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Top 20 Whale Watching Cruises Destinations & Itineraries!

Whale watching cruises offer a mesmerizing glimpse into the lives of the ocean’s gentle giants.

This ultimate guide explores everything from selecting the perfect cruise to understanding whale behaviors and promoting responsible tourism.

Embark on a journey to connect with nature and witness the awe-inspiring beauty of whales in their natural habitat.

blue whale cruises

Understanding Whale Watching Cruises

Whale watching is an exhilarating adventure that allows people to observe some of the planet’s most magnificent creatures in their natural habitat.

It’s not just a tour; it’s an immersive experience that brings you closer to understanding the marine ecosystem and the giants that inhabit it.

This section delves into the basics of whale watching, the species you might encounter, and the best times and places to see them.

The Basics of Whale Watching

Whale watching involves setting out on a boat to areas where whales are commonly found, with the aim of observing them as they feed, socialize, and breach the water’s surface.

There are various types of whale watching experiences, from large cruises that offer comfort and amenities to smaller boats that can navigate closer to the whales for a more intimate encounter.

Each type offers a unique way to experience these marine mammals, whether it’s the educational commentary from onboard naturalists or the thrill of seeing a whale up close.

Whale watching cruises in Alaska

Whale Species and Habitats

The species of whale you might see depends largely on the location and time of year. Some of the most commonly observed species include:

  • Humpback Whales: Known for their spectacular breaches and complex songs, humpback whales are often seen in places like Alaska, Hawaii, and Iceland.
  • Blue Whales: The largest animals on Earth, blue whales are most commonly spotted in the waters off California, Mexico, and Iceland.
  • Orca (Killer Whales): These highly social and intelligent predators are often found in the Pacific Northwest, particularly around the San Juan Islands and parts of Norway.
  • Gray Whales: Notable for their long migration routes, gray whales can be seen off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, and the eastern coast of Russia.

Whales migrate thousands of miles between their feeding and breeding grounds, which affects where and when they can be seen.

Coastal regions are typically the best places to go whale watching, as many species stay close to shorelines during their migrations.

large cruise ship in Alaska

Best Times of Year for Whale Watching

Whale watching is highly dependent on migratory patterns, making certain times of the year better for sightings:

  • Spring and Summer: Ideal for watching humpback, blue, and gray whales in the northern hemisphere as they migrate to cooler, food-rich waters.
  • Fall and Winter: The best time to observe whales in the southern hemisphere and for spotting gray whales in their breeding grounds off the coast of Mexico.

Understanding these patterns can significantly enhance your whale watching experience, ensuring you visit at a time when sightings are most likely. It’s also important to research specific locations for the best times to see the whales you’re most interested in, as these can vary from place to place.

Whale watching is more than a leisure activity; it’s an opportunity to connect with the natural world and learn about the importance of marine conservation.

Whether you’re aboard a large cruise ship or a nimble zodiac, the experience of seeing a whale breach the ocean’s surface is unforgettable and deeply moving.

