Whale Watching

Insider Info

Few creatures inspire us as much as whales do. The mystery of whales entices us, their grace amazes us and their intelligence astounds us. Some people like whales so much, they make a hobby out of watching them!

Whale watching simply involves observing whales in their natural habitats. You can do this from a boat or, if you're lucky, from shore.

Whale watching as a commercial activity began in North America in 1955 along the southern California coast. Today, whale watching is a popular activity in over 40 countries around the world. People do it everywhere from Ireland to Hawaii to the Dominican Republic.

A commercial whale watching trip is the most common way to see whales. For a fee, an experienced guide will take a group of people out in a boat to a spot where whales are commonly seen.

While commercial whale hunting still goes on in some countries, most whales today are only hunted with cameras. A good photo is a must for any whale watching enthusiast.

"You can't describe to people the feeling you get when something the size of a railway car surfaces 20 feet from the boat you're in. I had to take pictures so people would believe me," says Rolanda Morrow, who often whale watches.

Many people see the growing popularity of whale watching as an important part of conserving whales. While they don't want to see boats out chasing and disturbing whales all the time, they feel the more we promote the observation of whales, the less likely we'll be willing to kill them.

"If we can create an environment where it's more profitable to watch the whales than it is to simply kill them, business will follow," says Rauno Lauhakangas of Helsinki, Finland. He hopes to promote whale watching through the Internet with his Whale Watching Web.

If statistics tell us anything, it's that people like Lauhakangas are succeeding in promoting whale watching. It earns over $450 million per year worldwide. There are over four million participants.

In addition to being a good way to promote conservation, whale watching also provides people with a breathtaking glimpse of an animal they would usually only see in books or on television.

"I remember seeing a newborn calf being pushed to the surface by its mother -- unbelievable," says Jim Rang, a whale watcher from Phoenix, Arizona. Rang travels to Mexico to see gray whales.

A humpback whale is so named because its dorsal fin forms a hump on its back. These whales are one of the species most commonly watched by people.
Courtesy of: Patricia L. Russell

Some whale watchers like Rang are lucky enough to have friends in Mexico who own fishing boats. For most people, a commercial whale watching company is the best way to go.

Expect to spend $100 to $125 for a full-day guided trip and $50 for a half-day trip.

Any professional operator will tell you whale sightings aren't guaranteed, no matter what you pay.

"Whales are in their natural habitat and we can't control them. We're just observers," says Rang.

The best thing about whale watching is that it's a hobby almost anyone can enjoy. As long as you can get into a boat, you can try it. Many whale watching companies have special features on their boats to accommodate people with disabilities.

Operators do suggest that people who are prone to sea sickness or have a heart condition check with a doctor before taking a trip.

Whales don't always arrive on schedule, so you may not be treated to a great show every time you go out. Also, depending on where you are, you may need warm, waterproof clothing.

"It hasn't happened often, but there are times where you don't see as many whales as you'd hoped, and sometimes you might not see any at all," says Morrow. Just getting out and being in the fresh air with the chance of seeing a whale is enough for her.

As ecotourism continues to grow, whale watching will begin to play a bigger part in the tourist industry. Already, commercial boats which used to be used for killing whales are now being used for commercial whale watching.

Many whale watchers go out on boats like this one. Others might go out in dinghies or research vessels. Often, whale watching boats are converted fishing boats.
Courtesy of: Patricia L. Russell

Because of its popularity, there are opportunities for people to work as guides and operators in areas where whales are sighted. Whale watching companies look for experienced locals to fill these kinds of positions. Unfortunately, the work is seasonal.

No matter how you look at it, whale watching is here to stay.

"I've seen whale watching grow since I first tried it over five years ago. Just looking at the number of whale watching companies on the World Wide Web tells you it's really growing," says Morrow.

"It's a fun way to spend an afternoon and it's also a great way to gain an appreciation for these amazing animals," says Morrow.

Getting Started

If you're interested in doing some whale watching, here's some advice:

Look for a tour operator with lots of experience. This will help make sure you have the best chance of seeing whales.

"Experience is the thing to look for. You don't want someone taking you on a wild goose chase," says Rang.

Experts say you also want to look for a knowledgeable operator who can tell you something about what you're seeing.

"You want more than just a boat driver. It's nice to have someone explain something about the area and the whales," says Morrow.

You might want to try joining an organization such as the Cetacean Society. Such groups provide information, newsletters and whale watching trips.


Cetacean Society International

Ocean Alliance


Whale Watching Web
Explore whale watching around the world

A hands-on project to foster excitement and learning about the natural world

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