There are few natural experiences that can rival that of whale watching. From hopefully scanning the horizon, to catching a glimpse of spray from a whale’s spout, to the final wave of a tail (or a full breach, if you’re lucky), everything about experiencing whales in their natural habitat is exciting.
That’s why we went on the hunt for the very best places to go whale watching. To start our list, we looked at the West Coast, along which whales of a variety of species travel nearly 3,000 miles each year from the warm waters of Hawaii and Mexico to the cooler waters of British Columbia and Alaska. We then looked at the East Coast, which boasts its own set of resting spots favored by various types of whales. We searched specifically for places where whale sightings were not only common, but likely, and where the availability of responsible whale watching tours is plentiful. Because whales travel along the coasts, the list of places to potentially see a whale is nearly endless, but we think we’ve narrowed the possibilities down to the 30 best places in North America for whale watching.
Arctic Bay, Nunavut
When to Go:Year round, but June is best
In the sparsely population area of northern Canada that is Arctic Bay, the narwhal lives year round to feed on squid and flatfish. This unique whale is best known for its unicorn-like horn — actually an incisor tooth that can reach up to 10 feet in length. For most of the year, narwhals remain nearly 5,000 feet below the water’s surface due to the thick ice. For this reason, spotting a narwhal is most likely in June when the ice has thinned and the narwhals migrate closer to the shore where they can be more easily viewed.
Bar Harbor, Maine
When to Go: Mid-April through October
Finback, minke, right, and humpback whales (and less commonly: pilot, sei, and sperm whales) all enjoy spending their summers feeding on fish and plankton in the cool waters near Bar Harbor, Maine. Because the best whale sightings occur about 20 miles off the coast, book a tour with Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company (pictured), which takes its clients as far out as the Gulf of Maine on the largest whale watching boat in North America. Go for a traditional whale watching excursion or opt for one of the company’s themed tours. Either way, you’re bound to see plenty of whales, and maybe even some dolphins, sharks, eagles, and puffins.
Big Sur, California
When to Go:Year Round
Like its close neighbor, Monterey, Big Sur is a great spot to go whale watching. In fact, it’s one of the few places in the world in which land-based whale watching is almost preferable! Big Sur’s Pacific coast is dominated by world-class hiking trails offering the perfect view of the ocean and its marine inhabitants. Blue whales, grey whales, and humpbacks can be spotted practically year-round as they make their slow migrations to and from the Bering Sea in the north.
Cape May, New Jersey
When to Go: March through December
Whale watching season on North America’s East Coast is much shorter than that of the West Coast, but one exception to this is Cape May, New Jersey. Finback (pictured) and juvenile minke whales spend the better part of 10 months in and around the Cape May Peninsula. Here, they feed on the abundant supply of tasty baitfish. In recent years, Cape May has even experienced an increasing number humpback whale sightings, which local experts attribute to the growing population of Atlantic menhaden, a humpback whale favorite.
Chéticamp, Nova Scotia
When to Go:May through mid-October
Chéticamp, on Cape Breton Island in Nova Scotia, is one of the few places in the world around which marine lovers can plan a totally whale-centric trip. Though whales are spotted here from May through about mid-October, August is the best time to see the 16+ whale species that migrate through these waters. Some of the most common sightings include Atlantic pilot whales, finbacks, and minke whales, though dolphins, porpoises, seals, and lots of seabirds also make for common sights. Start a trip to Chéticamp with a visit to the Whale Interpretive Centre to learn the details about each type of local whale, then book a whale watching trip on a boat, zodiac, or kayak. To really get up close and person, inquire with Captain Zodiac Whale Cruise about snorkeling with finback, humpback, minke, and pilot whales.
When to Go:May through August
Churchill, Manitoba is one of the few places on our list where you can spot a beluga whale. Belugas usually live above the 50th parallel in the Arctic and sub-Arctic, and so Churchill’s location along the Hudson Bay coastline happens to make it the preferred summer home to the largest known population of belugas in the world. Indeed, some 60,000 belugas make their way to Churchill once the Arctic ice breaks during the summer months. While some brave whale watchers can rent a kayak or even snorkel with the whales, most visitors are content with heading out on an organized tour via zodiac or catamaran, many of which use hydrophones to “spot” the belugas’ high-pitched whistle noises that have given them the nickname of “sea canaries.”
