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Close encounters

“Watching,” as in whale watching, may sound like a passive activity. But there is nothing passive about encountering a whale in its own environment. The first time you spot the telltale blow spout on the horizon your heart races, and you begin shooting film as though you’ll never again be this close to a whale.
Passengers scan the horizon off the coast of Maui searching for whales from the stern of Ocean Quest, a whale watching boat operated by the Pacific Whale Foundation in Hawaii.Reed Saxon / AP file
/ Source: Islands Magazine

“Watching,” as in whale watching, may sound like a passive activity. But there is nothing passive about encountering a whale in its own environment. The first time you spot the telltale blow spout on the horizon your heart races, and you begin shooting film as though you’ll never again be this close to a whale. These spectacular beasts migrate incredible distances each year, and the shallow areas off the shores of islands makes for natural rest stops along their vast journey, where they can feed, socialize, find a mate and give birth. Here are six trips, ranging from a three-hour excursion to a 10-day, in-depth experience, that will bring you closer to whales than you ever imagined possible.

Pico, Azores, Portugal
Of the world’s nearly 80 species of whales, dolphins and porpoises (cetaceans), 24 can be seen off the nine-island Azores chain near Portugal. The best place there to see them is Pico island, known until 1984 for whale hunting. Today it is a hub for cetacean scientists and researchers from all over the world. Join Espaço Talassa (meaning Sea Space), for its eight-day program called “Dolphins, Whales and Men,” based in the village of Lajes. You’ll spend mornings searching for and observing whales and dolphins by boat and afternoons exploring the island, which contains Portugals’s highest point. You’ll learn about life on the island during the prosperous whaling days at the Whaler’s Museum. It is worth a stop just to see the scrimshaw (carvings on whale bone) and everyday implements made of whalebone and teeth, such as walking sticks, screwdrivers, barettes and cradles. You can also meet with researchers or further sate your cetacean curiosity at the extensive library run by BOCA (Base of Observation of the Cetaceans of the Azores). Season: April through October

South Island, New Zealand
Step on board the 59-foot Te Ao Marama, which is Maori for “The World of Enlightenment,” be met with a traditional Maori greeting, a “mihi, and then settle in for a few hours of guaranteed whale watching (80 percent of your fare is refunded if no whales are sighted). Whale Watch Kaikoura is owned and operated by the Ngai Tahu people, a Maori tribe believed to be descendants of Paikea who, legend says, came to New Zealand from the Cook Islands on the back of a whale. Today, whale watching has revitalized Kaikoura’s economy. Just offshore is a deep underwater canyon — believed to have been shaped by the Maori god Marokura with his sword — where colliding currents create an upwelling that provides a year-round food supply for up to 14 different species of whales and dolphins. The local star, though, is the sperm whale (think Moby Dick), the largest of the toothed whales. Season: year-round

If your travels place you on Maui on February 24th, you’re in luck. This day is expected to be the peak of the island’s 2007 North Pacific humpback whale-watching season, and you can volunteer alongside staff and researchers of the Pacific Whale Foundation by participating in the annual Great Whale Count. You’ll be busy from 8 a.m. till noon, positioned at one of 13 watching stations located around the island, including the top of Puu Olai. From your station, you’ll count whales, notate species and watch for specific behaviors, such as breaching or tail-slapping. Last year, volunteers spotted a record 1,265 humpback whales. Season: February

Dominican Republic
Encountering whales in the water is nothing less than epic. Join Captain Tom Conlin of Aquatic Adventures for a seven- to 10-day live-aboard trip on the 80-foot M/V Nekton Rorqual. You’ll cruise the Silver Bank, 62 miles north of the island, where more than 3,000 migrating North Atlantic humpbacks converge to mate and breed. Most waking hours you’ll be learning about, observing and even interacting with the humpbacks while in the water, wearing a snorkel and mask. These whales can reach up to 52 feet long and weigh as much as 50 tons. Expect to hear the haunting songs of the males serenading their potential mates. If a week at sea isn’t appealing, you can see humpbacks closer to land, too. Fly into the new international airport in Samaná on the northeast coast and join a whale-watching day-trip in Samaná Bay. Season: January through early April

Isla Santo Domingo, Mexico
A series of barrier islands off Baja California Sur’s Pacific coast have created the Bahía Magdalena, a system of protected lagoons that is a breeding and birthing ground for the California gray whale. Camp on Isla Santo Domingo and take guided trips on a Panga (a small fishing boat) to watch the whales “spy-hop” – when a whale emerges vertically and holds its position, presumably to look around. You’ll see them breach, and they’ll even come so close that you can lean over and touch their slippery flesh. A baby whale may nudge your Panga and gaze up at you with a curious eye while its mother keeps a close watch. Allow five days for Sea Kayak Adventures’ Gray Whales of Magdalena Bay trip, which includes three days and two nights camping so close to the water that you’ll be lulled to sleep by the swoosh of the whales breathing. Season: Late January to mid-March

Vancouver Island, Canada
Kayaking among the majestic black-and-white orcas — aka killer whales named for their voracious appetites for fish — is, for many, the quintessential whale encounter. Go to Canada’s Johnstone Strait, sandwiched between Vancouver Island’s northeast coast and mainland British Columbia’s Coast Mountains. In summer, the strait’s abundant salmon stocks draw approximately 200 resident orcas for a summer-long feast. To stay at a comfortable base camp just outside the Robson Bight Ecological Reserve (or orca reserve), join Coastal Spirits Expeditions. During the four-day kayak adventure, you’ll likely witness orcas, still submerged, rubbing and rolling on the pebbly rubbing beaches in the reserve. Learn to identify their behaviors and even individual animals by their dorsal fins and saddle patches, and listen to their songs through a hydrophone, an underwater microphone attached to speakers. At the end of the day, relax with a good book in a quiet beach nook or in the unique beach sauna. Season: July through early September

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