Top ten things to take on a whale watching trip

With my personal life taking centre stage and the completion of Lilanthro’s Story demanding my attention, cetaceans (aka. whales and dolphins) have not had much coverage on this blog in the last few months. I decided to remedy this situation by posting the following revised article originally written for Planet Whale. Interestingly, for me anyway, I wrote it after only ever having been on one whale watching trip, (and that was on a ferry, not a dedicated whale watching boat). Now, after having been on a fair few trips and research expeditions, I can say with confidence that the following top ten list stands the test of reality…

No matter where you are going whale or dolphin watching, whether you are spotting Orca’s in Canada, Humpbacks in Australia or Blue Whales in California, there is no denying the fact that a whale watching trip can be a once in a lifetime experience. So if you do not want to have that stomach churning sensation as you realise “Doh, I forgot the…” follow these top ten tips for the essential must have’s on your trip:

Binoculars

Binoculars are an absolute must and if anyone tells you that you do not need them, nod politely and walk away singing to yourself. Although photographs of whale watching trips often make the experience look as if it is a close up affair, this is not necessarily the case. Some whale and dolphin spotting is carried out from a medium to long distance; without binoculars you may be left saying “What dolphin?” in reply to people’s exuberant shouts of “Look at those Striped Dolphins leaping!” Here’s a couple of rules to remember: buy or borrow decent binoculars with a magnification between 7x and 10x; and keep the strap around your neck unless you want to see them flying overboard to be swallowed by the next big wave.

Layers, layers, layers!

You may be subject to all the elements on a whale or dolphin watching trip, from the strongest of sun to the chilliest of wind and rain, so be prepared for anything, as any boy scout could tell you. Even on a hot summer’s day, the ocean can be a cold place to hang around and on the coldest day a drop of sunshine combined with glare from the water can leave you sunburnt by the end of your trip. Wear plenty of layers, that you can take off and put on as required, and include wet weather gear. Take a hat to protect from cold and/or sun and sensible, waterproof footwear with good grip; do not be tempted to show off your new best shoes. Polarised or UV glasses are a great idea to protect your eyes from water glare and make it easier to spot whales as they swim underwater. Lastly, do not forget your sunscreen unless you consider a puffy red face to be the season’s most attractive new look.

Camera

When you return home and tell friends “You’ll never believe what we saw…” They may well reply “No we don’t; prove it!” Make sure you have your camera to preserve the memory of your experience and share it with others. A zoom of between 4x and 6x magnification is best; any more is impractical due to the movement of vessel and animal. Keeping your camera dry may be a challenge, so have a waterproof bag with you to pop it in when not in use. You may also choose to take a video camera to record some footage that will hopefully have your friends back home asking for more rather than pleading for a break. A word of warning though; a whale watching trip can be an emotional experience and one that will have most impact when you are fully engaged with it. Use your camera wisely and do not hide behind it for the whole trip or you risk dulling your experience down to a flat two-dimensional impression of what it would otherwise be.

Food and drink

If your belly is rumbling from hunger and your brain feeling disoriented from dehydration, you are unlikely to enjoy your encounter to the full. Take some snack food to keep you going and plenty of fluid to drink. Depending on how extreme a temperature you are likely to encounter, a flask of hot or cold drink could be a lifesaver.

Yourself; but on a good day

It is a simple suggestion but one that may be easily overlooked; DO get a good night’s sleep before you go on your trip and DO NOT be hungover or suffering from any other excess. Your body and your spirits (not the alcoholic kind) need to be in tip top condition for your adventure; you may have choppy seas to bravely navigate and downtime to patiently endure. It is essential that you are feeling alert so that you have the best chance of being the first person to spot the blow from a passing whale and the last person to lose their good mood when nothing exciting happens for a while.

Guide book

Get yourself a good whale and dolphin guidebook before you go. Whether or not you have children with you, your whale watching experience is likely to be more enjoyable and fulfilling if you know a little bit about what you are seeing. Not only will you be able to pat yourself on the back when you tell people you saw “a Sperm Whale!” as opposed to just “a whale”, you are likely to be even more awed by your encounter when you read about the lives of these deep-diving, squid-fighting leviathans. There may also be plenty of downtime on the trip when there is not a Fin Whale or Common Dolphin in sight; your guide book can entertain you during these lulls, maintaining your momentum until the next sighting is made.

Think like a scientist (or an artist!)

Take a notepad and pencil to record what you see, make a sketch, write a poem, or do whatever you may be inspired to do! Doing a bit of homework before you leave for your trip may even enable you to help with the research efforts of cetacean conservationists. Some conservation groups run cetacean sighting and photo-ID schemes which the public can input into; check out conservation groups in the area you will be visiting to find out if and how you can get involved.

Anything to help you avoid seasickness

Even a full night’s sleep and a good breakfast cannot guarantee that you will be immune from the ravages of seasickness. Wear comfortable clothing, pack any medicines or remedies you have been advised to take, (ginger sweets are given out on some boats), and have plenty of water and comfort food to hand. If you do suffer from seasickness, give the guide book to someone else, sit on the outside area of the boat and make sure you keep your eyes focussed on the sea around you.

Kidnap a guide

If you know a cetacean geek, take them with you! Failing that, if you want the most educational and illuminating experience, book a trip on a whale watching boat which has a nature guide on board. They are likely to be the best whale and dolphin spotter, ensuring you do not miss that elusive Beaked Whale as it dives beneath the boat. They will also be able to give you expert information about everything you see and put it across in a lively and engaging way. Some cetacean species are very hard to tell apart; they will not conform to the clearly drawn pictures in a guidebook and you may only get a glimpse of a dorsal fin on which to base your estimation as to species. An expert guide is the most likely person to be able to identify the animals you spot and may be able to confirm that you have indeed just witnessed the rarely spotted Cuvier’s Beaked Whale.

Lucky charm

Whale and dolphin watching can be a hit and miss affair. You may get lucky and have the most amazing encounter of the century or you may get unlucky and not see so much as a splash. To increase your chances of coming home smiling, if you have a lucky charm take it, if you can sing a whale-charming song sing it, if you can dance a dolphin-loving dance dance it… You get the idea!

Good luck whale watchers and enjoy your adventure…

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