6 Tips for Whale Watching with Families : A Whale of Good Time for All



I can’t say that I am sea life crazy, but my daughters love maritime creatures. My younger daughter, Tigerlily, has a particular love for sharks. Her great dream is to see the whale sharks make their passage through the Gulf of Mexico. My older daughter, perhaps an echo of her more thoughtful nature, prefers the Ocean’s great mammals–whales. And, as such, I, a mother with such severe motion sickness that I feel nauseous typing this, have found myself on animal watching adventures in two oceans and one sea. Here are some tips that I have gleaned over many a boating safari, as it were.

Whale Boat

Know your Boats and You Kids:

My daughters might love the sea more than me, but they have also gained my serious motion-sickness. (Everyone turns into their mom in the end ;>)  Whale watching can be done from a variety of boats. A variety of small boats, like Zodiacs, are fabulous to get close up to the whale. We have seen families that come spilling off the Zodiacs with smiles as big as Jacques Cousteau.  But, truth be told, can’t say that I have experienced them.  I once got close but then I chickened out. For me, the goal is that the boat is big enough that I only feel queasy enough to take 1/2 a Dramamine. I want to be sentient enough to remember the whales; and any more Dramamine, I would be snoring. That said, there is an upper limit to the size of boat. A very large boat and you will be acres away from your quarry. The ideal boat has one deck and holds about 50 people. This boat will rock less than a Zodiac but still be able to approach the whales.

Know your whales and their season:

Whale watching can be pricey if you take a boating excursion. And, even if you just watch from the shore, there is nothing worse for kids than being disappointed. I am obsessive in my research before even mentioning the possibility of whale watching.  First, understand the region that you are visiting. For example, in Saguenay in Quebec, August is THE season. If you go with your kids in December, who knows, you might see a whale. But, if it were me, I would rather be pretty darn sure that we would see a whale. As such, we went in August.

A good whale watching outfit will post sightings. Go back and check their postings for the year before your planned visit. Then check one year and one week before and after your visit, because, well, whales don’t have Google Calendar. Do these journals seem to indicate a good number of sightings? Are they surprised at the number of sightings (so something that might not happen in subsequent years)? Do they mention the frequency as being normal seasonally?

Whale in Canada

Be with the Good Guys

There are some seriously unethical outfits out there making money watching whales. Once when we were in Monterey Bay, we saw a boat almost crash into a Grey Whale calf. I watched for minutes, holding my breath, until the mother and calf appeared again, unharmed but shaken. My own daughters were visibly shaken to see the whole incident. We always check the ethics information on the website. They should discuss how they maintain a safe environment for the animals. We have many times been out at sea waiting for the animals to leave us because our boat won’t turn on its engines. But, it also meant more time with the whales, so who is complaining.

Get there earlier but don’t expect to get back early

The boats that go out also really want to see whales. But, they also want to make customers happy. As such, they start on time. They usually tell you to be there 30 or 45 minutes early, but I am pretty sure that is to trick people just to be on time. That said, plan for more than the time suggested on the ticket. Don’t schedule something right after your boating adventure. Now, certainly, you might get back early. But, I have usually ended about 30 minutes later than planned most times.

Whale Watching

Bring a snack, Bring a Coat, and Bring Sunblock

No matter how warm the port might have been, the wind off the ocean can be chilly. You don’t want to be trapped inside when everyone else is enjoying the whale views. Dress in layers, and bring a backpack to stuff the unneeded layers away. While it may be chilly, on a good sunny day, the rays will be unrelenting. Naturally brown, I rarely burn. But, I have had some of the worst burns of my life on boats. Finally, as I said above, time sort of stands still. My daughters are constantly hungry. So, being out to sea without food, or worse overpriced, nasty food, is a nightmare. So, I also have some bland snacks to keep them full and prevent nausea.

Here is my go to list for whale watching:

  • Sweater or fleece jacket for layering
  • Raincoat
  • A hat
  • Good sunglasses
  • Camera & Extra batteries/ SD Card
  • Water
  • Snacks
  • Nausea medicine (take it about 1/2 hour before getting on a boat)
  • Sunscreen
  • Binocular

Enjoy Whales from Land

We have actually seen as many whales from land as we have from boats. There are some wonderful places to see whales without worrying about motion-sickness. For example, you can see orcas from your beachside tent in the San Juan Islands. We have seen whales from our parking spot on the Oregon coast, and while relaxing on the beach on the Jersey shore. I have found that shore whale watching, even more than from a boat, really requires binoculars or else a good zooming camera. Also, you will need to be seriously observant.

Some tell tale signs:

  • A flock of birds appears to swoop down at the sea.
  • Scores of very small fish glimmer in the ocean (looks like glitter).
  • The surface of the water looks glossier like an oil slick compared to the chop nearby
  • A terrible smell (when the whales blow air it smells a bit like passing gas)

Whale Watching


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