Tips for a Successful Whale Watch

A father and daughter enjoy an unforgettable experience of whale watching
A father and daughter enjoy an unforgettable experience in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Whether this is your first time heading out on the water or your hundredth time, knowing how to prepare for your whale watch and what to expect is key to having an unforgettable experience. Here are some tips for your upcoming whale watching trip.

Kids on whale watch trip
A whale watch field trip involves preparation to be successful. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Avoid seasickness! Learn about what causes seasickness and some tips for easing symptoms here

Pack a lunch or favorite snacks! Most boat companies allow you to bring your own food and beverages on board, but glass bottles and alcoholic beverages are usually not permitted. Check with individual companies beforehand.

Dress in layers! It’s better to have to remove a layer than to have too few and be cold.

Don't forget the sunblock and sunglasses! Water reflects the sun’s rays. Glare on the water can limit vision.

A man using bonoculars to whale watch
Binoculars and layered clothing are good things to bring. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Here is a short list of things you may want to bring on your trip.

  • Binoculars
  • Rubber soled shoes (avoid heels and leather or plastic soles)
  • Picnic lunch
  • Warm clothes/blanket
  • Sunscreen and sunglasses
  • Camera/video recorder/phone
  • Book or playing cards (for the trip in or out)
A kid taking a photo with his hat backwards
Readiness is a skill to perfect for taking good whale photos. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA
  • A 70-300 millimeter zoom lens for your camera is recommended.
  • Patience is a virtue. Wait for the whale to approach.
  • Watch the sun's direction. Keep the sun behind you.
  • A polarised lens helps with sun glare.
  • Bring extra storage media.
  • Make sure your battery is charged; an average trip spends about one hour with the whales.
  • With video, start with a wide-angle shot and then zoom in (close-ups can be jerky due to the boat’s movement)
  • After a whale dives, do not concentrate on the exact area it went down. They rarely come back up in this spot. Instead, try to determine the direction it was moving and have your camera pointed in the same direction. You may get a picture of open mouth or lunge feeding or a dramatic spout.
  • When humpback whales go on a deep dive, they first arch their backs. Be focused, centered and ready to snap your shot. Look for the tail as it comes up with water streaming off the trailing edge. Wait a moment until the tail is completely out of the water, vertical, and the underside is visible. You will notice a black and white pattern. This fluke print is the whale’s “fingerprint” and is unique to every whale. This is how researchers identify individuals.
  • The breach is the ultimate shot and requires luck and quick shooting (try the continuous shooting setting). This behavior is as unpredictable as the animals themselves. Sometimes a whale will make multiple breaches and sometimes they breach only once.
A kid taking a photo with his hat backwards
Follow all safety rules for watching whales with children. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Children may get restless on the long trip out or back from the whales. Here are some things to bring:

  • Crayons and coloring books for the young children
  • Sketch pads and journals for older students
  • Cards and travel games
  • Favorite snacks

Keep safety in mind. Vessels are made of metal, can be slippery if wet, and may move erratically due to ocean forces.

  • Don’t let your children run around the boat; a fall can result in serious injury.
  • Don’t let your children stand on benches. A big swell or a quick stop can unbalance anyone.
  • Maintain normal voice levels and avoid screaming. Loud noises will put the crew on alert.
  • Do not hold your child in your arms while standing at the railing or have them sit on your shoulders to get a better view. This is dangerous for both you and your child. If your child is having trouble seeing, ask a crew member for help or politely ask an adult at the railing to let your child have some space.