Whale watching is great fun for the whole family, with the possible exception of those members prone to seasickness. A fifty-foot long humpback whale breaching a mere 10 yards off the starboard bow or dolphins skimming blithely in a ship’s wake are sights you’ll carry for a lifetime. An added bonus of the search for cetaceans is that the endeavor occurs in offshore ocean waters, out where pelagic birds like shearwaters, petrels, skuas, jaegers, and alcids ply their trade.

A trip out on a whale watching boat seems like an easy way to get out in front of some hard-to-find seabird species, but be warned. Though the destination and general motivation of a whale watching tour seem similar to those of a pelagic bird watching tour, the outcomes tend to be very different.

The two types of excursions are alike in the singularity of their focus. The first priority of a whale watching tour is to see whales, porpoises, and dolphins, whereas a pelagic bird watching tour adopts a similar laser-sharp focus on seabirds. For the folks who manage these tours, everything else above and beyond the primary quarry is gravy.

Whether the targets are whales or birds, the crew, the vessel, and even the onboard equipment will be suited to the task of locating and observing them. The tour leaders’ research and experience may encompass other types of ocean life but their expertise, and more important their passion, will certainly be dedicated to the motivating species. Simply put, someone running a whale watching trip may know quite a bit about pelagic birds and mammals, but he’ll be hot for whales, eager to stalk them, chase them, and observe them for hours. The same thing goes for pelagic birders who are more than happy to check out seals or whales, but will abandon them in an instant if a white-winged gull pops up on the horizon.

What this means for hopeful birders hitching a ride on a whale watch is that the potential for frustration is high. You will most assuredly get in front of some fantastic pelagic birds. Your guides may even be able to identify many of them. However, you may well miss out on many exciting species because you and the crew will be at cross purposes. While you’re silently wishing that they would move closer to that distant flock of shearwaters, they’ll be scoping out something large and in charge in the other direction, and believe me, once they find it, they won’t be in the mood to explain the subtle differences between storm-petrels.

Whale watching is a splendid way to spend a day, as is pelagic bird watching. Just know what you’re getting into when you board that boat!

Humpback Whale
Blow it out your hole

Written by Mike
Mike is a leading authority in the field of standardized test preparation, but he's also a traveler who fully expects to see every bird in the world. Besides founding 10,000 Birds in 2003, Mike has also created a number of other entertaining but now extirpated nature blog resources, particularly the Nature Blog Network and I and the Bird.