Did you know? Primitive whales are descended from land-living mammals, probably first taking to the sea about 50 million years ago where they became fully aquatic about 5 to 10 million years later. Like all mammals, whales breathe air, are warm-blooded, nurse their young, and have body hair. Whales range in size from the blue whale, the largest animal known ever to have existed at 30 meters (98 ft), to various pygmy species, such as the pygmy sperm whale at 3.5 meters (11 ft). Today, whales are the hippopotamus’s closest living relatives.
In a 2009 study, the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) noted that 13 million people participated in whale watching in 119 countries and territories in the previous year, generating $2.1 billion. While recognizing that expertise and responsible tourism standards vary widely, an estimated 3,300 operators around the world currently offer day- or multi-day whale watching trips. North America remains the world’s largest whale watching destination, with over 6.2 million participants in 2008 – nearly 50% of the world’s whale watchers. How can Travel with a Challenge readers enjoy such ocean-based opportunities in an ethical manner, being assured that their encounters with these amazing creatures are respectfully delivered?
Todd Smith, founder of AdventureSmith Explorations, has transformed his lifelong personal passion for sharing the natural world into a company that creates educational travel opportunities for nature lovers to take sea voyages on small, comfortable expedition ships averaging 100 passengers. Because of their size and flexibility, these ships are able to navigate waters where the whales are known to congregate, thus bringing cruisers into close proximity with various whale species during different seasons.
Todd speaks of a whale encounter aboard a small ship, in a zodiac or while paddling a kayak as “one of the most incredible wildlife experiences of a lifetime,” offering his personal favorites to get up close with Earth’s largest mammals. “But we wouldn’t be responsible travelers,” he cautions, “if we didn’t recognize that the goal of all whale watching should be to observe the animals without changing their behavior. If outside presence influences a whale’s activity, it means we are too close.
In Alaskan waters, a Humpback whale and kayakers share a close encounter. InnerSea Discoveries
“Once while leading a group of 12 kayakers off a small ship in Alaska, our group encountered a pod of six Humpback whales feeding on the rich waters just outside Glacier Bay National Park. The whales came fairly close so I gathered our group’s kayaks together into a flotilla so the whales had a better chance to see or sense us,” Todd recalls. “I encouraged everyone to be quiet so we could hear the loud blasts of spray as the whales exhaled. I heard a woman next to me weeping and I asked if she was OK, concerned she was nervous about our proximity to these huge animals. She said through her tears, ‘No, I am not scared. I’m simply overwhelmed.”’
Some whale species have made their homes in particular regions of the world. Some migrate around a relatively limited neighborhood, while others migrate vast distances across great oceans of the world. Seasonal changes between the northern and southern hemispheres mean that a confirmed whale watcher may always find a species – or two or three – that makes a nature vacation truly memorable.
Here is a guide to each prime season for whale watching with different species as the star attractions. If you are a bucket list nature traveler and birds just do not appeal, you cannot go wrong with making a list of all 80+ whale species in the world you could see in order to motivate yourself to sign up for some first-class ocean adventure holidays. Southeast Alaska Panhandle and Inside Passage (mid June to late August): Migratory Humpback whales from Hawaii and Baja return to the nutrient rich waters of Coastal Alaska to spend the summer feeding. The combination of long days of sunlight, cold oxygen- and nutrient-rich water creates a bloom of plankton that is the foundation of a rich food chain many whales rely on to exist.
Around those food sources, whales often cooperate in feeding pods of six or more animals and their behavior and location becomes more predictable. One of the most amazing whale behaviors is bubble net feeding where whales work cooperatively to corral small fish in a net of bubbles they create. The whales then swim through the net with their mouths wide open, crashing to the surface in a cacophony of fish, whales and water. Orca or killer whales and Minke whales are also in Alaska waters during the summer months.
Beluga whales are most often spotted in Canadian and Norwegian waters. ©iStockphoto.com/Lingbeek
Norwegian Arctic/Spitsbergen (June to August): Back from migration come Gray, Blue, Fin, and Minke whales, but some of the world’s most unusual whales like the Bowhead, Beluga and Narwhal, make their home in the Arctic and subarctic year-round. Because of the Arctic’s extremely wild nature, it is not uncommon to find whale bones washed ashore or even polar bears feeding on a whale carcass.
Antarctica (December to February): Rich waters here attract whales from throughout the southern hemisphere. The most commonly seen species are Right, Blue, Sei, Humpback, Minke, Fin, Sperm and Killer whales. In Antarctica plentiful krill (a small shrimplike creature) provide a food source for migratory whales.
Whale greets expedition adventurers with a tail fluke display on an Antarctic cruise. Elke Lindner, Oceanwide Expeditions
Hawaiian Islands (December to April): Humpback whales visit Alaska to feed, then for the remainder of the year they don’t feed at all, or very little. Humpbacks visit the warm waters of Hawaii to mate and give birth to their calves. One of the most exciting scenes in Hawaii whale watching is a pod of males swimming, fin slapping, spy hopping and breaching in competition for a female.
It is also in Hawaii when these whales sing with their songs heard under the water for miles. Listen carefully for whale songs while snorkeling.
Mexico’s Baja Peninsula (January to April): San Ignacio Lagoon and Magdalena Bay on the Pacific Ocean side are winter calving grounds of the California Gray Whale. On the east side of the Baja Peninsula, the rich waters of the Sea of Cortez offer a sheltered seasonal home to Blue, Fin, Humpback, Pilot, and Sperm whales.
Blue whales, the largest creature on the planet, visit Mexico’s Baja Peninsula waters. American Safari Cruises
Founded in 2003, U.S.-based AdventureSmith Explorations, www.adventuresmithexplorations.com, works with carefully-selected expeditionary cruise operators to book clients right where the whale action is. In moving through exotic natural environments and exploring vibrant native cultures, this operator has dedicated its efforts to small footprint, sustainable travel, and has launched a carbon-free cruising initiative. Its off-the-beaten-path destinations include Alaska, Baja, Costa Rica, Belize, Ecuador and the Galapagos, Hawaii, Peru, the Arctic, Antarctica, and Australia.