales and dolphins) are resident along, or seasonal visitors to, the Mozambican coast. Blue whales are extremely rare, but the 40-tonne humpback whale is seasonally very common, and it is often seen on ocean safaris out of Tofo from June to December. The slightly bulkier southern right whale is often seen in the far south of Mozambique at the same time of year, while the southern minke whale, the smallest of the baleen whales, is resident throughout the year, often feeding in small groups in bays.


False killer whale, Oman by Tony WalshThere are plenty of opportunities for spotting dolphins and whales in Oman © Tony Walsh

Omani waters are home to 19 species of whale and dolphin. The coastal waters near Muscat from Al Fahl Island to near Al Bustan Palace Hotel are the key location for dolphin sightings in northern Oman. Whale sightings are less predictable than the smaller dolphins and are usually in remote locations such as south of Ad Duqm and Ras Janjari east of Mirbat, which is a good land-based whale- and birdwatching viewing point. Oman is a member of the International Whaling Commission and follows the CITES regulations, which prevent all of these species from being traded. 

Inspired to find out more about whale-watching? Check out our guides for more information: 

Azores, the Bradt Guide by David Sayers Nova Scotia, The Bradt Guide by David Orkin Iceland the Bradt travel guide  Antarctica, the Bradt Guide by Tony Soper  

 The Arctic, The Bradt Guide by Tony Soper Zanzibar the Bradt travel guide Mozambique the Bradt guide Oman, the Bradt Guide by Tony Walsh, Diana Darke 

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