7 Tips for a Successful Whale Watching Trip

Whale watching—seeing some of the largest animals on Earth in their natural habitat—can be a thrilling activity. Being prepared for your whale watch and knowing what to expect can help make your trip a successful one. Follow these tips to get the most out of your experience. 

Book Your Trip With a Reputable Company

Tourist photographing Southern Right whale

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Whale watching can be a thrilling adventure. It may also be a long, expensive trip, especially if you have children. If you're going whale watching, take some time to research the tour operators so that you'll have a fun, successful trip.

Follow the company's guidelines as to when to arrive for boarding the boat. Make sure you arrive with plenty of time to stand in line for tickets and get on board. Whale watching should be a happy, relaxing experience; rushing around at the beginning makes for too hectic a start of your day.

Check the Weather and the Marine Forecast

A ship in stormy seas

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Maybe you love adventure and the idea of cruising through rough seas and getting splashed with waves is your idea of a great time. Whale watch operators will not go out if the seas are unsafe, but most captains and crew don't get seasick!

If you're not sure about rough seas or whether or not you'll get motion sickness, you'll probably want to go whale watching on the calmest day possible. Check the weather forecast and also the marine forecast for details about conditions out on the water. If the forecast is for high winds or seas, it's likely you will have a rocky trip.

Check the Sightings

Whale watching tour and a blue whale
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Whales are wild animals, so sightings can never really be guaranteed. Some companies "guarantee" sightings, but this usually means that they'll provide a complimentary ticket to return on another day if no whales are sighted.

You may want to check on the latest sightings in the area to see what species have been nearby recently and how many whales have been seen. Many companies will offer this information on their website. If there is a whale research organization in the area, check their website as they may be more likely to offer an objective report of recent sightings.

Instead of focusing on how many whales you're seeing or what they are doing or not doing, enjoy the whole experience. Take it all in. Smell and breathe in the fresh ocean air and observe the birds and all the other marine life you see on the trip.

Pack for a Day at Sea

Tourists watching Humpback whales
Michael Runkel / Getty Images

Remember that it can be 10–15 degrees cooler on the ocean and rain showers may happen during the trip. Dress in layers, wear sturdy, rubber-soled shoes, and bring a rain jacket if there's even the slightest chance of rain in the forecast.

Wear plenty of sunscreen and a hat—and make sure it's a hat that won't blow away! If you wear glasses or sunglasses, it's always a good idea to use an eyeglass lanyard (also called a retainer) when out on the water. You definitely don't want to risk your glasses falling overboard.

Think About Taking Motion Sickness Medicine

Woman sitting on a boat

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If you are not sure how you will react to the motion of the ocean, think about taking motion sickness medicine. Many whale watches are several hours long, and this can be a very long time if you are not feeling well. Remember to take motion sickness medicine before you board the boat (usually 30–60 minutes prior) and take the non-drowsy version so you don't end up sleeping the entire trip!

Bring Your Camera

Contents of a camera bag displayed
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Bring a camera to record your experience. Also, bring plenty of batteries and make sure you have a clear memory card or lots of film in case the sightings are spectacular!

Keep in mind that the average point-and-shoot camera might not deliver the speed and magnification needed to get the best pictures, especially if the company is following whale watch guidelines that dictate they watch whales from a distance. If you have a 35mm camera, a 200–300mm lens provides the most zoom and stability for whale watching. Remember to get some fun shots of you and/or your family with the ocean in the background or interacting with the naturalist/crew on board!

If At First You Don't Succeed...

Humpback whale swimming
Pascale Gueret / Getty Images

Remember that the photos you see on brochures and websites are likely the best photos taken from many years of whale watches. While you may see similar things, they are likely not everyday sightings.

The one thing that can be guaranteed about whale watching is that every trip is different. If you don't see a certain species the first time, try again another day or another year, and you'll likely have a completely different experience!