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As evidenced by the popularity of zoos, animal parks, and television nature shows, we humans love to observe wildlife going about their entertaining activities. But even more exciting is seeing animals where they actually live and play. Combining the two is the best feature of whale watching; from a boat or the shore, whale watching is an opportunity to see these massive mammals in their natural environment and delight in their thrilling behaviors.
Most whales migrate each year to follow their food supply and also to mate and give birth, with migration patterns differing by species, and some whales inhabiting the same area year round. But summer is an especially great time to plan a trip around whale watching, and travelers have their choice of stunning destinations.
Churchill, Northern Manitoba, Canada
More than 3,000 beluga whales return each summer to the mouth of the Churchill River to feed when the ordinarily frozen Arctic waters thaw in warmer temperatures. Visitors can get up close to these gentle white whales in Zodiacs or kayaks and even listen to their song-like sounds on tours with Natural Habitat Adventures. Their 9-day trips also include exploring the tundra and spotting Arctic wildlife like polar bears, caribou, snowy owls, and Arctic foxes.
Holbox Island, Yucatan Peninsula, Mexico
On Natural Habitat Adventures' six-day tour to this beloved island near Cancun, visitors can swim with the whale sharks that migrate over between May and September. Whale sharks are the world’s biggest fish, not actually whales, and some reach as long as 45 feet and weigh up to 15 tons. During the trip, guests may also see bottlenose dolphin, manta rays, sea turtles, and huge schools of fish. Snorkeling among coral reefs and visiting unspoiled white sand beaches are bonuses on this excursion.
Monterey Bay, California
Many whales can be seen year round in this area, including minkes, orcas (also known as "killer whales"), dolphins, and porpoises. In summer, humpbacks and blue whales can also be spotted on naturalist-guided boat tours with Blue Ocean Whale Watch leaving from Moss Landing Harbor, the closest port to the Monterey Submarine Canyon where nutrient-rich waters attract the whales. Princess Monterey Whale Watching cruises depart from Fishermen’s Wharf. Sea otters, California sea lions, and harbor seals also inhabit the Monterey Bay.
Cape Cod, Massachusetts
Summer is feeding season here, and humpbacks, minke whales, and finbacks are feasting on plankton in the nearby waters. The Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau near the Cape, is a rich source of food resulting from currents flowing from Nova Scotia. Humpbacks, which range from 35 to 55 feet long, are commonly seen, along with even larger finbacks. The smaller minke and pilot whales can also be spotted and on rare occasions even sperm whales and beluga. Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, with naturalist guides, leave from Barnstable Harbor on Cape Cod Bay. Whale Watch Dolphin Fleet tours leave from Provincetown.
Nova Scotia, Canada
This eastern Canadian province is an excellent place for whales to congregate during the summer, with as many as 33 species seen from past shore and boat excursions. Two areas are famous for whale watching, Cape Breton, an island at the tip of Nova Scotia, and the Bay of Fundy. From Cape Breton, visitors can usually see bluefin, minke, humpback, pilot, and sei whales. Blue whales are the largest creatures on earth, measuring up to 100 feet long. Bay of Fundy whales includes the fin, humpback, minke and the northern right whale.
Newport Harbor & Dana Point, Southern California
The nutrient-rich waters of the underwater Newport Canyon attract blue whales, finbacks, and killer whales during summer months as well as other migrating species throughout the year. A popular vacation destination for beaches and entertainment, whale sightings are another reason to visit the area. Guided cruises (in Dana Point and Newport Beach) explore the habitats of dolphins, sea lions, and seabirds in addition to whales. Some boats even offer underwater-viewing capability and hydrophones for listening to the whales’ unique sounds.
Montauk, Long Island, & Rockaway, Queens, New York
About 25 whale species swim in New York’s waters according to the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI). They include fin, humpback, minke, sperm, North Atlantic right, blue whales, pilot whales, dolphins, and porpoises feasting on herring, sand eels, and krill in the warmer waters of the area. Whale watching can be part of a memorable summer trip to New York City or eastern Long Island’s beaches, farms, and wineries.
San Juan Islands, Washington
Moderate weather, little rain, and gorgeous scenery make these islands a great summer destination, just a boat ride away from Seattle. Orcas, humpbacks, minkes, and grey whales visit during these warmer months, along with sea lions, seals, and porpoises. For watching from the shore, Lime Kiln Point State Park on San Juan Island faces the west side where whales feed during summer. Boat trips with San Juan Island Whale and Wildlife Tours regularly spot orcas in the Salish Sea, and from Lopez Island, Outer Island Excursions searches for humpbacks, grays, minkes, and orcas.