Best Places for Whale Watching in North America
Imagine you’re on a boat in the ocean in still water. Then, the water beneath you starts to move. Next thing you know, a whale jumps out, flipping and splashing to your absolute delight.
Whale watching is one of the most incredible wildlife encounters you can have, and there are plenty of spots that offer amazing whale watching opportunities around the world.
These are the best destinations for whale watching in North America, based on the likelihood of seeing whales, the uniqueness of each place and overall experience.
Bottom Line: Gloucester
Few towns in New England beat Gloucester. It's great for Bostonians or anyone looking for a weekend getaway with some whale watching.
Set in pretty Cape Ann, the town is frequented by pods of humpback, sei, minke and fin whales, which often play and blow in the water to the delight of visitors.
When you’re not on the lookout for cetaceans, Gloucester has some Instagram-worthy beach walks, a lighthouse set dramatically against a rocky shore and even a medieval-style castle.
Bottom Line: San Juan Islands
Though technically dolphins, orcas are included when one talks about whale watching. And since the San Juan Islands off the coast of northern Washington are the permanent home of a sizable orca population, whale watching can happen at any time of the year and at your convenience.
If you want to see other species, head there from late spring to early fall, when minke, gray and humpback whales migrate through the water. If you want to see whales without getting in the water, head to Lime Kiln Point State Park, where you have a good chance of seeing the resident orcas from land.
Bottom Line: Grand Manan Island
Located in the eastern province of Nova Scotia, Grand Manan Island hosts 12 species of whales, including humpback, finback and minke.
But what really drives people here is the chance to see right whales, one of the most endangered whale species. Less than 400 North Atlantic right whales survive today, and the Bay of Fundy is where many of them come to breed.
With a population of just over 2,000, Grand Manan isn’t the place for city-loving visitors. It is, however, perfect for those who want to take it slow and enjoy the frosty green landscapes of the northern Atlantic.
Bottom Line: San Ignacio
This small town in Baja California is the most inland out of all entries. The town itself doesn’t have whale-watching spots, but it is one of the best places to reach the Laguna San Ignacio, which is part of the UNESCO-listed El Vizcaino Whale Sanctuary.
At the lagoon, you’ll be able to see Pacific gray whales come down from the cold northern waters to mate and breed. What’s best, because there are not as many tourists as in other places, the whales are rumored to be extra friendly and more likely to come closer to the shore.
El Vizcaino is considered one of the most diverse wildlife refuges in Latin America, protecting deserts, mangroves, islands and lagoons as well as beaches. It is also home to pumas, coyotes, hundreds of bird species and more.
Bottom Line: Vancouver
Vancouver is one of the coolest cities in Canada while also being relatively warm for the icy nation.
The metropolis is worth a visit on its own, with an eclectic food scene that mirrors the diversity of its residents, a prestigious Museum of Anthropology and mountains in the backdrop.
One of the best things about Vancouver is that it takes no time to switch from metropolis to nature. This is especially true about whale watching tours, where you will be on the lookout for Pacific gray whales and orcas.
Bottom Line: Santa Barbara
Santa Barbara has earned its reputation as one of the best vacation spots in the U.S. with great surf, Mediterranean-inspired architecture and long stretches of beach.
The best way to get that perfect Southern California beach hair may not be to chase waves, but instead to chase whales — just to see them, of course!
Go during late winter to see gray whales and from summer through early fall for minkes, humpbacks and blues.
Bottom Line: Long Island
Did you know you could go whale watching right in New York City? If you didn’t, it’s because it’s a fairly new attraction to the Big Apple. Of course, whales have been passing by New York Harbor long before the city even existed, but excessive pollution kept them at bay for a long time.
According to National Geographic, sightings have become more and more common since 2011 thanks to stricter environmental laws and water cleanups. Now, there are enough fins, humpbacks, blues and sperms in the area to warrant whale watching tours.
Add to that the museums, Broadway shows, pizzerias and landmarks, and it’s clear why NYC deserves its spot on these rankings.
