Seeing these majestic creatures in their natural environment is a profoundly moving experience, something that deserves to rank highly on every traveller's bucket list. A small ship expedition cruise is the very best way to see these animals up close, with opportunities to spot whales from both your ship and on excursions by small Zodiac boat, accompanied by expert naturalist guides. Some of the world's most scenic expedition cruise destinations also happen to be great locations for whale watching, allowing you to search for cetaceans against the backdrop of Antarctic icebergs, Russian volcanoes and Mexican deserts. And where there are whales, there is likely to be a plethora of other marine and birdlife too, attracted to those biodiversity hotspots where the ocean is rich in nutrients.
The migratory nature of whales means that there are destinations where you can see them every month of the year, ranging from colder regions around the poles to warm-water destinations in the tropics. On some expedition cruises, whales will be just one of many types of wildlife you'll be searching for, while in other destinations, such as the Sea of Cortez, whale watching will be the main focus of your trip. In this article, we've put together a list of the very best whale watching destinations you can visit on an expedition cruise. While our selection is not exhaustive, these are the places that we think you should put at the top of your list...
1. Sea of Cortez
Mexico's Sea of Cortez is surprisingly little known as a tourist destination, yet it is arguably the world's number one spot for whale and dolphin watching. Wedged between the Baja California peninsula and the Mexican mainland, this rich body of water was memorably described by Jacques Cousteau as 'the world's aquarium'. The expedition cruise season runs from November through to April, with the chance to spot species including blue, fin, minke, Bryde's, pilot, orca, sperm and humpback whales. Lindblad Expeditions and UnCruise Adventures are the key cruise lines, and most itineraries will also include a short overland trip across the Baja peninsula to Bahía Magdalena, where gray whales gather in huge numbers from January to calve. Other marine life in the region includes sea lions, whale sharks, mobula rays and huge pods of common and bottlenose dolphins.
Antarctica is best known for its plethora of penguins and its dramatic icy scenery, but this is also a fantastic whale watching destination, with whales lured south by an abundance of krill. Your opportunities to spot marine mammals begin with the notorious Drake Passage crossing, while hotspots around Antarctica itself include the stunning Lemaire Channel, sometimes known as the 'Kodak Gap' thanks to its photogenic scenery. February and March are the best months for whale watching in Antarctica, with the chance to see species including humpback, sperm, minke and southern right whale, as well as pods of hungry orca hunting penguins amongst the ice floes.
During summer the nutrient-rich waters around Alaska are a feeding ground for whales including orcas, humpbacks, belugas, minke and gray whales, as well as Dall's porpoises and sea lions. Orcas and minke can be seen in Alaska year round, but the main attraction for most cruise visitors are the humpbacks, with June and July the best time to see them bubble-net feeding, a remarkable technique where the whales use their blowholes to corral and confuse their prey with a wall of bubbles. Certain Alaskan ports can be very busy with big cruise ships during summer, and you may find that the main whale watching spots are rather crowded, but an expedition cruise on a smaller ship will take you away from the masses and give you the chance to get up close on a Zodiac.
4. Russian Far East
Just across the Bering Strait from Alaska lies the Russian Far East, a wild and remote region of snow-capped volcanoes, rusting Soviet military bases and incredible marine life. Here you can see many of the same whale species you can see in Alaska, including orcas, humpbacks, minke and fin whales, but unlike Alaska you're very unlikely to see any other tourists. Regions such as the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Commander Islands are particularly known for their orcas, and you also have the chance to spot rare species such as North Pacific right whales and western gray whales. Other wildlife to look out for includes walruses, harbour porpoises, Dall's porpoises, fur seals, brown bears, Steller's sea eagles and several species of puffin, and you may even see polar bears if you venture up into the Russian Arctic.
The rich waters around the Galapagos support an abundance of marine life, and species including orca, sperm, Bryde's whale and orcas are present in the archipelago year round, along with common and bottlenose dolphins. The best time for whale watching in the Galapagos is generally during the cooler summer months, when the Humboldt current brings plankton and nutrients to the surface of the water and groups of migrating humpback whales can sometimes be spotted. You may even see whale sharks in the far north of the archipelago, and blue whales are seasonal visitors. Of course, most people come to the Galapagos to see endemic species such as marine iguanas and Galapagos penguins, so you won't find itineraries focused solely on cetaceans, but sightings are quite common in the channel between the western islands of Isabela and Fernandina.
You can go whale watching on both the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of Patagonia, but the number one spot has to be the Valdés Peninsula on Argentina's east coast. The waters around Puerto Madryn fill with migrating right whales from June to December, and at the beginning of the season the whales come so close to the shore that you can even watch them from the pier. It's also possible to see orcas hunting here, while further down the coast at Puerto Deseado you can see the remarkable Commerson's dolphin, with its unique black and white colouring. Other whale watching hotspots in Patagonia include the Corcovado Gulf, where blue whales can sometimes be spotted, and Francisco Coloane Marine Park in the Chilean Fjords, home to humpback whales and orcas. Take a look at Patagonia specialists Australis if you're interested in exploring this region by small ship.
You don't have to travel halfway around the world to see whales and dolphins, and indeed you can sometimes see both off the coast of the UK. However, the best short haul cruise destination from the UK for whale watching is Iceland, with the northern town of Husavík consistently rated one of the world's best whale watching destinations. Look out for species including minke, humpback and orca, and learn more about these gentle giants at Husavík's Whale Museum. Summer is the best time to see whales around Iceland (and puffins!), with the peak season extending through June, July and August.
8. Greenland & Northwest Passage
Summer is prime whale watching season amongst Greenland's plunging fjords and ice-clogged bays. Disko Bay is a particularly scenic spot to see humpback, minke and fin whales, and earlier in the season you may also see bowheads, belugas and narwhals, the 'unicorn of the sea'. Bowheads and narwhals are particularly hard to spot, as they tend to favour the areas around the edge of the pack ice, heading north during the summer as the ice retreats. Expedition cruises that visit Qaanaaq in the far north of Greenland are your best bet, or an itinerary that combines Greenland with a transit of the fabled Northwest Passage through Arctic Canada to Alaska.
9. West Papua
West Papua is situated at the heart of the 'Coral Triangle', an incredible biodiversity hotspot in the southwestern Pacific. The warm waters are home to colourful tropical fish, green and hawksbill turtles, manta rays and walking sharks, and it's a popular destination for scuba divers. But the star attraction is Cenderawasih Bay, known as the 'whale shark capital of the world'. Encounters with whale sharks in the wild are normally fleeting, but in Cenderawasih Bay these giant creatures linger close to the surface to feed on small fish that spill from the nets of the local fishermen, and it's normal to see four or five whale sharks on a single dive. And you don't even need to be a diver, as it's possible to see whale sharks even when swimming or snorkelling - make sure you pack your underwater camera! Usually the only way to visit the area is on a specialist live aboard dive boat, but Australian small ship specialists True North operate a limited number of West Papua voyages each year.
10. Indian Ocean
If you don't want to travel all the way to West Papua to see whale sharks, the Maldives is another great option. These scattered coral atolls are normally more associated with lounging on a beach, but the warm waters of the Indian Ocean are also home to an incredible diversity of marine life. Along with whale sharks you have the chance to spot species including Bryde's, blue, sperm and Blainville's beaked whales, plus spinner, rough-toothed and bottlenose dolphins, various shark species, manta rays, sea turtles and a kaleidoscope of colourful fish. Look out for Ponant's occasional Maldives cruises, specifically designed for divers and snorkellers. Another great destination for whale watching in the Indian Ocean is Sri Lanka, though expedition cruises are less common here.