girl looking at whale on boat

Top 20 Whale Watching Destinations

  1. Maui, Hawaii, USA – Maui is a prime spot for observing humpback whales, especially from December to April when they migrate to the warm Hawaiian waters for breeding. Whale watchers can enjoy not only the sight of these majestic creatures but also their haunting songs, with many tours offering hydrophones to listen in. The scenic backdrop of Maui’s beaches and volcanoes adds to the unforgettable experience.
  2. Hermanus, South Africa – Renowned as one of the best land-based whale watching spots globally, Hermanus offers spectacular views of Southern Right Whales from July to November. The town hosts an annual whale festival in September, celebrating the peak of the whale watching season. Cliffs along the coast provide excellent vantage points for sightings, making binoculars a popular accessory here.
  3. Reykjavik and Husavik, Iceland – Iceland is a haven for whale watchers, with Husavik dubbed the whale watching capital. Tours from Reykjavik and Husavik offer sightings of minke, humpback, blue whales, and occasionally orcas, especially from April to September. The midnight sun of summer provides almost 24 hours of daylight, extending opportunities for encounters with these marine giants.
  4. Monterey Bay, California, USA – The nutrient-rich waters of Monterey Bay attract a diverse range of marine life, including humpback, blue, and gray whales, depending on the season. Year-round whale watching opportunities abound, with peak seasons in spring for gray whales and summer through fall for blue and humpback whales. The bay’s deep submarine canyon provides close-to-shore sightings, making it a premier destination for marine enthusiasts.
  5. Kaikoura, New Zealand – Set against a dramatic mountain backdrop, Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales can be seen year-round due to the deep ocean trench close to shore. In addition to sperm whales, visitors might spot orcas, humpback, and blue whales depending on the season. The area is also home to an abundance of other marine life, making it a must-visit for wildlife lovers.
  6. Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada – The waters around Vancouver Island are teeming with orcas, humpback, and gray whales, particularly from May to October. The Johnstone Strait and the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve offer some of the best orca sightings in the world. Whale watching tours from Victoria, Tofino, and Telegraph Cove provide diverse experiences, including the chance to see these majestic animals up close.
  7. Baja California Sur, Mexico – The warm, sheltered lagoons of Baja California Sur are breeding grounds for gray whales from January to April. The Sea of Cortez, also known as the “aquarium of the world,” is home to blue whales, humpbacks, and sperm whales. The close encounters with friendly gray whales, especially in San Ignacio Lagoon, offer a unique and intimate whale watching experience.
  8. The Azores, Portugal – The Azores archipelago, situated in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, is a hotspot for sperm whales, particularly from spring to autumn. The deep waters around these volcanic islands are also frequented by blue whales, fin whales, and orcas. The islands’ commitment to sustainable tourism practices makes it an eco-friendly destination for whale watching.
  9. Gloucester, Massachusetts, USA – Just a short drive from Boston, Gloucester offers access to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a rich feeding ground for humpback, minke, and fin whales from April to October. Whale watching tours from Gloucester provide educational experiences with expert commentary on the whales and their habitat, making it a popular choice for families and marine enthusiasts alike.
  10. Mirissa, Sri Lanka – Mirissa is a leading destination for blue whale watching, particularly from November to April when these giants are seen relatively close to shore. The area is also known for sightings of sperm whales and occasionally orcas. Boat tours in Mirissa offer the chance to see the world’s largest mammal in its natural habitat, along with the warm hospitality of Sri Lanka.
  11. Tromsø, Norway – In the winter months, from November to January, Tromsø becomes a prime location for watching orcas and humpback whales that come to feed on herring in the fjords. The Arctic backdrop and possibility of witnessing the Northern Lights make whale watching in Tromsø a unique and magical experience.
  12. Akureyri, Iceland – As a complement to Husavik, Akureyri offers excellent whale watching opportunities in the Eyjafjordur fjord, where humpback whales are frequently seen. The summer months are ideal for tours, with the midnight sun providing extended daylight hours for exploring the fjord’s beauty and its marine inhabitants.
  13. Peninsula Valdés, Argentina – Peninsula Valdés is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best places in the world to see Southern Right Whales from June to December. The whales come close to the shoreline, making it possible to watch them from the beaches and cliffs. It’s also a fantastic place to observe orcas, especially when they beach themselves while hunting sea lions in Punta Norte.
  14. The Kimberley, Australia – The Kimberley region offers a unique whale watching experience with the annual migration of humpback whales from June to October. The remote and pristine coastline provides a spectacular setting for watching these whales as they travel along the Kimberley coast, one of the largest humpback whale nurseries in the world.
  15. Bar Harbor, Maine, USA – Bar Harbor is the gateway to Acadia National Park and a popular starting point for whale watching tours in the Gulf of Maine. Visitors can see humpback, minke, and fin whales from late spring to early fall. The area’s stunning natural beauty, combined with the chance to see whales and other marine life, makes it a top destination for nature lovers.
  16. Dingle Peninsula, Ireland – The Dingle Peninsula offers a chance to see humpback, minke, and orca whales in the rich waters of the Atlantic. The best time for whale watching is from May to December, with boat tours departing from Dingle Harbor. The scenic beauty of the peninsula adds to the appeal of searching for whales in this part of Ireland.
  17. Tadoussac, Quebec, Canada – Situated at the confluence of the Saguenay and Saint Lawrence rivers, Tadoussac is renowned for beluga whale sightings year-round and for blue, minke, and humpback whales from May to October. The unique ecosystem supports a rich diversity of marine life, making it one of Canada’s most famous whale watching destinations.
  18. Pico Island, Azores, Portugal – In addition to the main Azores archipelago, Pico Island offers exceptional opportunities to see sperm whales and occasionally blue and fin whales from April to October. The island’s volcanic landscape provides a dramatic backdrop for boat tours, and its clear waters are ideal for encountering these majestic creatures.
  19. Okinawa, Japan – Okinawa’s subtropical waters are home to humpback whales from January to March, when they migrate to breed and calve. Whale watching tours offer a chance to see these majestic creatures against the backdrop of Okinawa’s beautiful islands, making it a popular winter destination for wildlife enthusiasts.
  20. Gansbaai, South Africa – While better known for its great white shark diving, Gansbaai also offers whale watching experiences, particularly for Southern Right Whales from June to December. The area’s rich marine biodiversity, including dolphins and seals, enhances the whale watching experience, providing a comprehensive overview of South Africa’s marine life.
whale jumping out of water

