10 essential dolphin and whale-watching trips

written by Rough Guides Editors

updated 20.03.2019

From whales in Iceland to the pink penguins of Hong Kong harbour, here's ten of our favourite holidays for seeing whales and dolphins, taken from the pages of travel bible Great Escapes. Let us know your own below.

Whale-watching off the coast of Iceland


© Andrea Quartarone/Shutterstock

Iceland’s waters are blessed with large numbers of almost every kind of whale: blue, fin, humpback, sperm, sei, minke, killer and pilot whales, to name just a few. Not to mention the abundance of dolphins and other marine life.

The largest whale-watching operator in Iceland is North Sailing, which organizes three-hour trips on board a renovated oak fishing boat from Húsavík as well as a sailing trip on board a two-mast schooner, which visits a puffin island and all the traditional whale-watching sites. There’s also a three-day sailing excursion, which includes a visit to a herring and whale museum plus a few hours on the small Arctic island of Grímsey, home to a variety of seabirds, including puffins and auks.

Whatever your view on whaling, one of the best ways you can support the conservation of whales is to join a responsible tour like those offered by North Sailing– it will help show that a whale is worth more alive than dead.

For itineraries, prices and reservations see www.northsailing.is.

Monitor whales and dolphins in the Ligurian Sea

Here’s your chance to see what it’s like to be a marine biologist working in the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean. In collaboration with Oceans Worldwide, The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) lets volunteers help scientists monitor several species, including bottlenose dolphins and the enormous fin whale – the world’s second-largest animal. You’ll spend five days out in the Ligurian Sea between Italy and Corsica on board a motorized sail boat (which is also where you sleep), spending your time learning identification techniques. Regular “swim stops” at various islands are scheduled during the trip so you can relax and cool off. Chances are you’ll come dangerously close to changing your career.

For itinerary details and prices see www.wildlifeworldwide.com/journal/whale-watching.

Spotting whales and dolphins on board the ferry to Spain

The Bay of Biscay is one of the best places in Europe to see whales and dolphins. Since 1995, over 21 species have been recorded in these waters (more than a quarter of the world’s total), including risso’s and bottlenose dolphins as well as various species of whale: fin, pilot, minke, Cuvier’s beaked and even the enormous blue whale. Different species are associated with different areas of the crossing; the common dolphins, for instance, spend their winters off the Brittany peninsula, while the beaked whale is often seen over the submarine canyons off Spain’s north coast.

You can cross the Bay of Biscay on a weekly service from Portsmouth to Santander (24hr) or from Plymouth to Santander (20hr). By the time you arrive, you’ll probably have spotted some whales, enjoyed a range of onboard services and had a good rest. It may just take your mind off the pitch and roll.

For prices and bookings of ferries to Santander visit www.brittany-ferries.co.uk.


Humpback whale underwater in Maui © idreamphoto/Shutterstock

Humpbacks off Hawaii

There are few more incredible sights than watching a 37-tonne humpback whale breaching completely out of the sea. And few better places to see this powerful display than Hawaii: between November and April each year, up to ten thousand whales migrate here to mate, give birth and nurse their young.

Several operators offer trips out to view the endangered humpbacks and the 21 other species of whale and dolphin here, though Wild Side Eco-Adventures, based about an hour from Waikki on Oahu Island, comes highly recommended. With groups kept to a maximum of twelve people (and sometimes as little as six), the company offers several whale- and dolphin-watching trips led by expert marine biologists, as well as the chance to charter a boat for some leisurely island-hopping.

But Wild Side isn’t there just for entertainment: aware that whale-watching is fast becoming a popular activity, their staff are mindful of keeping a respectful distance from the mammals, while the company’s marine biologists are constantly monitoring the whale behaviour and collecting data.

For prices, itineraries, booking and more information on other cruises, see www.sailhawaii.com.

Whale-watching in Québec

Québec sits at the narrowing of the St Lawrence River (the word Québec means “narrowing” in the Algonquin language), which opens out to the estuary and gulf of St Lawrence where, just a few hours from the city centre – and from mid-May to mid-October – it’s possible to see thirteen species of whale, among them the blue, fin, humpback, killer and minke.

The variety of whales is impressive, but it’s the respectful manner in which you are taken to see them that marks Québec’s whale-watching operators as world leaders. Aboard a cruise boat, inflatable or kayak, knowledgeable guides will give guests an insight into the behaviour of the whales, their habitat and the ecology of the surrounding region. The operators have to apply for a permit and follow strict regulations that ensure they not only deliver memorable encounters with the whales but they do so without unduly disturbing the animals: boats aren’t allowed closer than 100m to the whales, swimming within 200m is prohibited, and the maximum speed in an observation zone is ten knots. As a result, the gulf of St Lawrence continues to be a safe sanctuary and bountiful feeding ground for these beautiful creatures – and a sure bet for viewings.

For a list of whale-watching operators see www.quebecmaritime.ca and www.aventure-ecotourisme.qc.ca.

Ready to go beyond the boat, and see beautiful sea animals up close and personal? Don't miss our guide to the best dive sites in the world.

Watch whales feeding in the Strait of Magellan

It’s all part of the nature of things, but herring don’t stand a great chance of survival when there’s a group of humpback whales circling in on them. These enormous marine mammals work together to catch their prey – some blow bubbles under the herring while others grunt and scream to scare them up to the surface. When the bubbles rise up through the water, the school of herring form an inescapable tight ball, the cue for a whale to rise up and gulp down a healthy mouthful of fish.