Bottom Line: Bar Harbor
Bar Harbor has been a popular place for whale watching for a long time because it attracts a variety of whales with its chilly waters. Some of the species you’ll be able to see are minke, humpback, finback and endangered right whales. You’ll also get a chance to see some adorable Atlantic puffins.
The Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company holds a monopoly on whale watching tours in the area, but also boasts the largest vessel for the activity in all of North America!
When you’re not whale watching, you can enjoy Maine lobster and hike around Acadia National Park.
Bottom Line: Saint John's
Though not quite in the arctic, the capital of the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador is pretty up there. So up there, that besides seeing wild whales, you can also see icebergs floating about in the summer months.
Twenty-two species of whales cross the region during their migration, including the largest population of humpbacks in the entire world. This alone makes St. John’s one of the best whale watching spots in all of North America.
For the intrepid at heart, we recommend doing a sea kayak excursion, which will get you a closer encounter with the whales.
Bottom Line: Sayulita
If you’re looking for a laidback beach vacation with whale encounters, few places can deliver as much as Sayulita, a small beach town on the Pacific coast of Mexico.
The town attracts a more alternative crowd and is less touristy than nearby Puerto Vallarta. It has the Sierra Madre Occidental mountains in its backdrop and proudly showcases its indigenous Huichol heritage.
Sayulita is also one of the best places in the area to see humpback whales, which come here to breed. You will also be able to see Bryde’s whales and several species of dolphins.
Bottom Line: Taddousac
Tadoussac is tiny. Nine-hundred residents tiny. This makes it the ideal spot for whale enthusiasts who want to spend most of their time trying to spot the giant mammals from the shore and the rest enjoying small-town Quebecois life.
Positioned on the St. Lawrence River, Tadoussac serves as a migration spot for 13 species of whales and is also quite close to the startlingly beautiful Saguenay Fjord National Park. The town also has two claims to fame. It is the oldest French settlement in all of the Americas, and it has a resident population of thousands of beluga whales.
Yes, you will have the chance to see these rare whales no matter what time of year you visit.
Bottom Line: Monterey Bay
With a long coast on the Pacific, there are several wonderful whale watching spots in the Golden State. But Monterey tops them all.
First of all, whale watching is a year-long thing here, with gray whales and orcas visiting from December through April and humpback and blue whales coming from April through December.
Monterey Bay also boasts breathtaking natural beauty, and its moniker city is close to other natural wonders like Big Sur, Big Basin Redwoods State Park and Pinnacles National Park.
Bottom Line: Kodiak Island
Whales can be seen in several parts of Alaska, which is unsurprising given that it has the longest coastline of all U.S. states. What makes Kodiak Island so special is that it’s relatively remote, even for Alaska.
Whale watchers won’t have to worry about packed boats and hoards of tourists. Nicknamed the Emerald Isle, Kodiak is an outdoor lover’s dream and provides endless trails for hiking and mountain biking.
As far as whale watching, Kodiak sees gray, humpback, minke, fin and sei whales at different times of the whale season, which stretches from April to November. If you want to get a taste of local culture, we suggest you go in April, when the 10-day Whale Fest Kodiak celebrates the beginning of the whale season.
Bottom Line: Cabo San Lucas
A popular year-round destination for both national and international tourists, Cabo San Lucas is one of Mexico’s prime beach destinations. You can enjoy all the perks of a relaxing beach vacation while stuffing your face with delicious Mexican food and seeing Cabo’s dramatic sea cliffs.
If you happen to be here during winter, a whale-watching excursion is a must. You can see humpbacks, sperm whales, blue whales and orcas. But the crown of Cabo’s whale watching experiences are the gray whales, which migrate here to calve their young.
Bottom Line: Maui
Is it surprising that the top spot should go to gorgeous Hawaii? Maui is a dream destination at any time of year with its world-famous beaches, dramatic waterfalls and the astonishing Haleakala National Park.
But the Valley Isle, as Maui is known, is also a gateway to the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary serves as a nursery for between 4,000 and 10,000 humpback whales every winter.
If you’re lucky, you might get to see newborn humpback calves and witness how they learn to splash and flip.