Look! A puff of ocean spray! Few things are as thrilling as spotting the Earth’s largest mammal at the ocean's surface. Come aboard for a tour of North America’s top whale-watching destinations.
Gray whales make the longest migration of any mammal on the planet -- and the western overlooks of Cabrillo National Monument are one of their pit stops. The peak time to see these massive 44-foot-long, 33-ton creatures is mid-January; they’re also visible from mid- to late December through March.
See the migration of the gray whales, as well as spot other marine life -- in fact, more than 27 types of whales and dolphins inhabit these waters at various times of year. The best times to go are February to early April for California grey whales; May to September for blue whales (the largest known animals to have ever existed), minke, humpback and, occasionally, right whales and orcas.
Enjoy year-round whale-watching in Monterey Bay. Running alongside California’s central coast, the bay sees humpback and blue whales from April to December, and gray whales from December to April. The coast also attracts killer whales, who hunt gray whales during their migration north.
In addition to these cute sea otters, Alaska’s Kodiak Island sees gray whales, in April. In June, minke, sei, fin and humpback whales also visit these waters -- with fins and humpbacks a common sight from June to November. Another great time to visit is April: That’s when the annual Whale Fest Kodiak, a 10-day-long festival, celebrates the return of Eastern Pacific gray whales to Alaskan waters.
Orcas love the San Juan Islands, off Washington State. Three pods, known as the “Southern Residents,” usually make their appearance from mid-April to early October. Gray, minke and humpback whales also visit these waters, as do seals, porpoises, sea lions and otters.
See killer whales, as well as humpback and Pacific grey whales, on a whale-watching tour of Vancouver Island. An estimated 85 orcas live in the waters around southern Vancouver and the southern Gulf Islands. Meanwhile, some 20,000 Pacific grey whales make their annual migration route along Vancouver Island’s west coast. Whale-watching season runs from March to November.
December through March is a prime time to see humpback whales at Virginia Beach. Fin whales -- the second largest animals alive today (behind the blue whale) -- also migrate through the area during the winter. In warmer months, from June to early September, see bottlenose dolphins, which frequently travel through the Chesapeake Bay area.
July through Labor Day are prime times to go whale-watching off Long Island, NY. Fin, humpback, minke, sperm, North Atlantic right, blue and sei whales are drawn to these waters to feast on schools of herring, sand eels and marine crustaceans. Whale-watching trips often leave from the historic town of Montauk, on the tip of Long Island’s south shore.
Not to be outdone, New Jersey also sees whale action. Beginning in March, humpback and finback whales, mostly 4- and 5-year-old juveniles, circulate in the Cape May Peninsula, at the southern tip of New Jersey, and feast on the waters’ abundant baitfish. Whale sightings continue through December.
See one of the world’s most important whale habitats. The Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary spans 1,400 square miles of diverse marine ecosystems: Between 4,000 and 10,000 North Pacific humpback whales flock here each winter to bear and nurse their calves.
Sure, California and New England corner the market on whale-watching, but that doesn’t mean you’re out of luck in the Sunshine State. Your best bet is to take a dolphin cruise; you may just spot a North Atlantic right whale if you go between November and April.
Enjoy a summer whale-watching expedition in Bar Harbor, ME. Beginning in mid-April, hungry finback, minke and right whales travel to the area’s cool waters -- just 20 miles off the Maine coast -- to feast on sand eels, plankton, copepods and fish. Come October, the whales head south for warmer waters.
Come spring, head to Provincetown, MA, where humpback, fin, minke and sei whales, as well as the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale, frequent the waters off this coastal town through October. Another great spot for whale-watching is Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, just 5 miles north of Provincetown.