humpback whale over body of water

12 Best Destinations in the U.S. for Whale Watching

Travel
on
September 21, 2021

The whale is one of the world’s most elusive and sought-after animals. These majestic giants intrigue us for many reasons. It may be because whales are rather similar to us humans. They nurture each other, form friendships, grieve, play, sing and cooperate with one another. We’re also enamored with whales for their sheer size. The blue whale is the world’s largest animal; its heart is the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. 

To get a glimpse of one of these beautiful mammals is to be transported into a world of the unknown. There are many places for such an opportunity; here are 12 of the best destinations in the US for whale watching: 

1. San Juan Islands, Washington State

When to Go: Mid-April to Early-October

Whales You’ll See: Orca, Gray, Minke, and Humpback 

The San Juan Islands are one of the best places to get a glimpse of an orca, especially in fall. You’ll also have the chance to spot humpbacks, minkes, and gray whales. While there, make sure to visit Lime Kiln Point State Park, better known as “Whale Watch Park.” It has been touted as one of the best places on earth to view migrating whales.

orca whale in body of water
The Killer Whale (Orca) seen in the Strait of Georgia, north of the San Juan Islands. Photo by Ryan Stone.

2. Juneau, Alaska

When to Go: April to November

Whales You’ll See: Humpback and Orca

Visit the capital of Alaska for an opportunity to be one with the whales. Some whales stay in the area year-round, but the best time to observe them is between May and September. Humpbacks and orcas are the most popular to travel through Alaskan waters. The best places to see these giants from land is Amalga Harbor or the Rainforest Trail. For a more personal experience, reserve a spot on a whale-watching cruise.

humpback whales bubble net fishing in the ocean
Humpback whales bubble net fishing north of Juneau. Photo by Evadb; Edit by jjron., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Maui, Hawaii

When to Go: December to April

Whales You’ll See: Humpback 

Maui is one of the world’s best locations to view the mysterious humpback. The shallow waters are highly populated with these beautiful creatures in December, during mating season. If you’re lucky, you may see a baby humpback swimming alongside its mother.

whale tale above body of water
Whale tale in Maui, Hawaii. Photo by Abigail Lynn.

4. Monterey, California

When to Go: Year-Round

Whales You’ll See: Humpback, Killer, Blue, and Gray

Monterey Bay is a great place to spot whales without having to go out to sea. Expect to see humpbacks March through November and blue whales May through October. Gray whales migrate through Monterey December through May, while killer whales can be viewed April through May and again in August through October.

humpback whale in the water
A Humpback whale in Monterey Bay. Photo by Mike Doherty.

5. San Diego, California

When to Go: Mid-December to Mid-March

Whales You’ll See: Gray, Blue, and Fin 

There are plenty of options to see whales in San Diego. The coastline is lively year-round with whale activity, though the best times are from mid-December through April when gray whales migrate from feeding grounds in Alaska. Book a whale-watching tour or head over to the western overlook of Cabrillo National Monument for a chance to see a blue, gray, or fin whale in the Pacific Ocean.

gray whale in the water
Gray whale photographed while whale watching in San Diego. Photo by Steve Peck.

6. Depoe Bay, Oregon

When to Go: Year-Round

Whales You’ll See: Gray, Blue, and Humpback

Depoe Bay is a small, quaint town on the coast of Oregon that is known for its whale sightings. You can find a resident pod of gray whales through the months of March to December. View them, along with other species, from the Whale Watch Center, observation points along the shore, or on a charter boat.

gray whale in body of water
Gray whale spotted off the Oregon Coast near the town of Depoe Bay. Photo by Dan Meyers.

7. Cape Cod, Massachusetts 

When to Go: April to October

Whales You’ll See: Minke, Fin and Humpback 

Cape Cod is a premier location in the U.S. to whale watch. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a protected area that stretches from Cape Ann to Cape Cod. Even the local cruises guarantee a 99% whale-spotting success rate. If seeing a whale in its natural habitat is on your bucket list, Cape Cod offers a great opportunity.

humpback whale near Cape Cod
Humpback whale captured in Provincetown (Cape Cod), Massachusetts. Photo by Thomas Kelley.

8. Bar Harbor, Maine

When to Go: Mid-April to October

Whales You’ll See: Fin, Minke, Sperm, Right, Sei and Humpback  

The Gulf of Maine, in the charming town of Bar Harbor, is an ideal habitat for whales to find plenty of food. Take a whale-watching tour in the Atlantic, or if you would rather stay on land, visit Acadia National Park to get a good view of these lovable giants. Just remember to bring your binoculars!

whale above body of water
A humpback whale breaches unexpectedly in the waters of Bar Harbor, Maine. Photo by Amy Humphries.

9.  Long Island, New York 

When to Go: July to September 

Whales You’ll See: Finback, Humpback, Sei, Right, Sperm and Blue 

You’ll find at least 25 different species of whales feeding from the abundant coastline off of Long Island. Set sail from Montauk for an exciting whale-watching experience where you’ll not only have the chance to see whales but dolphins, seals, and sea turtles, as well.

tale of the humback whale in the water
Humpback whale in the waters of New York/New Jersey Bight. Photo by Ryan Mandelbaum.

10.  Cape May, New Jersey

When to Go: Year-Round

Whales You’ll See: Humpback, Finback, and Right 

Most of the whales near Cape May aren’t migratory; they visit the local waters to feed, which offers a great opportunity to view them year-round. Reserve a spot with the Research Center, and become a Citizen Scientist for a few hours while you assist a team with ongoing research.

white boat with people on deck
A boat trip with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center. Photo by Jim the Photographer.

11.  Virginia Beach, Virginia 

When to Go: December to March

Whales You’ll See: Humpback 

Humpback whales love the warm waters near Virginia Beach. The best time to see one would be mid-January, though they have been spotted as early as December. Book a tour in the Atlantic Ocean to have a chance to see a humpback up close and personal as they flop their tails high in the sky.

humpback whale in body of water
Humpback whales playing off of Virginia Beach, VA. Photo by B Smith.

12.  Jacksonville, Florida

When to Go: November to April

Whales You’ll See: North Atlantic Right 

Right whales, also known as black whales, got their name because it was deemed, at the time, as the “right” whale to hunt. Hunters and climate change have sadly made these whales one of the world’s most endangered species. The best time to get a glimpse of these special animals is mid-December in and around Jacksonville.

North Atlantic right whale in the water
This North Atlantic right whale near Daytona Beach was previously disentangled by a team of state and federal biologists. Photo by NOAA Photo Library.

Have a Whale of a Time

Getting a chance to see a whale is an exciting and breathtaking adventure. There are plenty of opportunities in the U.S. for such an event, with the best times occurring in the fall and winter months.

That being said, it’s important to be prepared for your whale-watching journey with proper gear such as a rain jacket, water-resistant pants, rain boots, and a waterproof bag for your camera. (If you’re into nature photography, check out our Guide to Nature Photography Clothing & Personal Gear!)

Have fun and safe travels as you have an experience of a lifetime with the giants of the sea!

For more wildlife viewing opportunities, check out the 8 Once-in-a-Lifetime North American Wildlife Viewing Adventures.

Featured Image – Humpback whale near Boston, Massachusetts, USA. Photo by Todd Cravens.

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