North America's Best Whale-Watching Spots
Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures
Follow Ishmael’s footsteps: go whale watching, from the
banks of Cape Cod to the tropical shores of Hawaii.
The first sight was dreamlike: a white body piercing the
brilliant blue of the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Then I saw another, and another. So
many pure white islands bobbed to the surface that, before I could reach for my
camera, a pod of 25 beluga whales had circled our Zodiac. They dipped away and
returned, a spray of breath signaling their arrival. I was close enough to see
their faces—and I could swear they were smiling.
Of course, this run-in was no coincidence. My whale watch
from the Canadian village of Tadoussac set out with a singular mission: to spot
whales. And because whales populate North America’s shorelines, feeding,
calving, and playing along the same beaches we do, they’re easy to find,
depending on the time of year.
Whale watching is an increasingly popular activity; it can
also be intensely moving. “I’ve seen grown men burst into tears,” said Philip
Hoare in an interview; he is the prizewinning author of The Whale: In Search
of the Giants of the Sea and The Hunt for Moby Dick, a new
BBC documentary. “It’s such an emotional experience.”
The affinity, and sometimes antipathy, between mankind and
whales reaches across generations and has been well recorded in tales from
Jonah and the whale to Moby-Dick. While sailors and whales were once
sworn antagonists, the tide has turned in a single generation. Commercial
whaling peaked in 1965 and was outlawed in 1986, while recreational whale
tourism is steadily on the rise, growing by 10 percent each year into a $2.1
billion industry last year with some 13 million people going to see whales.
Fortunately, there are plenty of options. The denizens of
the deep are some of the greatest travelers on the planet—just like us, many
head south in winter. In Hawaiian waters, on-shore visitors can watch newborn
humpback calves learn to jump and play. In summer off Cape Cod, it appears
there are as many whales off the coast as there are tourists on it.
Whales can be seen on every continent, but remain new and
compelling puzzles. We catch only a glimpse of back, a spout, a fluke, or if
we’re lucky, a breech—leaving our mind to assemble the whole. In fact, mankind
saw images of the earth from space an entire generation before we captured a
full underwater picture of a whale. “They are utterly unfathomable,” says
Hoare. Or, in the words of Herman Melville, “I know him not and never will.”