The Best Places For Whale Watching

Oct 20, 2019

Forget what you know about Moby Dick (except “Call me Ishmael”—best first line ever). Tracking the oceans' gentle giants is way more civilized than Melville's classic would have you believe: Think indoor-outdoor seating, expert narration, blankets and binocs—maybe even a hydrophone, the better to hear the whales' songs with. And if you’ve never seen these mega-mammals up close, consider it the latest addition to your bucket list—an experience that can’t quite be replicated, even by binge-watching Blue Planet on Netflix. As Sir Attenborough himself has said of humpback whale courtship, “such beautiful movement is rarely seen.” Except it could be. By you. Now. Read on for some of the best whale-watching spots to hit over the next few months and beyond.

Newport Beach, CA

This is a year-round whale hot spot—autumn being the transition between blue whales (who summer here, and often stick around through November) and gray whales (who typically arrive in December). Book a spot on Captain Nick’s East Meets West Excursions for the most intimate experience (six-passengers, max). While the whales themselves are all the show you need, there's often a bonus: a parade of wave-riding dolphins. And if you time your arrival to the holidays, there's a bonus bonus parade: the Newport Beach Christmas Boat Parade—a 111-year-old tradition that started small and now sees hundreds of decorated yachts, kayaks and even canoes light up the harbor nightly Dec. 18-22.

Virginia Beach, VA

Not unlike us, humpback whales love Virginia Beach in winter—though these guys are headed for the Caribbean, so their beach-hopping season is looking a bit more ambitious than ours. The Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center offers great tours from late November to early March, generally, with naturalist educators on board who'll help you spot not only humpbacks, but also—possibly—mikes, fin whales, critically endangered right whales, and harbor seals and porpoises. Our favorite non-cetaceans? The gangly double-crested cormorants, drying off wherever they can, wings akimbo, after a morning fishing expedition.

Depoe Bay, OR

While we’re not normally the betting type, we like the odds of your spotting a gray whale here in winter: Nearly 20,000 of the behemoths come through on their way to the warm lagoons of Baja. Twice a year (summer and winter) the Oregon State Parks hosts a Whale Watching Week and this season's is Dec. 27-31 (pretty great way to ring in the new year, no?). During that time, the whale watching's as good by land as by sea: Volunteers spread out across 24 key sites along the coast to help you get your sightings in. And if you want to get your steps in, too, do the Cape Lookout Whale Hike. Or just hit the high seas with Dockside Charters Depoe Bay to get out among the grays.  Of course, you won't be the lone humans in attendance: Last year, 51,000 visitors showed for the whale watching weeks (that’s code for reserve now).

Cape May, NJ

Any time in this Americana resort town is whale watching time. The cape sits at the crossroads of the Atlantic and the Delaware Bay, a nutrient-rich grazing spot for humpbacks and finbacks—and even the occasional minke or right whale. And because you're already offshore just by virtue of being on a peninsula, you rarely have to cruise far before the show starts. Book a Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center Whale, Bird & Dolphin Watch cruise to see what we mean. In between sightings (which may also include sea turtles, rays, all manner of birds and—oh yes—sharks), naturalists will talk you through the on-board touch tank(!) and a baleen presentation. Once you’ve docked, stroll along Washington Street Mall—with its proliferation of gelato-hued Victorian buildings—and you'll get why whales are only one reason people flock this National Registry of Historic Places-listed town. 

Myrtle Beach, SC

Please don't confuse the local migrations: In March and April, large pods of very thirsty college kids congregate on this stretch of the South Carolina coast to perform the annual rituals of Spring Break. Just before that, however—in winter and early spring—right whales, fin and pygmy sperm whales quietly come to town. These guys are very under the radar (unlike the next migratory group), and though there are no specific boat tours to see them, whales have been spotted during dolphin cruises with Hurricane Fleet. Some whales have even been spied from the Grand Strand of Myrtle Beach State Park. Perhaps the most ingenious lookout point?  The SkyWheel, an oceanfront ferris wheel with enclosed gondolas that slowly take you 200 feet up (pack those binocs).

Tromsø, Norway

Any town that ends in an ø is, by definition, badass. But this one seriously excels on that score—what with the Arctic Circle address, surrounding Lyngen Alps and resident Ice Hotel. A top spot for Northern Lights viewing from Oct-Jan, Tromsø is whale central during that same time period: Humpbacks, killer whales, sperm whales, minkes and blue whales head back to these ice-cold waters to basically replenish their fat reserves after a spring and summer spent mating and birthing in warmer waters. Book a Fjord Cruise and Whale Safari (expect English-speaking guides, and possibly even better, a thermal suit) for drop-dead gorgeous views and whale sightings. You may want to avoid December (the darkest month), but even then, the drawn-out dawn vibes just add to the magic—and make gløgg consumption seem appropriate anytime.

Jacksonville, Florida 

While there's no local boat tour that takes you in search of seriously scarce right whales, this stretch of Florida beach is a winter hot spot for mothers and newborn calves (and the odd male). Known for their lumbering pace and, uh, rotund shape (the heaviest on record weighed in at 298,000 pounds), these gentle giants are sometimes visible at Flagler Beach, where you'll find fellow whale-spotters on the pier, binoculars in hand. 

Cabo San Lucas, Baja California

From December through April, you're all but guaranteed to see gray or humpback whales breaching in the Sea of Cortez around the Baja peninsula. Humpbacks are probably the easiest (and most fun) to spot—they match up almost perfectly with your mental image of a whale basically pirouetting out of the water. There is no dearth of tour choices, just a matter of preference. Something small and zippy?  Whale Watch Cabo's 14-seater Zodiacs are helmed by marine biologist guides, as well as a photographer to document the event. Want something with less white-knuckling? Try the two-day Gray Whale Van Tour to Magdalena Bay, a lagoon known as a favorite spot of sheltering mama gray whales and their offspring. You’ll glide around in a small panga boat as mom and calf quite possibly swim right up for a holy-fluke! kinda moment.


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