Whale Watching Cruise Itineraries

Here are suggested itineraries for unforgettable whale watching adventures around the world:

1. Alaskan Whale Watching Adventure

  • Duration: 7 days
  • Route: Juneau → Glacier Bay National Park → Sitka → Icy Strait Point → Juneau
  • Highlights: Witness humpback whales and orcas in their natural habitat, explore the stunning scenery of Glacier Bay, and learn about the local Tlingit culture. Peak season is May to September.

2. Baja California Whale Extravaganza

  • Duration: 8 days
  • Route: Cabo San Lucas → Loreto → La Paz → San Ignacio Lagoon → Cabo San Lucas
  • Highlights: Encounter gray whales in the birthing lagoons, snorkel with sea lions in Espiritu Santo Island, and spot blue whales in the Sea of Cortez. Ideal from January to March.

3. Icelandic Midnight Sun Whale Watching

  • Duration: 5 days
  • Route: Reykjavik → Akureyri → Husavik → Reykjavik
  • Highlights: Enjoy 24-hour daylight viewing of minke, humpback, and occasionally blue whales. Don’t miss the chance to soak in geothermal pools and explore volcanic landscapes. Best from June to August.

4. New Zealand’s Marine Majesty

  • Duration: 6 days
  • Route: Auckland → Bay of Islands → Wellington → Kaikoura → Christchurch
  • Highlights: Search for sperm whales in Kaikoura, dolphins in Bay of Islands, and enjoy the cultural and natural beauty of New Zealand. Year-round opportunities, with peak sightings from December to March.

5. Norwegian Arctic Whale Safari

  • Duration: 7 days
  • Route: Tromsø → Lofoten Islands → Vesterålen → Tromsø
  • Highlights: Experience the northern lights and whale watching in winter, including orcas and humpback whales feeding on herring. Whale safaris are best from November to January.

6. South African Whale Route

  • Duration: 10 days
  • Route: Cape Town → Hermanus → Mossel Bay → Knysna → Plettenberg Bay → Cape Town
  • Highlights: Enjoy land-based watching of Southern Right Whales, visit the Cape of Good Hope, and explore the Garden Route. Best from June to November.

7. Hawaiian Humpback Haven

  • Duration: 7 days
  • Route: Honolulu → Maui → Big Island → Kauai → Honolulu
  • Highlights: Sail through the Hawaiian Islands during humpback whale season, snorkel in coral reefs, and explore volcanic landscapes. Peak whale watching is from December to April.

8. Canadian Pacific Exploration

  • Duration: 7 days
  • Route: Vancouver → Victoria → Tofino → Telegraph Cove → Vancouver
  • Highlights: Spot orcas in the Johnstone Strait, humpbacks in Tofino, and explore the vibrant cultures of Vancouver and Victoria. Best from May to October.

9. Azorean Archipelago Whale Discovery

  • Duration: 9 days
  • Route: Ponta Delgada (São Miguel) → Horta (Faial) → Pico → São Jorge → Ponta Delgada
  • Highlights: Dive into the heart of the Atlantic to see sperm whales, blue whales, and dolphins amidst the stunning volcanic scenery of the Azores. Prime time is from April to October.

10. Patagonian Whale Watching Journey

  • Duration: 8 days
  • Route: Buenos Aires → Puerto Madryn → Peninsula Valdés → Punta Tombo → Buenos Aires
  • Highlights: Observe Southern Right Whales, visit the largest Magellanic penguin colony, and explore the diverse wildlife of Patagonia. The season runs from June to December.

These itineraries offer a mix of prime whale watching opportunities and cultural experiences, showcasing the best of each destination.

Remember, the best times to go are crucial for maximizing your chances of sightings and vary by location and species.

Booking with responsible tour operators that prioritize conservation and respectful wildlife viewing practices is also recommended to ensure a sustainable and enriching experience.

whales watching cruise

Preparing for Your Whale Watching Cruise

Choosing the Right Whale Watching Cruise

Selecting the ideal whale watching cruise requires considering several factors:

  • Duration and Size of Vessel: Decide whether you prefer a short day trip or a longer expedition. Larger ships offer more amenities but may not get as close to the whales as smaller vessels.
  • Areas Covered: Research the geographic areas and the species of whales you are most likely to see.
  • Research and Selection: Look for operators with good environmental practices and positive reviews. Check for any affiliations with wildlife conservation groups.