Dana Point, California
When to Go:December through April
Dana Point may be well known amongst humans as a great place for whale watching, but it also happens to be an important spot for whales. Marine biologists believe that Dana Point’s iconic 200-foot high cliffs act as a sort of landmark for whales on their migration. Whether this is true or not, we may never know, but it doesn’t change the fact that Dana Point’s elevated cliffs are an excellent spot from which to look for blue whales, grey whales, and even bottlenose dolphins. If you’d rather head out on boat, consider Dana Wharf Whale Watching or Captain Dave’s Dolphin and Whale-Watching Safari, the latter of which has boats with underwater viewing technology.
Depoe Bay, Oregon
When to Go:June through October
Depoe Bay is a small town in Oregon, located just southeast of Portland. It also happens to be a favorite resting spot for grey whales, nearly 18,000 of which come through each year during migration. For the best shot at getting close to a grey whale, check out the very helpful Whale Watching Center. Depending on your wants and needs, they can suggest any of the many organized whale watching tours that leave from Depoe Bay and the other surrounding small towns.
Flagler Beach, Florida
When to Go:December through March
The single Florida destination on our list of the best places for whale watching is Flagler Beach. Located between Jacksonville and Cape Canaveral, Flagler Beach’s six miles of shoreline seems to be the spot from which right whales are often seen. This is significant because only pregnant females, a few males, and juveniles will head this far south. Though there aren’t many organized whale watching tours in this area, locals and tourists often park themselves on the beach to search the horizon for whales. In fact, a group of Flagler Beach locals have taken it upon themselves to count sightings of the critically endangered right whale each year, and good news: the numbers have been increasing!
Glacier Bay, Alaska
When to Go:June through September
Alaska is a nature lover’s paradise! In the summertime, animal lovers from all over the world flock to places like Glacier Bay in hopes of spotting brown bears, bald eagles, and of course, whales. Minke, orcas, blue whales, and belugas make for common sights in the waters around here, while Glacier Bay National Park is one of the best spots in the world to find humpback whales breaching (August is the best time for breaching whales thanks to the seasonal abundance of herring). To get as close as possible, book a whale watching tour with any of the many companies which guarantee whale sightings.
When to Go:April through October
Gloucester, Massachusetts is so well-known for its local whale population that the World Wildlife Fund included the town on its list of the Top 5 Whale Watching Destinations in the World. As America’s oldest seaport (Gloucester was founded in 1623), whales and the ocean are an integral part of local culture. Humpback, finback, and minke whales are often spotted feeding on herring, mackerel, and krill in the popular feeding areas of Stellwagen Bank and Jeffrey’s Ledge. While some lucky whale watchers might spot a whale’s spout from shore, there are also a number of local companies which offer excellent whale watching trips.
Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick
When to Go:Late July through mid-October
Of the approximately 350 North Atlantic right whales left on earth, half of them spend the time between late July and mid October near Grand Manan Island in New Brunswick, Canada. The waters in the Bay of Fundy are rich in nutritious foods favored by the North Atlantic right whale, which feed along the water’s surface. This unique feeding habit is partly what has caused them to become critically endangered, though it does make them easy to spot for those just hoping to catch an innocent glimpse. If you’re really interested in this magnificent whale, catch up with the New England Aquarium blog, which maintains a detailed account of the local right whales’ behavior during the summer months.
When to Go:May through September
Like so many other places in Alaska, Juneau is well known as a great place to experience wildlife. Whale lovers head to Juneau during the summer months to greet humpback whales after their 3,000-mile long journey up the Pacific coast. Orcas, sea lions, seals, dolphins, eagles, and myriad marine birds can also be routinely spotted around here feeding on Juneau’s impressive populations of krill and schooling fish. Though a number of local companies offer organized whale watching trips, we suggest inquiring with Alaska Shore Tours, which runs excursions with experienced guides and will guarantee sightings.
Kodiak Island, Alaska
When to Go:April, June through November
Alaska is the final stop on many whales’ northern migrations, which makes Kodiak Island an ideal spot for whale watching. Fin and humpback whales are common here throughout the year, while minke and sei are frequently spotted around June. However, most serious whale watchers come to Kodiak Island come April. It’s around this time that Alaska’s beloved grey whale migrates north and the town holds its annual Whale Fest Kodiak, a 10-day celebration celebrating the grey whale’s return to Alaska.
