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 TheHunt 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.”
For those with wobbly sea legs, there’s no land-based whale watch more striking than the view from the cliffs of California’s Big Sur. Hike along the coastal trails and beaches to observe blue, gray, and humpback whales. And since whales pass Monterey Bay on their way south to Baja and north to the Bering Sea, whale sighting here is a year-round activity.
The right whale is incredibly endangered—as surface feeders, they’re easily struck by ship traffic. In addition, they’re so full of blubber they float to the water’s surface when killed (and so were once considered the “right” whale to hunt). Today, only 350 North Atlantic right whales exist, and you can find nearly half of them (last year, 141) in the nutrient-rich waters of the Bay of Fundy.
Season: Late July to mid-October.
Check Out: The New England Aquarium keeps a blog detailing the behavior of the right whales each summer.
Just 80 miles north of the Dominican Republic, in the Silver Bank marine park, Atlantic humpbacks arrive each winter to breed. The water is incredibly clear, making it possible to see whales swimming below your boat while they sing. The humpbacks are protected, but snorkelers are allowed to swim alongside, say, a 45-foot, 40-ton humpback and stare into eyes as big as dinner plates.
Season: December to April.
Go Whale Watching: Run by a marine biologist, Victoria Marine/Whale Samaná is one of the most highly regarded whale tours in the Bahia Samaná.
“Elle souffle!” (the French equivalent of “thar she blows!”) is the call heard at the mouth of the mighty St. Lawrence, where the icy Labrador current meets freshwater flowing from the Saguenay Fjord to create a rich summer feeding ground for whales. The diversity is unparalleled—more than a dozen whale species, including giant blue, fin, and humpbacks—flock here at the height of the season. Plus, there’s a resident population of 1,200 stark white belugas.