Whale Watching Adventures: Where and When To Go, What To Pack

Whale watching is not only an opportunity to see some of the world’s most awesome mammals in their native habitat, but it’s an opportunity to see some of the world’s coolest destinations as well.

Whether you like rugged coastlines or tropical islands, whale watching can put you in a great spot to catch nature at its most spectacular. Here are some of the best whale watching destinations to check out, including ideal seasons, what to pack, and excursion options.

Hawaii

Prime whale watching season is typically January-early April.

The warm waters surrounding the Hawaiian Islands are a literal hot spot for humpback whales, who are no fools. They migrate from Alaska to Hawaii in December to mate and calve, and stay there through May.

Humpback-viewing boat tours and cruises are available on Oahu, Maui, Kauai, and the Big Island. Some boats come with underwater viewing cabins or hydrophones, which let you listen in on whale calls without a court order.

Landlubbers can also watch from shoreline vantage points, though getting up-close is always the best.

What to Pack: Pack light, breathable clothing, sunscreen, binoculars, and a camera.

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Baja California, Mexico

Mexico’s Pacific waters host gray, blue, fin, and humpback whales from December through April.

The lagoons of Baja California Sur around Magdalena Bay, San Ignacio, and Laguna Ojo de Liebre are breeding and birthing grounds for gray whales. Visitors can get super-close with these friendly giants, who approach boats and even let themselves be petted.

Day trips on small boats (pangas) are your best bet for an up-close experience with the whales. Some operators offer multi-day live-aboard trips that include opportunities for kayaking and birdwatching.

For a jumping-off spot, we suggest Cabo San Lucas.

What to Pack: Waterproof gear is a must, along with sun protection and layers for cooler mornings and evenings. Don't forget your camera, with extra batteries or memory cards.

Find more: Mexican Vacation Destinations Off the Beaten Path

Australia and New Zealand

From May-December, the waters surrounding the ANZAC countries are prime territory for humpback, southern right, blue, orca, and other whale species.

Sydney, the Gold Coast, Hervey Bay, and Eden in Australia and Auckland and Kaikoura in New Zealand offer whale watching charters, cruises, flights, and other tour options.

The Down Under winter months of June-August are peak for whale migrations, with humpbacks heading north after feeding in the Antarctic to give birth in warmer waters.

Even these countries’ off seasons are great for spotting whales. And better yet: In many locations you’re able to see whales from shore as well as from a charter or cruise ship.

What to Pack: Lots of warm layers and rain jackets, since these destinations have cooler, damp climates in winter – especially on their southern coasts.

Best Places to Visit in Australia: Beyond Sydney

Hermanus, South Africa

Prime whale watching season is typically January - December.

Southern right whales that come close to the shore are the attraction at this port city southwest of Cape Town.

Though charters and aerial tours are available, land-based whale watching from June-December is the thing here. The town even has a "whale crier" who alerts visitors to whale sightings with a blow on his mighty kelp horn.

Coastal hiking trails around Hermanus hug the shores of the icy southern Atlantic and let you get remarkably close to these massive marine mammals and their newborn calves.

What to Pack: Warm clothing, in addition to a camera and binoculars. The weather can be chilly along the Cape of Good Hope.

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Spitsbergen, Norway

From May through September the frigid waters off coastal Northern Norway, Svalbard, and the Lofoten Islands are prime feeding grounds for numerous whale species.

Spitsbergen, an island in the Svalbard archipelago 600 miles from the North Pole, is ground zero for beluga, minke, blue, fin, humpback, sperm, orca and narwhal whales.

Boat tours (sometimes offered as excursions on polar cruises) get you close to whales and other arctic wildlife like walrus, seals and polar bears.

What to Pack: Forget it’s summer. You’ll want insulated clothing and accessories – lots of both.

Discover the Best of Norway: Fjords, Northern Lights, Oslo

Reykjavik and Husavik, Iceland

Prime whale watching season is from May through September.

Iceland's nutrient-rich waters attract more than 20 whale species, including minke, humpback, and sometimes even the blue whale, the largest animal on the planet.

Husavik, Iceland’s whale watching capital, and Reykjavik, the nation's capital, are the primary departure points.

What to Pack: Warm, waterproof clothing is essential, as Icelandic weather can be unpredictable and cold, even in summer. Binoculars and a high-quality zoom lens for your camera will help you capture distant breaches.

Also read: The Best Countries to Visit for Breathtaking Ecotourism

Tofino, B.C., Canada

Peak season is March-October.

Tofino, on the west side of Vancouver Island (where Vancouver famously is not located) is the place for North American whale-watchers to see gray whales, humpbacks, and occasionally orcas.

In March, it’s also home to the Pacific Rim Whale Festival, which celebrates the migration of thousands of gray whales.

In Tofino, you can take everything from a kayak to a Zodiac to a mini-cruise ship to see the whales in action.

Whatever activity you choose during the peak season of March-October – even if you choose to stay onshore with a pair of binoculars or take a flight over migration routes – you're almost guaranteed to see these amazing creatures breaching and spouting.

Leave yourself time on either side of your whale watching adventure to explore Vancouver city, and you have the makings of a perfect vacation.

What to Pack: Waterproof clothing and layers are essential. Consider wool sweaters, a hat and gloves.

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Whether your tastes run to the tropics or the polar regions, there’s a whale watching vacation for you.

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