Planning your whale-watching trip

To get the most out of your whale-watching trip, you’ll need to do a bit of research and planning. Boat-based whale-watching can present some unique challenges whatever the climate, so make sure you’re appropriately equipped.

This page provides a checklist of the information and kit you might need, so pick and choose from it as you need to.

Do your homework

Once you’ve decided where you want to go and/or what cetacean species you want to see, you’ll need to do a bit of research:

  • If you’re travelling independently (rather than with a holiday company), first identify a responsible boat operator. Unfortunately, not all operators have the animals’ welfare as their highest priority, and there are no consistent, international laws or codes of conduct to regulate whale-watching. Look for affiliation to credible organisations such as well-known cetacean charities or scientific researchers, and also Google the company - searches often turn up both positive and negative reviews.

  • Contact the boat operator or holiday company or visit their website to check what type and size of boat is used, if there is any shelter/shade (some boats are completely open to the elements) and if there is a toilet (a ‘head’ in nautical terms) onboard.

  • Also check what’s provided for guests. Some companies provide food and drinks, or make available waterproofs, binoculars, field guides and even sunscreen and seasickness remedies for guests to use. But in many cases you’ll need to provide your own (see the kit checklist below).

  • Check what weather conditions are likely. These will have the greatest influence on the kit you’ll need. If you use weather forecasts for the nearest town or city, remember that temperatures at sea are always several degrees cooler than on land, and that the faster the boat the greater the wind chill.

  • Use the internet and/or a good field guide to research what species you could potentially see, and make a note of these. Cetaceans can be difficult to identify (especially the smaller, faster species), so it’s a good idea to have a shortlist of the possibilities in your head or on your mobile device/notepad.

Take the right kit

The kit you’ll need will obviously depend on whether you are whale-watching in The Arctic or The Maldives, on an icebreaker, a catamaran or a RIB. Here’s a comprehensive checklist for you to choose from:

  • Waterproof (and preferably windproof) jacket and trousers. The jacket should have a hood that won't blow down in windy conditions or on faster boats (wired hoods are good).

  • Fleece jacket, and as many other layers as you might need to keep warm - you can always take some layers off, and it can be unexpectedly cool at sea. Take thermal underwear for cooler climates (cool temperate as well as polar).

  • Fleece hat, scarf and gloves.

  • Footwear with a good grip (such as walking shoes or deck shoes) in case the deck gets wet and slippery. If conditions are likely to be particularly wet and cold, take waterproof walking boots and even a spare pair of socks. Conversely, in warmer climates you may be asked to go barefoot on the boat to minimise wear and tear on the deck.

  • Sunscreen and lip salve, both with a high sun protection factor. Don't underestimate the strength of the sun at sea, even in cooler climates. The sun reflects off the surface of the water all around you, and the wind chill can make it feel deceptively cool.

  • Sunglasses. Polarising lenses cut down the amount of glare and reflection off the water, so you can see cetaceans just below the surface much better. But photochromic lenses are useful if the boat is changing direction frequently so that the brightness of the sunlight is continually changing too. Take both types if you have them - a spare pair is always a good idea in case you lose or break one anyway.

  • Sunhat, with some means to keep it on your head in windy conditions or on faster boats.

  • Binoculars with a 7 - 10x magnification. However, be aware that looking through binoculars can cause seasickness, and might also mean you miss out on cetacean action outside your field of view. It’s actually better to scan the sea with the naked eye and only use binoculars to check out any signs that look interesting.

  • Camera - photo, video or one that takes both - preferably with a lens that zooms to 300mm (or equivalent digital zoom). Unless you have image stabilisation, it's difficult to hold lenses longer than 300mm steady on most boats, and a tripod is fairly useless at sea. However, don’t spend too much time looking through a camera viewfinder or at a screen - again, it can cause seasickness. More importantly, make sure you strike a balance between taking photographs and just watching the animals.

  • Plenty of memory cards and spare camera batteries.

  • Field guide(s) or an app to identify cetacean species.

  • Notebook and pen if you like to make records or take notes.

  • Seasickness remedies. Alternatives include travel bands (which use acupressure), ginger, homeopathic tablets, or conventional drugs in patch or tablet form. Be aware that conventional seasickness drugs can cause drowsiness.

  • Plenty of non-alcoholic drink. Dehydration can worsen the effects of both seasickness and sunstroke. Hot drinks will obviously keep you warm in cooler climates.

  • Snack food for longer trips - hunger can actually make seasickness worse.

  • Snorkelling gear if you'll have the chance to get in the water - swimwear, wetsuit, mask, snorkel, fins, dive boots, towel.

  • A 'dry bag' to protect all of your gear.