Even if you hold an annual pass to your local aquarium, it's hard not to be awestruck by the sight of a slick-backed whale gliding through its natural habitat. The supersize creatures have fascinated travelers and scientists alike for eons, and the whale watching industry has benefitted greatly from all the intrigue.
Part of the mystique is the continual game of hide-and-seek whales play with us, their observers. Much like the Northern Lights, spotting a whale requires you to be in the right place at the right time. If you're looking to spot a pod on your next trip, here are a few places where you stand a better-than-average chance at getting splashed.
O'ahu, Hawaii: Not that we need another excuse to visit Hawaii, but from December to May, tour operators offer laid-back cruises that take visitors out onto the seas for kohala (that's the Hawaiian term for humpback whale) spotting. The average boat tour costs around $65 and takes between two and three hours. To get here, book a flight to Honolulu's airport.
Los Cabos, Mexico: You might associate Cabo San Lucas with spring break, but the Los Cabos area is both closer to the airport and far more peaceful. While Cabo Adventures will take you out onto the water for $85, it's also possible to admire whales while standing on dry land: the beach that runs in front of Hilton Los Cabos offers excellent onshore spotting opportunities. Although whales arrive as early as November, the official date for Los Cabos' whale watching season always begins during the first few weeks of December, and ends in early March. A little-known factoid about watching in this region: of the 11 species found globally, eight make their way here (minke, bryde, fin, sei, humpback, gray and blue).
Cape Town, South Africa: If you're flying into Cape Town to visit vineyards or hike Table Mountain, consider a day trip to Hermanus, a seaside village located 1.5 hours via car from downtown Cape Town. For around $85, a number of operators will shuttle you along the aforesaid route and take you out on a boat to spot the heralded Southern Right Whale. It's ideal for those using Cape Town as a base, as transportation to Hermanus is universally included. Winter is the best time for watching in South African waters – June to November along the Cape south coast. Best of all, this is one of the best spots in the world for guaranteed sightings.
Bay of Fundy, Nova Scotia: One of Canada's easternmost provinces is ideal for spotting finback whales along their natural migration routes. Most tour operators take visitors out onto the seas from the Bay of Fundy (point your GPS to Tiverton), so you'll need to arrange a car to get you there from Halifax Stanfield International Airport. Mid-July to mid-October is the best time to visit, and you'll need to budget between $60 and $100 for the average tour.
Northern Scotland: If it's plenty of daylight you're after, a summer trek to the Inverness area should do the trick. Rustic lodging is available along the coast, with the average whale watching tour running around $100/person. Here, the whale watching season runs from the end of March to the end of September, with minke whales being the species that's most often spotted.
TIPS: As someone who has been on a few different trips, I'd recommend that you grab a camera with the longest zoom you can find. Tour operators are not allowed to purposefully direct their vessels closer than around 100 meters from any given whale, so you'll almost always spot them from afar. Moreover, I'd suggest that you set aside the first half of the ride for photography, and the second half for viewing. I've seen too many people focus too intently on getting "the shot," while actually missing out on enjoying the experience itself.
These are just a few suggestions to get you started. Have you traveled to a prime whale-watching locale recently? Let us know in comments below!