Frequently Asked Questions about Whale Watching
Where can I see whales and dolphins in the wild?
Almost everywhere! The 80-plus species of whale, dolphin and porpoise are found across the world’s oceans, major tropical rivers and estuaries. Latest figures show that over 13 million people take a trip each year in around 120 countries worldwide. From Canada to Chile, Australia to the Arctic, Scotland to South Africa.
Do I have to go along way out to sea to find them?
No, some species live close to shore, whilst others live far out to sea. There are trips to suit all tastes.
Do I have to go out on a boat?
No. In fact, some of the best whale watching experiences take place from land – good examples of this are Chanonry Point and Fort George, in the Moray Firth, Scotland where you can often see bottlenose dolphins very close from vantage points on the shore; or at Hermanus, in South Africa, where you may even be lucky enough to watch southern right whales from the cliff tops or maybe even your hotel veranda as you eat your breakfast!
When is a good time to go?
This depends on where you are going and which species you are hoping to see. Most whale watch trips operate during the summer months, with some places enjoying a relatively long season, whilst others have only a short season. The latter is particularly likely if you are hoping to see a migratory species like a blue whale or grey whale for example: in this instance, the ‘window of opportunity’ to see them in a certain location might be just a few days or weeks each year.
Are you guaranteed to see whales and dolphins if you take a boat trip?
No. The main thing to remember is that these are wide-ranging wild animals that travel many miles in just one day, and so their movements and whereabouts cannot always be predicted. We are visiting their world – and this element of unpredictability makes a good sighting all the more precious!
Does it matter which operator I choose?
Yes, it matters a great deal! Whilst the majority of operators are responsible and thoughtful, there are others who are less respectful of the needs of the whales and dolphins being watched and may disturb them whilst they are trying to rest, hunt for food or nurse their young. Thankfully, in most parts of the world, there are appropriate regulations or codes of conduct governing whale watching. In New Zealand, for example, whale watch operators must be licensed, and must observe regulations which forbid them from travelling too fast, approaching too closely, or staying in the area too long. Some locations enforce ‘no-go’ areas, where vessels are prohibited and/or ‘rest breaks’ when vessels are banned at certain times of day to give the animals a break from boat traffic.
How can I choose a responsible operator?
We recommend that you do some homework before you go, so have a look at local operator websites and also tourism websites for your selected region. There may be a local operator training and accreditation scheme, which would usually indicate that accredited operators have reached a certain standard; for example, the DSP (Dolphin Space Programme) in the Moray Firth, Scotland, or the DolphinSMART and Whale Sense schemes in the US. These schemes differ, but a good one will offer ongoing training and monitoring of accredited operators to ensure that they continue to offer good quality trips. We’ve also produced an information sheet: What to look for in a good whale watch for more advice.
Can WDC recommend specific operators?
Unfortunately, we are unable to recommend specific operators at this time. There are several thousand operators around the world and it simply isn’t possible for WDC to monitor all operators in order to ensure that they are all managing their businesses responsibly at all times. Our aim is to offer as much information as we can to potential whale watchers in each region, in order to allow them to make an informed choice when they select an operator.
What if a whale or dolphin comes up to the boat?
Dolphins sometimes like to swim alongside the bow (‘bow ride’), but they do not always wish to do this and boats should never be driven at them to try to force them to do this.
Some larger whale species may also closely approach your vessel and may accompany it for some time. Hopefully, your skipper will be thoughtful and will handle the boat slowly, and steadily, whilst the animals are in the vicinity. It is important not to make any sudden changes in speed or direction as this may startle the animals and may even result in a collision. It is also important not to separate a mother from her calf, or to split up a pod of dolphins, so the skipper and crew will need to be careful and observant at all times, until the animals move away from your vessel.
What do I do if I have concerns that my whale watch boat was not handled responsibly during the trip?
If you witness a specific incident which alarms you – for example, if your boat, or a neighbouring one, appears to be chasing dolphins at high speed, or travels right through a group of mothers and calves, then you should consider reporting this. Let your skipper know that you were concerned: it may be that he can reassure you but in any case, it does no harm to let operators know that their passengers are educated about responsible boat handling! If you remain concerned you should ring the local police station (ask to speak to the Wildlife Liaison Officer if in the UK), giving as many details as you can. Please also let WDC know, we can advise you on how best to make a complaint.