Good morning! Expert Guide to Whale Watching 101

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This article is one of a series on how readers can learn the skills to participate in activities academics enjoy doing on the job.


There is no doubt that to see a whale rise from the depths of the ocean is something special. Whether it’s the first time you’ve seen a whale or you’ve seen a lot like me, it’s the thrill of hearing and sometimes smelling whales’ breath that asks you for more! It’s time to dust off your binoculars because we’re about to dive into learning how to whale watching.

When to see whales

Whale watching is a great outdoor activity that we can all enjoy from May to November every year in Australia. Thousands of humpback whales migrate from their feeding waters in Antarctica to the warm breeding waters of the north off the Kimberleys, Western Australia, and the Great Barrier Reef, Queensland.

These giants cross the sea and play an important ecological role in our marine environment.

What to look for

Ironically, trying to spot an animal the size of a bus isn’t always easy.

One of the first things to look for is that swollen telltale sign of a whale, its kick. Whales are mammals like you and me, which means they breathe air. Their nose is located above their head like a built-in snorkel.

A humpback whale breathes in the cool waters of Antarctica.
Photo: Vanessa Pirotta, Author provided

This allows the whales to breathe while they travel and without having to lift their heads out of the water. As they exhale, you may see a puffed bill or breath as a combination of water and air is blown upward as they exhale. This air comes directly from their lungs and is also known as whale snot.

Whale breath may stay longer when weather conditions are ideal, such as periods of good visibility and light wind. This is a great advantage for spotting a whale.

If you’re lucky, you might also spot a whale that breaches, that is, when it jumps out of the water. Humpback whales are most famous for this. We’re not sure exactly why whales do this, but it probably serves as a form of communication with other whales.

A humpback whale jumps out of the water in a behavior known as breaching.
A humpback whale breaches the coast of Manly, Sydney, Australia.
Photo: Vanessa Pirotta, Author provided

You will also be able to see other behaviors such as pec (arm) and tail snaps, rest on the surface, and spy-hopping – where a whale sticks its mouth and eyes out of the water to look around. .

After a dive, whales sometimes leave a whale print, which is a circular disturbance on the surface caused by the whale’s tail. This is where the whale last surfaced. The whale will now probably be further away from this location.

After a whale’s surface, it sometimes leaves a visible imprint on the surface.

Whale watching from a boat or on land, what could be better?

It depends. Some of the best whale sightings I have ever had have been from land. Elevated terrestrial viewing platforms such as those in national parks allow you to see further and further out to sea. This allows you to document the action of the whales much more, but from a distance.

But if you are looking for the salt on your face and the thrill of being on the water, then whale watching with a responsible ecotourism company is your best option. Australia has rules and regulations in place to protect whales and humans from each other. This means that humans must keep their distance from whales when they are on the water.

In some cases, whales may choose to approach your vessel and swim a short distance. This is called whale assault and there is nothing you can do but turn off the boat’s engines and enjoy the show.

Whale assault off the south coast of New South Wales, Australia.

Tools People Can Use to Watch Whales

Whale watching is an outdoor activity, so be prepared for any kind of weather. I always suggest a waterproof jacket to stay warm and protected from wind and rain. I also recommend sunglasses, sunscreen, a hat, and comfortable shoes.

If you are a wildlife photography enthusiast like me then pack your camera. Alternatively, a phone can be used for filming or taking photos.

Finally, don’t forget your binoculars. These can be great for getting a closer look at the whales, but don’t worry if you don’t have a pair. Personally, I prefer to spot whales with the naked eye first.

Tips and tricks for success

It is important to know that whales do not stay on the surface breathing all the time. Depending on what they’re doing, they’ll likely spend some time swimming underwater. It can range from a few minutes to 20 minutes for humpback whales. So be patient.

Scanning the horizon from left to right is good advice when starting out, especially from land. Start at one side and work your way slowly along the horizon. This will increase your chances of picking up anything between you and the horizon.

a sunfish swims near the surface of the sea.
Spotted: A sunfish is swimming near the surface off Sydney, Australia.
Photo: Vanessa Pirotta

If you are on a boat, be aware that you are probably moving, so try using landmarks or other boats as potential navigation markers. Keep an eye out for anything moving or suddenly appearing on the surface. Saw some amazing things while waiting for the whales like jumping sharks and sunfish.

To dive

Whale watching is a great annual outdoor activity that anyone can enjoy. Whether you are observing from land or sea, keep an eye out because you never know when you might spot your next or very first whale.


You can read more articles in this series here.


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