Whale-Watching: Getting Close to Giants

Written by: Ruth Cole

A Complete Guide to the Best Places For Whale-Watching on a Gap Year

Seeing a whale up close and in the flesh is perhaps on the ‘to do’ list of many wildlife enthusiasts. And with the blue whale not only being the largest animal alive today, but also believed to be the largest animal to have ever lived – it really could be a once in a lifetime experience.

So, if you are keen to see these enigmatic but endearing animals in their natural habitats, where are the best places to go? One thing to bear in mind is that whale-watching often involves travel to far-flung places across the globe – meaning the right travel insurance cover is an important consideration.


One of the most familiar whales – although it is actually the largest member of the dolphin family – is the killer whale, or orca. Highly intelligent and social animals, they are instantly recognisable from their graceful black and white markings and prominent dorsal fins. The largest male specimens can grow to 10m and 10 tonnes, while females, although smaller, rule the roost – family units are grouped around maternal bonds.

Despite being the most fearsome predator throughout the oceans of the world, the best-researched orcas live in stable groups, or pods, and tend to roam across a defined patch. One of the most famous of these is off the shores of British Columbia, where the whale-watching season runs from April to October, and where there are several large resident groups who are used to interacting with humans on organised boat trips. These typically take 3-5 hours, and while spotting whales is not guaranteed – though some claim a 90%-plus success rate – some offer free subsequent trips if you are unfortunate on your first outing.

If you are more adventurous, you could even go on a holiday based around watching orcas in Norway, which can include snorkelling with the animals in the wild. Meanwhile, closer to home, you can even see these amazing animals in the Shetland Islands.

Southern Hemisphere

South Africa is a great destination for whale-watching. Huge specimens come from Antarctica to the comparatively warmer waters of the Western and Eastern Capes in order to calve, with sightings virtually guaranteed in September and October, especially around Hermanus in the Western Cape.

The most common species is the slow-moving southern right whale, which can weigh around 80 tonnes, and tends to stay close to the shore. In addition, the humpback – famed for its acrobatic jumps and its plaintive songs – can be seen here.

Meanwhile, tours to Sri Lanka offer the opportunity to spot not just the common blue whale – the largest animal that has ever lived, growing up to 100ft long and approaching 200 tonnes in weight – but also the Indian blue whale.

Moby Dick?

The Azores, in the middle of the Atlantic, are one of the best bases for spotting a variety of whales, particularly the sperm whale – the largest toothed animal on the planet, at up to 18m in length, and the basis for Moby Dick.

Despite being one of the most widely distributed of whales – it’s also found around the Caribbean island of Dominica, off the coast of New Zealand and even in the Mediterranean – the sperm whale can be elusive, able to dive up to 3km down into the blackness of the seas, where they take giant squid as prey.

Week-long tours are available to the Azores, which are a Portuguese autonomous region, typically featuring several trips out whale-watching and visits to a museum dedicated to the sperm whale. In addition, several other species of marine mammal are common sights, including dolphins and even the mighty blue whale.

Be Prepared

Whatever part of the world you decide to explore as part of your whale watching trip, you’ll need to make sure you have plenty of travel money.  Shopping around in advance can ensure you get the best rates.  Also, as with any activity that you plan to do on holiday, it’s important to make sure you are covered with adequate travel insurance.

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