Everything you wanted to know about Whale Watching – Part Two

This month, we decided to focus on whale watching and have prepared three posts to tell you all about it: What are good places to go whale or dolphin watching?  What are things to keep in mind? And what should you look for in a good whale watching operator? Keep reading to find out more about it. You can check out the first part of this series here that focuses on where to go and the codes of conduct. Now that you know where to go to catch some whales, let’s dive into the practical aspects of whale watching.

Do’s and Don’ts

What should you plan and how should you react to things you cannot plan, like bad weather or a cancelation? I have been a whale-watching guide for four years so here are my tips and tricks.

Do pick your season

Many whale species are migratory and will mostly be around for a specific season. Check in advance if it is the right season and inquire about the typical sighting success for the time of year. You can also ask what species you are most likely to see. These inquiries will give you an idea of what to expect and what you can hope to see.

Do look at the wind forecast

It doesn’t matter if the sun is shining or it’s raining – the wind is the most important factor! Strong wind means big waves, and waves mean that your trip might not be as enjoyable as expected. You would be surprised by how many people say good-bye to their breakfast on a rough whale watching tour (sick bags are always available onboard). So take it seriously if the staff tells you that they are expecting rough sea conditions – sea sickness tablets are usually offered free of charge. I have had great tours in rough seas; however, it is more difficult to spot whales or dolphins and keep track of them with lots of waves around.

Good habits to prevent seasickness – Credit: Anaïs Remili / Whale Scientists

Don’t schedule the tour for your last day

Be flexible! If it is avoidable, do not schedule your whale watching excursion for the last day of your trip. It is good to have a buffer in case the tour gets canceled. Also, it might sound straightforward, but do not schedule a tour right before you have a flight to catch. Even though many tours will be back within a certain time window, you never know! I have been 1.5 hours late on some tours because it took a long time to come across whales, and we still wanted to give our passengers an enjoyable sighting before heading back to port.

Don’t choose blindly

Good companies will do their best to minimize possible disturbance of the whales and dolphins their business depends on. Usually, you can find information about a code of conduct on the company’s website. As mentioned in the previous post, you can check the WCA’s website for their partners.

What are the chances to see whales or dolphins?

One of the first things I tell passengers on every single tour is that there is no guarantee that they will see whales or dolphins. Even during the main season, there is no 100% success rate. And if we encounter whales and dolphins, their behavior is a big factor in how well we get to see them. Even though whales usually come up to the surface regularly, they sometimes stay underwater for a long time. And even though dolphins are often curious and like to check out boats, they sometimes prefer to be left alone. Operators should always minimize disturbance to cetaceans, and their well-being should be the highest priority.

There are different approaches to whale watching. In the Azores, for example, many operators work together with dedicated whale spotters that inform them about sightings from a land-based lookout platform. In Norway, one of the main target species is the sperm whale. Their echolocation clicks can be heard via hydrophones (underwater microphones), which operators use to find them. In many other places, the crew onboard the vessel actively searches for whales or dolphins with their naked eyes or binoculars. Many whale watching companies post regular updates on their website or Facebook pages about recent sightings. It can give you an idea about your chances to see whales and/or dolphins in the upcoming days. Yet, even during a single day, tours can differ a lot.

whale watching
By checking the operator’s social media, you can know roughly what to expect – credit: Tracie Sugo from The Dolphin Project

No sightings – what now?

Companies in different parts of the world have different policies regarding what to do when you don’t get to see whales or dolphins. In New Zealand, some companies will return half of the money you paid for your ticket. In Iceland, it is common practice to offer disappointed passengers a complimentary ticket to join another tour. These tickets may be valid for a certain period, e.g., two years, or indefinitely.

Did you like this second part? Stay tuned to read our third post on the advantages vs. drawbacks of the whale watching industry.

Biologist, Guide, Lecturer | hanna.michel.mb@gmail.com

Hanna is a biologist from Germany with focus on marine mammals. During her university days she was involved in research projects in Italy, Australia and also Iceland. This is where she has spent most of her time since receiving her Master’s degree. Here she has been working as a naturalist for whale watching companies in different parts of the country. Since starting to work as a guide and lecturer on polar expedition cruises in 2017, she has been migrating between Iceland and Antarctica sharing her passion for cetaceans and seals.

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