Grab the binoculars and Dramamine: Whale-watching season is gearing up, especially on the West Coast, as the gentle giants slowly migrate from colder northern waters down south for the winter. Here, some recommendations for the best whale-watching tours and spots in North America, plus a newly announced camping and kayaking trip in Argentina that lets you paddle right up to the orcas.
First, a quick heads-up: While it should be an M.O. for any type of travel, there are no guarantees when it comes to whale-watching. Nature can flare up with some nasty waves, wind and fog. You might see nary a tail fin, and you might get seasick as a dog. But those unknowns make sightings even more enjoyable. Up your chances of a good experience by eating a carb-rich breakfast and packing anti-seasickness meds, plenty of layers, rainy-weather gear and a positive attitude.
Since moving to San Francisco this summer, I’ve been itching to take a trip to the Farallon Islands, a marine ecosystem about 27 miles off the coast that sits right smack in the migration pattern of blue, humpback, and gray whales. One tour operator that caught my eye is The Oceanic Society, which has excellent guides, operates year-round, and offers full- and half-day excursions, the latter of which starts at $45 from Half Moon Bay.
Another option for landlubbers, since the trip out to the Farallons has a reputation for being treacherous: whale-watching from land. At Point Reyes National Seashore, about 30 miles north of San Francisco, more than 90 percent of the world’s gray whales swim within a mile of the shore. The peak of the southern migration usually happens in mid-January, but even if you don’t see any whales, the lighthouse and its 308 stairs are worth a visit.
Further south, Newport Beach boasts some of the most fertile waters in California. December through April marks the traditional gray whale migration, while giant blue whales coming throughout the summer and fall makes for a world-class, year-round whale-watching hotspot. Newport Landing Whale Watching is one tour company to check out, with three vessels and a nifty page on its website that tracks whale counts. (As of this post, there were 258 sightings of gray whales and more than 1,000 of blue, plus other species and dolphins, too, so far in 2011.) From October to May, 2.5-hour trips are offered twice daily, starting at a wallet-friendly $31 for adults.
Another So-Cal hotspot: San Diego, where you can see more than 25,000 California gray whales on their way down to Baja’s warmer waters. A number of tour operators offer boat excursions, but on land, Cabrillo National Monument on Point Loma Peninsula is a great viewing area, where the massive mammals pass the lighthouse and the underwater observatory. Peak viewing season is in mid-January.
Whale-watching is just part of the fun on this recently announced trip from adventure outfitter Adventure Life. The five-day itinerary for the Peninsula Valdes Sea Kayaking will have you paddling among wildlife in Argentina’s Peninsula Valdes Nature Reserve, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s home to such creatures as sea lions, penguins, and southern right whales. By night, you’ll camp under the Patagonian sky at Beach El 39, a research area for southern right whales, whose data is reported to the Whale Conservation Institute and Ocean Alliance. Prices from $1,305 per person.