Catching a glimpse of an awesome humpback or gray whale is atop many a travel bucket list. Last year, while celebrating our anniversary in January, the staff at our resort in Mexico told us to keep an eye out for the spray from blowholes. I spent most of our vacation straining my eyes and looking out over the Pacific Ocean, hoping to spot even the tip of a whale tail. No such luck.
While catching a whale breach would have been icing on the cake for my vacation, there are thousands of travelers who make plans specifically around these majestic creatures. But after months of planning, how can you be absolutely sure you'll get exactly what you came for? Luckily, whale-watching is a popular travel adventure, and tour operators have followed their migration patterns as much as marine biologists, putting together vacation packages that fit almost every traveler's wants and needs.
When to Watch
Humpback whales live in all of our world's oceans (I'm pretty sure it's just one big swimming pool to them), but they have fascinating migration patterns of up to 5,000 miles for breeding. The gray whale sticks to the Pacific Ocean. These huge whales are pretty active, come pretty close to shore and put on great performances, jumping out of the water and slapping the ocean's surface with their tails and fins. It seems like they all know we are watching, and they love to put on a show. And we are definitely here for all of it. Gray whales seem to be the most active in our neck of the woods, and there's a much higher chance of catching them in a local harbor without having to travel too far from home.
In North America, humpback and gray whales will migrate from Alaska to Hawaii (or sometimes across the Pacific to Asia) for their breeding season, which lasts from December through May. While birthing and nursing their calves, humpback whales prefer warmer, shallow waters close to the shore. Once their babies are strong enough to make the trek home for feeding, they will begin their migration north to feed in colder waters. In other parts of the world, you can spot whales in Okinawa, Japan, the Philippines, Africa and off the Russian coast. You don't have to travel the world to follow the pods of whales; in fact, you don't even have to leave the country. There are plenty of chances to whale-watch year-round right here in the United States.
Where to Watch
Hawaii is by far the most popular place for humpback whales during breeding season from December to May. It is estimated that between 4,000 and 10,000 humpback whales make the trip to Hawaii each year.
The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is dedicated to these amazing creatures.
The gray whale makes pits stops along the Pacific Coast during its migration -- southern California is popular during breeding season and northern California is a popular site for whales as they travel to and from Alaska during migration.
The peak time to see gray whales is mid-January in California's Cabrillo National Monument in San Diego. They'll hang around while they nurse their calves until February or March.
In Santa Barbara, California, gray whales can be spotted from February to early April, and blue whales (they can grow to weigh almost 200 tons!) and humpback can be seen frolicking in the waters of Santa Barbara from May to September.
Monterey Bay, California boasts year-round whale watching, with humpback and blue whales popping up from April to December and gray whales from December to April. This unique location with its high bridge along the Big Sur coast offers great views without even getting in a boat or getting out of the car! (Monterey Bay Whale Watch)
In northern California, the Gulf of the Farallones offers a marine sanctuary off the coast of San Francisco Bay. You'll catch blue, gray and humpback whales along with orcas, dolphins and more. There's plenty of action year-round, with gray whales and orcas hanging out during December to May, humpbacks from May through November and blue whales chillin' from July to October.
Washington, a popular pit stop during migration, offers sightings year-round. San Juan Islands is probably the most popular area for orcas with regular visits from mid-April to early October. Gray and humpback whales also hang out around this time, but it is not as common to see one on your excursion.
In the winter, thousands of gray whales pass through Oregon from mid-December through mid-January as they migrate south. As they head north to Alaska, the whales reappear in late March through June to feed. The Whale Watching Center in Depoe Bay provides more information and opportunities, and Oregon State Parks even host Whale Watch Weeks from December through March.
Gray whales start coming back to Alaska in March, and Kodiak Island celebrates the return of the Eastern Pacific gray whales with a 10-day festival in April. Most whale species are in Alaska for feeding from April through September. Humpback whales are sighted from the southeast coast all the way to the Bering Sea. Gray whales feed along the outer coast from April to June with the greatest opportunities to catch them in May near the Kenai Peninsula and Kodiak areas. Alaska's official tourism site gives more information on the best opportunities to whale-watch.
It's not the first place you'd think you'd spot a whale, but humpback whales migrate through Virginia Beach from December through March. If you absolutely must spot a whale on your trip, Virginia might not be the top of the list, but the Virginia Aquarium is ready to answer any questions you might have.
If you can believe it, a humpback whale actually surface from the Hudson River near New York City recently -- and stayed for a few days. New York has been seeing higher numbers of whale sightings each year. Long Island offers great views of humpback whales and sperm whales from July through early September.
Cape May, New Jersey gets young humpback whale sightings during feeding season beginning in March through December.
Whale-watching in Maine is popular during the summer months along the coast beginning in mid-April. Whales will feed until about October when they start their southern migration.
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and Provincetown, Massachusetts offer whale-watching opportunities from spring through October.