This remarkable spectacle is known as “bubblenet feeding” and you have a good chance of seeing it in the Francisco Coloane Marine Park in the Strait of Magellan, at the southern tip of South America where the Atlantic and Pacific oceans collide. It’s home to Chile’s first marine area, set up to protect the summer feeding-ground for humpback whales, sea lions and fur seals, and also to conserve the nesting areas for Magellanic penguins.

A local travel company, Whalesound, run by a group of conservationists and marine biologists, organizes three-day boat trips into the Strait of Magellan to observe the whales, other mammals and seabirds in the marine park. By staying at such a remote location – at the foot of the continent – you experience a strong sense of how harsh and wild a place this is, while across the continental divide lies Antarctica, one of the most fragile ecosystems on the planet.

For prices, booking and more details about Whalesound’s support of scientific research contact +56 6171 0511.

Watch dolphins with a former hunter, Japan

Staring out from the bow of the Kohkaimaru, skipper Izumi Ishii points at an indistinct point amid the waves. “Bottlenose dolphin”, he says. It’s just possible to distinguish the grey triangle of a fin – you think – before the dolphin helps you out by leaping obligingly into the air. Izumi Ishii’s skill at finding dolphins and whales comes from a life looking for them in the waters around the pretty harbour town of Futo, on Honshu’s Izu peninsula. But it is only in the last few years that he has had tourists on board. Before that he was a hunter.

In 2003, however, he had a change of heart, and with the help of the American NGO Blue Voice established one of the few dolphin-watching businesses in Japan, right in the heartland of its hunting industry. In his spare time Izumi Ishii works to persuade other fishermen that his path is a more profitable one – financially and ethically. Already the volume of tourists wanting to come on his tours is too great for him to handle alone, and other fishermen are getting involved. If visitors keep coming to Futo to see the dolphins and whales, then, here at least, they will be better protected.

Izumi Ishii’s website is currently only in Japanese, but he can be emailed on eohkaimaru@nifty.com or contacted through www.bluevoice.org.

Go on a dolphin safari, Pakistan

A devastating mix of over-hunting, dam building and declining water levels has had terrible effects on the Indus River dolphin, to the extent that there are reportedly only one thousand of them left in the world, all in Pakistan. Grey-brown, stocky and functionally blind, these dolphins have a peculiar and unique trick: swimming on their side while underwater, they use one fin to feel their way along the bottom, then roll to the surface to take in air, appearing to wave with their other fin.

Instead of hunting the dolphins for their blubber, local fishermen are now working with The Adventure Foundation of Pakistan to earn a better living by taking guests on dolphin “boat safaris”. For two days aboard the fishermen’s wooden sail-boats, guests glide down part of the 900km stretch of the Indus, searching for these rare mammals. Unobtrusive hydrophones, used to pick up the dolphins’ sonic communication, are dropped into the water, so unlike many other invasive and damaging tours – which might involve feeding or swimming with the dolphins – The Adventure Foundation ensures that your contact with them is as discreet as possible.

For prices and more information contact +92 (0) 512 825 805.

Pink dolphins in Hong Kong harbour


© pruit phatsrivong/Shutterstock

Hong Kong – one of the most densely populated urban centres on Earth – hardly sounds like a place where you’d encounter dolphins. Pink dolphins at that: a surreal rose-coloured strain of river dolphin that became the official mascot for the handover of sovereignty in 1997.

Fantastic as they are, these fairytale creatures may not be with us much longer. Faced with chronic pollution of their waters, habitat loss and overfishing of their food sources, the population left in Hong Kong is now suspected to be fewer than a hundred. One of the best ways to help them survive is to take a boat trip with HK Dolphinwatch, which uses visitor fees to raise awareness of the dolphins’ plight and demonstrate their economic value as a tourist attraction. As you cruise through the crowded shipping lanes of one of the world’s busiest harbours, your guide will explain about this curious creature and the threats it faces. All the while, everyone will be on the lookout for tell-tale flashes of pink in the water. If by chance you don’t see them – and on 97 percent of tours you do – you’ll get a free ride next time.

For times, fares and bookings see www.hkdolphinwatch.com.

Monitor whales off the Bahamas

On an eleven-day Earthwatch volunteer trip to stay with marine biologist Diane Claridge on Abaco Island, you spend every other day out on the boat recording the behaviour of whales and dolphins that gather in the waters of the Bahama Banks to feed. Schools of dolphins often follow you, jumping into the air or across the boat’s wake. Sometimes you’ll spot reef sharks in the shallows. And if there are none of them around and a bit of time to kill, you can leap off and swim around the reefs.

On the days not tracking whales and dolphins you are back at the research station on the beach at Sandy Point, entering your data into the log and identifying animals by matching photos taken out at sea with ones stored in the files. It’s an amazing insight into the life of a marine scientist, and will provide many more intimate encounters with cetaceans than any brief whale-watching trip can give you. An experience like this might change how you feel about volunteering, or even what you are doing with the rest of your life.

For details and itineraries see www.earthwatch.org/expeditions/claridge.html.

Ready to travel and discover

Get support from our local experts for
stress-free planning & worry-free travels

Plan my trip ⤍