What to Expect on a Cruise

  • Itinerary and Activities: Be prepared for early mornings and potentially long days at sea. Some cruises offer lectures and educational sessions about marine life.
  • Amenities and Accommodations: Understand what’s included in your cruise package—meals, lodging, and gear may or may not be provided.

What to Bring

  • Clothing: Layered, waterproof clothing is essential, as weather can change rapidly at sea.
  • Gear: Binoculars, cameras with zoom lenses, and seasickness remedies are must-haves.
  • Other Essentials: Sunscreen, sunglasses, and a reusable water bottle.

Safety and Etiquette

  • Follow Crew Instructions: Always listen to the crew for safety guidelines.
  • Respect Wildlife: Maintain a respectful distance from the whales and avoid loud noises or movements that could disturb them.

Maximizing Your Whale Watching Experience

Tips for Spotting Whales

  • Know What to Look For: Familiarize yourself with the signs of whale presence, such as spouts (blows), breaches, and tail slaps.
  • Stay Vigilant: Whales can appear unexpectedly, so keeping a constant watch is key.

Understanding Whale Behavior

  • Learn Before You Go: Knowing about whale behavior can enhance your experience. For example, understanding the difference between a feeding dive and a deep dive can set expectations for how long a whale might be submerged.
  • Interpreting Actions: Ask the crew about behaviors you observe. They can provide insights into the whales’ actions, such as why whales breach or slap their tails.

Photography and Videography Tips

  • Use the Right Equipment: A camera with a good zoom or a telephoto lens is crucial for capturing shots from a distance.
  • Be Patient and Ready: Great shots require patience and a bit of luck. Be ready to capture moments quickly, as whales can be unpredictable.
  • Respect the Environment: Avoid using drones or equipment that could disturb the whales or other passengers unless explicitly permitted by the tour operator.

By carefully preparing for your whale watching cruise and understanding how to maximize the experience, you can ensure a memorable and respectful encounter with these magnificent marine mammals.

Respect for the animals and their habitat, along with a bit of planning and knowledge, will make your whale watching adventure both enriching and enjoyable.

cruises for whale watching

Small Boat vs. Cruise for Whale Watching: Pros and Cons

Whale watching can be experienced in two primary ways: aboard a small boat or on a larger cruise ship.

Each option offers a distinct experience with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Understanding these can help you choose the best fit for your preferences, comfort level, and what you hope to get out of the experience.

Small Boat Whale Watching


  • Closer Encounters: Small boats can navigate nearer to the whales, offering more intimate and thrilling sightings.
  • Flexibility: They can quickly change course to follow whale sightings or respond to tips from other boats.
  • Smaller Groups: With fewer passengers, the experience can feel more personalized, and you’ll have less competition for the best viewing spots.
  • Greater Interaction with Guides: Smaller groups allow for more interaction with your guide, providing a richer educational experience.


  • Less Stability: Smaller vessels can be more affected by rough seas, which might not be suitable for those prone to seasickness.
  • Fewer Amenities: These boats typically lack the amenities of larger ships, such as restrooms or indoor seating areas.
  • Exposure to Elements: Passengers are more exposed to the weather, which can be challenging in cold or rainy conditions.

Cruise Ship Whale Watching


  • Comfort and Amenities: Larger cruise ships offer comfortable amenities, including indoor viewing areas, restaurants, and restrooms.
  • Stability: Their size makes cruises more stable in rough waters, reducing the likelihood of seasickness.
  • Educational Programs: Many cruises provide educational talks and activities that enhance the whale watching experience.
  • Broader Itinerary: Cruises often visit multiple whale watching spots, increasing the variety of species you might see.


  • Distance from Whales: Regulations and the ship’s size may require maintaining a greater distance from the whales, potentially reducing the closeness of encounters.
  • Crowds: Larger groups can make it harder to secure a good spot for viewing or photographing whales.
  • Less Flexibility: Cruise ships have set routes and schedules, which can limit their ability to chase sightings or stay longer at a spot.
  • Higher Cost: While not always the case, cruises can be more expensive than small boat tours, especially when considering the range of amenities offered.

Making Your Choice

When deciding between a small boat and a cruise for whale watching, consider what aspects are most important to you.

If close-up encounters and flexibility are your priorities, a small boat might be the better choice.

However, if you prefer comfort, stability, and additional amenities, a cruise could offer a more enjoyable experience.

Regardless of the choice, both options provide the opportunity to witness the majesty of whales in their natural habitat, contributing to a deeper appreciation for these magnificent creatures and the marine environment they inhabit.