Lahaina, Maui, Hawaii
When to Go:December through April
Maui consistently ranks as one of the best places in the world to see humpback whales. The island’s warm waters make for the perfect place for nearly 10,000 humpbacks — plus an impressive number of pilot whales, sperm whales, and melon-headed whales — to rest, mate, and give birth. From the small town of Lahaina, visitors can join a whale watching tour with the Pacific Whale Foundation. This unique non-profit organization runs tours led by certified marine naturalists, and tours allow visitors to witness whale behavior, listen to an underwater hydrophone, and learn all about local sea life.
Magdalena Bay, Baja, Mexico
When to Go:Mid-January to mid-April
Magdalena Bay in Baja, Mexico takes the whale-watching concept of getting up close and personal with nature to a whole new level. The grey whales, blue whales, humpbacks, and Bryde’s whales that come here to rest and mate in the warm waters are famous for coming close to boats and surfers, and many tourists are even able to touch them. Magdalena Bay — along with nearby Scammon’s Lagoon and San Ignacio Lagoon — is closely monitored by the government, and only a few tour companies are allowed to operate, including Baja Ecotours.
When to Go:November through April
Grey whales on their trip from breeding grounds in Baja to feeding grounds in Alaska make for a common sight in Mendocino, California. Though it’s possible to see these massive whales from land at places like Mendocino Headlands State Park or the Point Arena Lighthouse, a number of local companies offer excellent organized tours, and even rent kayaks to especially brave whale watchers. Though whales can be spotted in Mendocino from November through April, March is an especially great time to visit. Dozens of whale-themed events occur here in March, ranging from scientific talks, to special boat charters, to festivals celebrating all things whale.
When to Go:Year Round
The coast of California has long been considered one of the best places in the world to spot marine life, and Monterey is no exception. Humpback and blue whales spend much of the year here, April through December. Come winter, those whales usually migrate on and the grey whales make Monterey their home until at least April. Spotting these types of whales is quite common, but really lucky whale watchers will catch a glimpse of an orca. Killer whales only stop in Monterey for a short period of time — from about mid-May to mid-April — when they stop on their way north in order to hunt baby grey whales. Visitors can rent a kayak to brave the waters on their own, or book a trip with a company like Fast Raft Ocean Safaris, which conducts tours in 6-person zodiacs.
Montauk, New York
When to Go:July and August
Long Island has long been associated with good whale watching, and one of the best places in the region from which to spot whales is Montauk. This part of the coast happens to have a tasty abundance of herring, crustaceans, and sand eels, all of which are favorite foods for blue whales, humpback whales, and even the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Though the time for whale watching in Montauk is short, there’s plenty to see. Besides the aforementioned species, other types of whales often seen in and around Long Island include fin, sperm, minke, and sei whales.
When to Go:April through October
Provincetown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts seems to be a preferred stop for whales making their way north. Humpback, fin, minke, sei, and the critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are often spotted in the waters just off the coast, and a number of whale watching tour boats leave from the town’s main harbor in hopes of getting a close-up glimpse. These tours travel all around Cape Cod, which is a popular breeding ground for right whales.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
When to Go:January through March
Nearly 2,000 whales (mostly grey whales) make their home in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico from January through March. They seem to like the warmer waters, which are ideal for resting, mating, and giving birth. Though these massive whales can often be seen right from Puerto Vallarta’s world-class beaches, we suggest inquiring about a tour with Ecotours de Vallarta. This eco-friendly company is run by biologists, and includes a fascinating land-based informational session and three-hour boat ride.
Resurrection Bay, Alaska
When to Go:May
If you’re intent on seeing whales in Resurrection Bay, Alaska, you’d better hurry. Grey whales, humpbacks, and orcas tend to only stick around this area from around May 5 to June 5, just long enough to feed on the local population of king salmon. For the best chance of spotting a whale in Resurrection Bay or the rest of the Kenai Peninsula, check out any of the many organized whale watching tours that usually leave from nearby Seward.
