How to tackle one of the world’s greatest travel experiences
You never forget your first whale. The impact it makes upon you is huge and life is never quite the same again. My first whale was a 12m grey, off the coast of California in 1979, and I’ve been a whale addict ever since. Now I have to go whale watching at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life.
I may be crazy but I am certainly not alone. The world is brimming with “whale junkies”: since its beginnings in the mid-Fifties, whale watching has grown exponentially and now more than 13-million people join organised whale watching trips every year.
The trouble is that a few hours of whale watching simply isn’t enough: you go out in the morning and, by lunchtime, you are planning your next trip; by teatime, you are planning the one after that. Before you realise what has happened, all your holidays revolve around whales; the only books you read are ones about whales; you wear whale T-shirts, and every time you meet your friends you talk about whales.
So what is it about these larger-than-life animals that makes them so special? Their sheer size is one possible explanation: imagine sitting in a small boat next to a blue whale almost as long as a Boeing 737; only a lump of rock could remain unmoved by an experience like that. The fact that we know so little about them is another possibility: modern technology has taken us to the moon and beyond, yet we are only just beginning to understand these extraordinary forms of intelligent life on our own planet. They are great fun to watch, too: humpback whales, for example, routinely leap into the air and land back in the water with a tremendous splash.
Then there is the striking – and deeply moving – level of trust that many whales show towards people. We hunted them without pity, with cruel, explosive harpoons, until they were on the verge of extinction (we still hunt them today, albeit on a smaller scale). Yet they seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty and they trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a truly humbling experience when an enormous whale comes alongside the boat and greets you like an old friend. – The Telegraph
Where to see gentle giants in their natural habitat
There are many species of whales around the world, but here are 10 of the most popular, or highly sought-after, among whale watchers:
Often regarded as the friendliest whale, found only in the North Pacific, mainly along the west coast of North America.
Southern right whale
Breeds off South America, southern Africa and Australasia, and is unmistakable, with strange-looking callosities on its head, and often highly active at the surface.
The only large whale found exclusively in the Arctic and rarely seen except on expedition cruises to remote corners of Greenland and Canada.
Top of the wishlist for many whale watchers, an elusive Arctic species, best known for the male’s long tusk (actually an elongated tooth).
Humpback whale Found worldwide, from the poles to the tropics, and especially popular with whale watchers because it is so inquisitive and acrobatic.
A relatively small and undemonstrative whale, but the one most often seen around the coasts of Britain.
The largest animal known to have lived on Earth and the holy grail for whale watchers, but very rare these days after years of intensive whaling.
The original Moby Dick, with an enormous head and wrinkled skin, the sperm whale is such a deep diver it behaves more like a submarine than an air-breathing mammal.
Short-finned pilot whale
A familiar sight in warm waters in many parts of the world and so intensely social it is almost never seen alone.
Killer whale or orca
One of the most widely distributed animals on Earth, this top predator lives in close-knit family groups.
Top hot spots for a trip of a lifetime
There are really just two essential requirements for successful whale watching: planning and patience. Planning is needed because there are certain whale hot spots – where you have the best chance of seeing them – and because the larger species tend to split their lives between widely separate feeding and breeding grounds, so rarely stay in one place for more than a few months at a time.
Patience is vital because, even under the best conditions, whales can be tricky to find. Having said that, most commercial whale-watching trips guarantee sightings (in the unlikely event you don’t see a whale you get a free trip another day) because they concentrate on well-known whale populations at peak seasons.
These days you can join whale-watching trips in no fewer than 119 countries, from Ireland and the Azores to Australia and Japan. But here are a few of my favourite locations:
1. Alaska, United States
The 49th state is arguably best known for one of the greatest wildlife spectacles on the planet – humpback whales lunge-feeding. Groups of humpbacks construct huge circular fishing nets with bubbles to catch vast shoals of herring then launch themselves high into the air with their mouths wide open.
Best in August (but can be seen throughout summer).
2. Western Cape, SA
This is one of the few places where you can watch whales from coastal footpaths, restaurants, cafés and even from the comfort of your hotel bed. Hermanus, in particular, has some of the best land-based whale watching in the world.
Best from June-November (peak season is October).
Minke whales, humpback whales, blue whales and orcas can all be spotted off Iceland. There are some superb trips from the city of Reykjavík, and particularly Húsavík on the spectacular north coast: whale watching in the midnight sun, just below the Arctic Circle, is an unforgettable experience.
Best May-September (blue whales mainly June/July).
4. Canadian Arctic
The frozen north of Canada is the place to go for three Arctic whale species. Churchill is particularly good for belugas.Baffin Island has belugas, narwhals and bowheads. It’s possible to camp on the ice, near their feeding grounds, or search from an expedition cruise ship.
Best from June-August.
5. Isle of Mull, Scotland
The weather may be fickle, and a fair amount of patience is required to find whales off the rugged west coast of Scotland. But this is a great place to see minke whales to reward the time and effort.
Best from April-September.
6. Dominica, Caribbean
“Nature Island” has a small resident population of sperm whales off the coast (often visible from shore) and there are some delightful half-day trips to see them. Failing that, there are lots of smaller whales and dolphins here, too.
Sperm whales are present year-round but whale watching is best from November-April.
7. The Maldives
Warm, tropical seas and a good chance of seeing some of the more unusual whale species. It’s quiet, too – unlike some better known whale-watching destinations, you can sail for hours or even days without seeing another soul.
Best from February to April and October to November.
8. Antarctic Peninsula
Antarctic minke and humpback whales and orcas gather along the peninsula in significant numbers during the southern summer. Seeing them in this incredible landscape is unforgettable.
Best later in the season (February and March).
9. Baja California, Mexico
The Pacific coast of Mexico is arguably the best place in the world for sheer variety, with friendly grey whales in their breeding lagoons, singing humpback whales off the peninsula’s southern tip, and everything from blue to Bryde’s whales in the Sea of Cortez.
Best from February-April.
10. Vancouver Island
Johnstone Strait, between northern Vancouver Island and the mainland, is one of the best places in the world to see orcas. Half-day trips leave from Telegraph Cove, and a number of other communities dotted along the coast.
Best from mid June-October.
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