The Best Places in the World to See Wild Dolphins
Everyone loves dolphins. Their friendly smiles and playful nature fast-tracks them right to the top of many a must-see wildlife bucket list, with dolphin-watching tours becoming an increasingly popular holiday activity.
With their natural habitat ranging across the oceans from northern Europe to the remotest shorelines of South America, dolphins can be spotted just about anywhere with a coastline. You can even see them in the UK – head to Cardigan Bay in Cornwall or Scotland’s Moray Firth for your best chances. So, to help you choose where to set off on your dolphin-watching adventure, we’ve scoured the globe for the best places to spot these amazing creatures in their natural environment:
An archipelago in the middle of the Atlantic, 900 miles to the west of Portugal, the warm waters of the Azores are home to eleven species of dolphin. Pods here can reach up to 1,000 individuals, with the dolphins coming close to shore to feed, allowing you to see them without even setting foot in a boat. If you do head out to sea, you have every chance of spotting one – as well as pilot whales, sperm whales, manta rays, sea turtles and sea birds.
The islands of Hawaii are an idyllic place to go dolphin watching, as the warm, clear waters are home to numerous species. A popular one to look for is the spinner dolphin, so-called due to its tendency to perform acrobatic displays that include spinning at speed on its longitudinal axis. As in the Azores, Hawaiian dolphins tend to live in large pods, making hundreds of them leaping about in the waves a fairly common sight.
Kaikoura, New Zealand
Kaikoura, in New Zealand’s South Island, is one of the best places in the world to see dolphins in the wild. The area is home to four different dolphin species, including the rare Hector's dolphin, one of the smallest cetaceans. There are also dusky dolphins here, which are delightful to watch as not only do they boast an attractive pattern in shades of black, grey and white, but they are incredibly playful, often jumping out of the water in pairs or groups.
Head to Kaikoura on our South Island Wonders itinerary, which includes a whale-watching tour.
Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand
Talking of New Zealand, this time in the North Island, you’ve got every chance of spotting bottlenose or common dolphins in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park, sometimes in pods of 500-plus individuals. Orcas, Bryde’s whales, humpbacks and even blue whales can also be seen, with the occasional sperm whale too. Although you might come across a cetacean or two while kayaking, the best way to see one is on a whale and dolphin-watching safari, which usually involves a short boat ride from Auckland’s Viaduct Harbour.
Flight Centre’s Travel Experts can arrange a boat ride out to the Hauraki Gulf for you as part of our Best of the North Island itinerary. Chat to us to find out more.
Plettenberg Bay, South Africa
South Africa is a prime whale-watching destination, with hopeful wildlife-watchers heading to Plettenberg Bay and Hermanus from June to September, when humpback whales can be seen as they pass by on their migration route. Even if you are not lucky enough to spot a whale, you’ve a very good chance of seeing a bottlenose, common or humpback dolphin in the area. They often travel in large pods, and can be seen leaping in unison among the waves.
The Florida Keys, USA
Dolphins are synonymous with Florida, who even named their football team after the friendly cetacean (Miami Dolphins). The demand for dolphin interactions from visitors has resulted in a number of dolphinariums springing up in the state. Of course, a far better option is to see free, wild dolphins frolic in the waves – head out to sea near Key West to see them. If you’re very lucky they’ll chase your boat and leap about in the bow wave.
In the warm waters off the coast of Lantau Island resides the distinctive Chinese white dolphin. Despite its name, this playful creature is actually a vibrant shade of baby pink due to the thermoregulating blood vessels under its skin. There are only about 200 dolphins here, but if you get out on the water with Hong Kong Dolphinwatch, who aim to raise awareness of this rare species, you’ve a decent chance of seeing one or two splashing about in the waves.
Moreton Island, Australia
Over 95% of Moreton Island in Queensland is a designated national park and recreation area, meaning that its lakes, dunes and beaches, plus their resident wildlife, are protected. It has just four tiny settlements, one of which is Tangalooma, famous for its wild dolphins and the informative Tangalooma Marine Education and Conservation Centre, which runs many dolphin tours and supervises the daily dolphin feeding sessions which occur off the beach at the Tangalooma Island Resort.
For more information, take a look at Flight Centre’s Queensland's East Coast Wildlife & Nature itinerary, which includes a wild dolphin tour in Tangalooma, or chat to our Queensland Experts.
Vancouver Island, Canada
Did you know that a killer whale is actually a dolphin? Yes, that’s right, the lovable orca is actually the largest species of dolphin, reaching up to eight metres long, with a dorsal fin of up to 1.8m in height. That’s taller than the average person! For a good chance of spotting one, travel to Vancouver Island between June and September, where you might also glimpse the black-and-white Pacific white-sided dolphin and humpback whales.
Bohol Sea, Philippines
With their lush tropical beaches and calm seas, the Philippines are a lovely places to relax for a week or two. Better yet, they are home to a hugely diverse collection of marine life, including whales and dolphins. Although they can be seen all over, the best place to spot them is in the Bohol Sea, where you might find Risso’s dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, spinner dolphins, spotted dolphins, melon-headed whales, dwarf sperm whales, short-finned pilot whales, Bryde’s whales, or even a blue whale if you are very very lucky.
Flight Centre’s Philippine Island Explorer itinerary includes a whale and dolphin-watching excursion in the Bohol Sea near, Pamilacan Island, which is also home to manta rays and sharks.
Falkland Islands, Argentina
Finally, if you fancy a trip to the Falkland Islands, the southern tip of Chile or Kerguelen Island in the southern Indian Ocean, keep a look out for the unusual Commerson’s dolphin, whose distinctive markings make it look a bit like a panda.
A word of warning: there’s no doubt that catching a glimpse of a dolphin is an exhilarating experience, but do remember that these are wild animals, and should be treated as such. Therefore, when choosing where to go dolphin-watching, the most important thing is to consider the dolphins. It is worth paying more for the ethically sound dolphin-watching operators who limit their distance and focus on dolphin conservation and welfare, as this will enhance the experience for both you and the dolphins.
I’ve seen some pretty shocking dolphin-watching practises on my travels, so remember that seeing wild dolphins leap for joy around you far outweighs any contrived experience of chasing them at high speed, attracting them with food, touching them or attempting to swim with them when they clearly don’t want to.
For further information on responsible whale and dolphin-watching, check out the advice given by the UK-based organisation Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and the guidelines provided by the Dolphin SMART programme.