San Diego, California
When to Go:Mid-December through March
Few animals migrate as far as the grey whale, and that lengthy annual trip makes San Diego, California one of the best places in North America to go whale watching. A number of companies, such as San Diego Whale Watch, will guarantee a sighting of a whale or dolphin, while others like H&M Landing travel as far out as the Coronado Islands, a protected marine sanctuary where sightings of orcas, blue whales, and even elephant seals are common. But taking an organized tour isn’t the only way to see a majestic grey whale. The Cabrillo National Monument, located 420 feet above the ocean, provides excellent views of the area in which the 33-ton grey whales are most often spotted. Other great on-land spots from which to whale watch include Torrey Pines State Reserve and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
San Juan Islands, Washington
When to Go:Mid-April through Mid-October
Orcas are such a common sight in the San Juan Islands that they’re known locally as the region’s “Southern Residents.” Three especially well-known pods stick around almost year round for the excellent supply of salmon, while other orcas — along with an impressive number of grey, minke, and humpback whales — come through from April to October. Though plenty of organized whale watching tours head out on small boats or kayaks, one of the best places to spot whales here is actually from land. Lime Kiln Point State Park has been nicknamed Whale Watch Park, and whales of all kinds are often spotted close to shore.
Santa Barbara, California
When to Go:February through September
Whale watching season in Santa Barbara extends nearly eight months, but the types of whales you’re likely to see there depends greatly upon the time of year you visit. From February to early April, the massive grey whale rules this part of the coast. From May through September, nearly 25 other species of whale come through, including right whales and orcas, the latter of which enjoy hunting in these waters before their final journey north. No matter what time of year you find yourself in Santa Barbara, we suggest booking a whale watching trip with Condor Express, a local company which takes their tours as far out as the Channel Islands.
St. Vincent’s Beach, Newfoundland and Labrador
When to Go:May through September
St. Vincent’s Beach on the island of Newfoundland is the summer home of some 22 species of whale, including the world’s largest known population of humpbacks. Ten thousand humpbacks make their way here each year to feed on krill, squid, and capelin, as do minke whales (pictured), sperm whales, orcas, pilot whales, and even some blue whales. Some of the bigger whales are often spotted from the hiking trails that run along the coastline, but all are best seen via a sea kayak or one of the many organized whale watching tours that run locally (other nearby towns include Twillingate, St. John’s, and St. Anthony). Though whales are spotted from May all the way through September, June and July make for the best time to visit Newfoundland because it also happens to be the best time for spotting icebergs, too.
When to Go:May through October
The waters off Tadoussac, Quebec make for an unusual environment. Created by fresh water flowing from Saguenay Fjord and the ice-cold water of the Labrador current, this unique environment means there is a ton of fish varieties on which to feed during the summertime. More than 12 whale species are routinely spotted here, with fins, humpbacks, giant blue whales, and nearly 1,200 white belugas being especially common. If getting up close on an organized whale watching tour isn’t enough, Tadoussac is also the home of the Centre for Interpretation of Marine Mammals, a fantastically informative oceanic museum run by the Group for Research and Education on Marine Mammals.
Tofino, British Columbia
When to Go:May through August
As part of the grey whale’s summer migration route, Tofino, British Columbia is one of North America’s best places to go whale watching. Whale watchers and other nature enthusiasts flock here during the summer months, when whales, birds, and other animals are most likely to be seen. If seeing a grey whale is your goal, then check out the organized tours that head out to Clayoquot Sound, one of the best places for spotting marine life. We also suggest checking the calendar and trying to time your trip with the town’s annual Pacific Rim Whale Festival.
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
When to Go: March through November
Not only is Vancouver Island one of the best places in North America for whale watching, it’s one of the best places in the world to spot whales! Although nearly 20,000 Pacific grey whales migrate through this area during the winter months, most visitors intent on seeing a whale make their way to Vancouver Island in the summertime, when spotting a pod of orcas becomes most likely. Dozens of whale watching companies leave from small towns in and around Vancouver Island, but we suggest going with a company that will take you to Johnstone Strait or Broughton Archipelago, both of which are a favorite spot for some 250 orcas.
Virginia Beach, Virginia
When to Go:December through March
Though most people head to Virginia Beach, Virginia during the warm summer months to catch some sun and surf, this popular coastal town also happens to be a great destination during the colder months of December through March. It’s around this time that whales swim through. In fact, Virginia Beach happens to be one of the best places to spot fin whales, the second-largest animal on earth (after blue whales). Humpback whales and bottlenose dolphins can also be common sights.