Shore-Watch: How to go Whale Watching Without Getting in a Boat
By Charlotte Regan
Shore-watching can be a great way to see whales, dolphins and porpoises in their natural environments. From cliff tops, beaches and harbours, coastlines of all sorts can provide fantastic vantage points from which to observe cetaceans from the shore.
With recent research raising concerns about the potential negative impact increasing numbers of whale watching and dolphin watching boat tours are having on marine mammal populations, one of the best things about land-based watching is that you can be absolutely sure that you are leaving the lightest possible footprint on the environments and behaviours of these awesome creatures. Plus, you don’t need any fancy equipment to shore-watch – just some binoculars and maybe a little bit of patience!
So, when travelling, remember that there may well be great opportunities to see dolphins and whales on your doorstep, without disturbing their natural habitats. To help get you started, we’ve identified ten locations across the world with great potential for cetacean spotting from the shore!
1. Moray Firth, Scotland:
North and East of Inverness, the Moray Firth is home to a small population of around 192 bottlenose dolphins, as well minke whales, harbour porpoises, common and whitebeaked dolphins, all providing great opportunities for shore-based cetacean spotting. Although there are numerous good vantage points along the length of the coastline, Chanonry Point is a very popular choice, providing great views across the Moray Firth and the chance to see dolphins feeding only metres from the shore. The inner Firth is protected as a Special Area of Conservation for the resident population of bottlenose dolphins, which face a variety of threats in such a busy area. The Whale and Dolphin Society (www.wdcs.org), who are engaged in a long term project to protect the dolphin communities here, have two visitor centres in the Moray Firth area (at Spey Bey and North Kessock), each offering marine viewing points, as well as information on watching cetaceans and other wildlife from land.
2. Cape Clear, Ireland:
Cape Clear Island is Ireland’s southernmost inhabited island, 13km off the coast of West Cork. Positioned close to a whale migration route, Cape Clear is a great place to observe some of the 24 species of whales and dolphins (and basking sharks) that can be seen in Irish waters from land. If further confirmation of Cape Clear’s whale and dolphin-watching credentials is needed, the Irish Whale and Dolphin Group (www.iwdg.ie) host their regular whale-watching courses here! Back on the mainland of Ireland, Mizen Head is a world renowned dolphin and whale-watching location with high cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, making it a great place to see harbour porpoises, dolphins and minke whales from land (www.mizenhead.ie).
3. New Quay, Wales:
Home to Europe’s largest population of bottlenose dolphins, Cardigan Bay in Wales is a designated Special Area of Conservation due to its importance to a variety of marine wildlife. As well as being a focus for marine research in the area, the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre, based in New Quay, also has a visitor centre (open between April and November) offering plenty of information and exhibits on local wildlife, as well as good dolphin sighting opportunities with views over the harbour (www.cbmwc.org). Cetacean sightings can occur at any time of year, but mostly between April and November – the Visit Wales website has more information on the area here: www.visitwales.com/explore/mid-wales/ceredigion/cardigan-bay-dolphin-spotting. While New Quay probably offers the best bet for a dolphin sighting, keen eyed spotters may well see dolphins from anywhere along the coast, between Aberystwyth and Fishguard.
4. The Azores, Portugal:
About 1500 km west of Portugal, the Azores consist of nine volcanic islands situated in the North Atlantic Ocean and the surrounding waters offer home to a wide variety of cetaceans including sperm, blue, fin and sei whales and bottlenose, spotted, common and Risso’s dophins. Until as recently as the 1980s whales were hunted in the Azorean waters, however, contemporary whale-watchers can now benefit from a number of whale observation points called vigias which can be found at various points over several of the islands. Once used to locate whales for hunting, these observation points can now be used to help travellers spot cetacean activity from the shore. See www.visitazores.com/en/experience-the-azores/whale/where for further information.
