Other Outdoorsy Stuff

Where to Watch Whales (and When)

December 4, 2017

Photo: Steve Halama

Seeing a whale in the wild is quite the unique sight. With the average adult humpback whale ranging between 40 and 52 feet long and weighing up to 45 tons, this type of enormity is rarely seen in our natural world. Despite their size, whales also exhibit a seemingly peaceful demeanor and acrobatic prowess as they glide through the water. Whatever it is about whale-watching that peaks your interest, there is opportunity to enjoy it year-round in the United States. Ranging from up and down the western coasts to the Atlantic waters of Florida and Maine, Humpback Whales in migration and Right Whales coming back from extinction can be spotted from land, boat or even the air. Don’t forget though, to improve your chances of seeing one of these mammoth mammals, it’s not just about the location, it’s your timing that will ensure some successful whale-watching endeavors.

Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, Alaska (June to August)
While there are more than a handful of great spots to go whale watching in Alaska (including Kodiak Island & the city of Juneau), thanks to its designation as a Humpback Whale Sanctuary, Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve ranks as one of the best places to spot these cetacean creatures. The cold, nutrient-rich waters of the Icy Straight and Point Adolphus of Glacier Bay are a perfect place for humpback and minke whales to refuel on their journey through the ocean, and because the waters are heavily regulated, more and more of these massive mammals have been spotted each year. The optimal time to see migrating whales from Glacier Bay is between June and August, and with many private companies happy to charter you a ride, if you visit within this season, the chances are very high you’ll see some of the high-flying, water-shooting fun provided by passing by whales.

Monterey Submarine Canyon, California (All Year)
Stretching from Mexico to Alaska, the great migration of Grey Whales that happens twice a year is one of the biggest natural migrations in the animal kingdom. Along this route it should come as no surprise that the State of California is one of the best places to see whales passing by. Stretching from down south near the Baja peninsula and warm waters of San Diego, up to the northern shores near San Francisco, California provides whale-watching opportunities throughout the year. Of special note, the underwater equivalent of the Grand Canyon known as the Submarine Canyon (or Monterey Canyon), just off of Monterey Bay, provides the deep waters needed to see all sorts of different whales all year long. Other popular whale-watching spots in California include Big Sur, San Diego, Santa Barbara, Mendocino and up and down the entire shore.

Lime Kiln State Park, San Juan Islands, Washington (May – September)
Like many of the locations mentioned on this list, visiting the San Juan Islands can be a great time even if you don’t happen to spot a whale breaching the water. Featuring a rugged shore and exotic environment, Orca whales are year-round residents of the San Juan Islands, and while there are many locations and charter boats to choose from to see these wild animals in the water, Lime Kiln State Park is a popular place to see them from the shore. Also known as Whale Watch Park, Lime Kiln is found on the western shore of the actual San Juan Island within the archipelago, and is considered one of the best places to watch whales from land in the United States. Educational opportunities are found throughout Lime Kiln State Park as well, providing a little insight on the magnificent sights you can see from shore.

Virginia Beach, Virginia (January – March)
For a winter whale-watching excursion, you can catch a good glimpse of humpback whales on the Atlantic Coast of Virginia Beach between the months of January and March. While there are plenty of excellent private charter options to see these whales on the move, the programs offered by the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center provide the most insight behind the sight-seeing aspect of whale watching. While whale tours are only available within the months of winter, you can go on other marine tours including a Dolphin Discoveries Sea Tour throughout the rest of the year as well.

Long Island, New York (July to September)
The Atlantic waters off Long Island are New York’s capital whale-watching spot, and the nutrient-rich waters are noted to be a stopping point for over 25 different species of Whales. Most whale watching excursions of Long Island launch off from the historic town of Montauk located on the eastern end of the south shore. If you want to take part in the scientific action alongside the whale watching, the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) welcomes you aboard their research vessels throughout the season. A great way to learn about and help the scientific community that supports the endangered whale species, CRESLI has a 90% success rate when it comes to spotting whales, ensuring that not only will you see what you came for when you whale watch with CRESLI, but you’ll be helping the community you’re visiting while you’re at it.

Photo: Steve Halama

Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary (December to May)
In response to diminishing numbers in whale populations, the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary was created by Congress in 1992. This marine safe-haven, which surrounds the shallow and warm waters (less than 600 feet) of the Hawaiian main islands, are a favorite honeymoon destination for humpback whales when they return each winter to breed and raise their young. It should be no surprise then that this popular whale destination is also a popular place to see these sea creatures which can range from 40 to 52 feet in length. The Marine Sanctuary provides their Top 10 Sites for Shoreline Whale Watching, but also note whale-watching opportunities exist along all shorelines of Hawaii, and boat tours are becoming an ever increasing popular way to see these mammals from a closer dista

Bar Harbor, Maine (May to October)
Located just outside of the Acadia National Park boundary on the Gulf of Maine, Bar Harbor provides countless opportunities to see Humpback whales breaching, hopping and tail lobbing. Whether you opt for a chartered boat and/or catamaran ride that can take you along the coast of Acadia, or you take your binoculars to a pier, throughout the summer and early Autumn, your chances are high to see the mammoth acrobats popping out of the water. A popular outfit to travel with in Bar Harbor is the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company, which also offers other guided tours outside of the season to witness the variety of marine life and rugged ecosystems offered by the coast of Maine.

Whale Watching Center, Depoe Bay, Oregon (Year-Round)
While whales are spotted off the Oregon Coast in Depoe Bay throughout the year, the best concentrations of grey whales occur in the winter and spring as thousands of these migrating mammals make their way back to the warm waters of Baja. The brick and mortar Whale Watching Center, operated by Oregon State Parks, is one of the reasons the city of Depoe Bay proclaims itself to be the whale-watching capital of the Oregon Coast. The other reason lies within the vast number of whales that can be spotted from the shore, or from one of the many commercial outfits that can take you out on the water. To find out when the two Whale Weeks take place, which features the peak viewing times of the massive migrations, plus professional shore-side assistance to spot the whales, stayed tuned to the Whale Watching Center’s Whale Watching Spoken Here program.

Jacksonville, Florida (December to March)
Once reduced to extremely low populations by hunters, the Right Whale is slowly making a comeback into existence, and can be seen off the Atlantic Coast of Florida near Jacksonville every winter. Right Whale sightings in Florida are not as frequent as Humpbacks on the West Coast, and so there are few chartered boat options available to see this unique species of whale. With some local knowledge and a little patience however, Right Whales can be spotted from the shore throughout the winter. The volunteer teams and scientist associated with the Marineland Right Whale Project can help you look in the right direction to spot the Right Whales, and can provide an outlet for you to be part of the conservation conversation regarding this endangered species.

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