Whale Watching With Kids

Last year, Rainer Jenss traveled around the world with his wife and two sons, and blogged about his experience here on Intelligent Travel. This year, he’s back with a new column that focuses on traveling with kids.

Warning: The term ‘”family friendly” can be deceiving. If you’re planning a holiday that includes children, do you only consider options that are kid-appropriate? Conversely, if you’re on a trip sans little ones, do you instinctively avoid doing anything with this label? The truth is, unless you absolutely refuse to be in the company of anyone under the age of 18, family-friendly activities can be the highlight of anyone’s vacation, whether you have children or not. Case in point: Whale watching.

Ever since our boys were old enough to look through a pair of binoculars, we’ve been going on whale watching excursions every chance we get. Our fascination with whales’ tails started in the summer of 2001 when we took our first outing off the coast of Cape Cod, our favorite summertime getaway. Honestly, there are few sights as exhilarating as spotting the world’s largest mammal cruising alongside the bow of your boat, no matter how many times you’ve seen it. Departing from Provincetown on the tip of the Cape, The Dolphin Fleet and Portuguese Princess Excursions both offer guarantees to see at least one of a possible five species that congregate around the Steelwagen Bank to feed each year between May and October.

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Two years after our maiden voyage, we lucked out and saw a group of humpbacks breaching. Then in 2007, the bar was raised even higher when our boat came upon a humpback “bubblenet feeding,” a rarely seen act in which the whale captures fish by blowing bubbles around a school to bring them up to the surface to keep them from escaping. Once at the surface, the whale lunges upward and gulps down as many fish as it can with their huge mouths. Exciting stuff for kids of all ages.

We continued watching whales during our around-the-world trip in places like Bar Harbor, Maine and the San Juan Islands off northwestern Washington State, where orcas gather every summer.

After we arrived in Africa, instead of heading straight for the bush, our first stop was Hermanus, South Africa, where we were fortunate to catch the tail end of the southern right whale calving season. We got some incredible views of a half-dozen mothers with their newborn calves not more than 100 feet from our boat. Priceless.

On our recent spring break in California, we found yet another way to get a glimpse of these majestic creatures. (And no, it wasn’t from the grandstands of Shamu Stadium at Sea World in San Diego.)

Instead, we boarded the 139-foot sailing yacht America to search for grey whales that migrate off the coast of southern California. As eager as the boys were to see more whales, I was equally as excited about the four-hour ocean sail. After all, not too many whale-watching trips are aboard a classic two-masted clipper ship. And get this, the company that operates these daily trips, Dennis Conner’s America’s Cup Experience, even offers a “no seasickness guarantee,” a problem that has frequently plagued my wife and youngest son, Stefan.

Of course, there’s also the obligatory guarantee that you’ll see a whale, or you get another opportunity at no cost. Well, as luck would have it, we didn’t see any grey whales. Instead, we followed a lone humpback for a solid 45 minutes, and even watched as it breached. One thing of note: The excursion is narrated by a guy named Al dressed in a pirate suite, who, of course, was great with the kids. But if you don’t think can handle something that’s just as entertaining for a 10-year-old as it is for someone who’s 50, you don’t know what you’re missing!

Where have you taken your kids whale watching? Let us know in the comments or tweet Rainer at @JenssTravel.

Photos: Above, following the humpback in southern California; Below, a mother and calf in Hermanus, South Africa. By Rainer Jenss.