5. Northwest Iceland
Despite being one of the few countries to persist in hunting whales for commercial gain, Iceland also has a large whale-watching industry making it the whale-watch capital of northern Europe. Around 23 species of cetacean can be found in Icelandic waters, providing home for a variety of whales, although many only stay for the summer months. The Northwestern coastline provides the best opportunity to view whales, mostly minke, though occasionally orcas, humpbacks and other whales and dolphins, with the best spots for sightings based on headlands at the entrances to rivers and fjords. Although Iceland’s contemporary whale-hunting practices raises questions over its suitability as an animal-friendly tourist destination (last year, for example, 134 fin whales and 38 minke whales were reportedly killed by hunting in Iceland), there are those who believe that the whale-watching industry may just hold the key to stopping whale-hunting practices for good. IceWhale (The Association of Icelandic Whale Watchers) work closely with IFAW (International Fund for Animal Welfare) to end commercial whaling through a positive campaign highlighting that the most sustainable way to enjoy whales is by whale-watching, not whale-hunting – for more information on their ‘Meet US, Don’t Eat US’ campaign see icewhale.is/and www.ifaw.org/united-states/our-work/whales/meet-us-don’t-eat-uscampaign-take-whale-meat-menu-tourists.
6. Newfoundland, Canada:
With over 202,000 km of Canadian coastline, it’s not surprising that over 30 species of whale can be found in the surrounding waters. Between May and September, a host of different whales, including minke, sperm, pothead, blue orca, and humpbacks, can be seen in the waters and from the shores. Hiking and walking trails offer myriad opportunities for whale-watching from the cliffs and beaches alike. While cetaceans can be seen all along the coastline, the Canadian Department of Tourism, Culture and Recreation recommend Signal Hill, Cape Spear, Trinity, Cape Bonavista, Twillingate, White Bay, Strait of Belle Isle, St. Vincent’s, Cape St. Mary’s, Cape Race, Witless Bay, and St. Anthony. For more places to go, see here for Canada’s whale-watching ‘hot spots’ map: www.newfoundlandlabrador.com/ThingsToDo/WhaleWatching.
7. Lime Kiln Point State Park, Washington, USA:
Lime Kiln Point is one of many National Parks in Washington State, USA (www.parks.wa.gov/540/Lime-Kiln-Point). Set on the far west side of San Juan Island, Lime Kiln Point is considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from a land-based facility. Whale-watching season is from May to September, but June and July are considered the best times to try and spot the minke whales, orcas, porpoises and other marine animals which cruise the coastline. Lime Kiln Point is one of a number of sites on ‘The Whale Trail’, a series of especially identified sites around the American Northwest where the public may view orcas, and other marine mammals from the shore. For other great whale-watching vantage points in the Northwest, see the official Whale Trail website at thewhaletrail.org.
8. San Diego, California, USA:
Further south along the west coast of America, Cabrillo National Monument, California, provides an awesome opportunity to see pacific grey whales from the shore as they pass by on their way from the Arctic to the bays of Baja California, Mexico, between mid-December and mid-March, though the peak of the migration occurs around mid-January. Best spots for viewing the passing greys are the Whale Overlook and Old Point Loma Lighthouse, although the glass-enclosed observatory at Cabrillo National Monument provides views and a bit of shelter too. The visitor centre also has information about ranger talks and whale-watching, and park staff are happy to help visitors spot the passing whales. For further information on the park (and top whale-watching tips) see the US National Parks website here: www.nps.gov/cabr/naturescience/whales.htm.
9. Byron Bay, New South Wales, Australia:
Over 50% of the world’s cetaceans are found in Australian waters, with at least 45 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises visiting or living permanently in Australia. The New South Wales coastline provides multiple opportunities for whale-watching between June and November, with numerous vantage points stretching the length of the coast from Byron Bay right down to Eden. The New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife service provides advice about where best to spot whales and a map of the top spots here: www.wildaboutwhales.com.au/Top-spots.
10. Walker Bay, South Africa:
Hermanus in South Africa (situated about 80 miles west of Cape Town) provides some of the best opportunities for land-based whale-watching in the world. Located at the southernmost tip of Africa, the surrounding waters provide home to more than 30 different species of whale and dolphin, though the area is most closely associated with the southern right whale which come to the area to calve. Whale-watching season runs from June to November, with the annual week long Whale Festival attracting over 100,000 visitors each year!
RIGHT-tourism on wildlife watching
Have you been shore-watching at any of these locations? Let us know what you saw!
To read more about whale or dolphin watching, click on the tags to the left