Everything you need to know about whale watching holidays
You never forget your first whale. The impact it makes upon you is huge and life is never quite the same again. My first whale was a 40ft grey, off the coast of California in 1979, and I’ve been a whale addict ever since. Now I have to go whale watching at regular intervals just to survive normal daily life.
I may be crazy but I am certainly not alone. The world is brimming with “whale junkies”: since its beginnings in the mid-Fifties, whale watching has grown exponentially and now more than 13 million people join organised whale watching trips every year.
The trouble is that a few hours of whale watching simply isn’t enough: you go out in the morning and, by lunchtime, you are planning your next trip; by teatime, you are planning the one after that. Before you realise what has happened, all your holidays revolve around whales; the only books you read are ones about whales; you wear whale T-shirts, and every time you meet your friends you talk about whales.
So what is it about these larger-than-life animals that makes them so special? Their sheer size is one possible explanation: imagine sitting in a small boat next to a blue whale almost as long as a Boeing 737; only a lump of rock could remain unmoved by an experience like that. The fact that we know so little about them is another possibility: modern technology has taken us to the moon and beyond, yet we are only just beginning to understand these extraordinary forms of intelligent life on our own planet. They are great fun to watch, too: humpback whales, for example, routinely leap into the air and land back in the water with a tremendous splash.
Then there is the striking – and deeply moving – level of trust that many whales show towards people. We hunted them without pity, with cruel, explosive harpoons, until they were on the verge of extinction (we still hunt them today, albeit on a smaller scale). Yet they seem to have forgiven us for all those years of greed, recklessness and cruelty and they trust us, when we don’t really deserve to be trusted. It’s a truly humbling experience when an enormous whale comes alongside the boat and greets you like an old friend.
What to see
There are many species of whales around the world, but here are 10 of the most popular, or highly sought-after, among whale watchers:
Often regarded as the friendliest whale, found only in the North Pacific, mainly along the west coast of North America.
Southern right whale
Breeds off South America, southern Africa and Australasia, and is unmistakable, with strange-looking callosities (hardened patches of skin) on its head, and often highly active at the surface.
The only large whale found exclusively in the Arctic and rarely seen except on expedition cruises to remote corners of Greenland and Canada.
Top of the wishlist for many whale watchers, an elusive high Arctic species, best known for the male’s long tusk (actually an elongated tooth).
Found worldwide, from the poles to the tropics, and especially popular with whale watchers because it is so inquisitive and acrobatic.
A relatively small and undemonstrative whale, but the one most often seen around the coasts of Britain.
The largest animal known to have lived on Earth and the holy grail for whale watchers, but very rare these days after years of intensive whaling.
The original Moby Dick, with an enormous head and wrinkled skin, the sperm whale is such a deep diver it behaves more like a submarine than an air-breathing mammal.
Short-finned pilot whale
A familiar sight in warm waters in many parts of the world and so intensely social that it is almost never seen alone.