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10 Best Boating Destinations for Viewing Marine Wildlife

From graceful sea turtles and peaceful manatees to acrobatic dolphins and breaching whales, boaters have the unique opportunity to observe a variety of impressive marine creatures in the wild. Whether you want to add dolphin watching to your tropical vacation itinerary or take a trip to view whales in the Arctic, there are many boating destinations you can explore to view marine creatures in their natural habitat.

Best Places to Boat to See Marine Wildlife

If you want to experience marine wildlife up close on your next boating vacation, consider visiting one these 10 best places to boat to view marine life around North America.

1. Maui, Hawaii

On top of being a beautiful tropical destination on its own, Maui is also one of the best places to head out on your boat to view marine life. Humpback whales begin to migrate to the island in December, with their population peaking around the middle of January. These massive sea mammals can be spotted from the white-sand shores of Maui, but they are much more thrilling when viewed from your boat. Humpback whales can grow up to 62 feet long and weigh around 40 tons. Yet despite their massive size, humpback whales are able to propel themselves entirely out of the water in impressive displays called breaching. In addition to leaping out of the ocean, these friendly sea mammals can also be spotted slapping the water with their fins and tails, sticking their noses out of the water, spouting from their blowholes and performing many other captivating surface behaviors. Humpback whales can be spotted off the coast of Maui from December to early spring.

Maui is also known as one of the best destinations for viewing sea turtles. Located just off the shore of Maluaka Beach in Maui, Turtle Town is a stretch of coral reef that is home to an impressive number of Hawaiian green sea turtles.

Anchor your boat near Turtle Town and then put on your snorkeling gear to get a closer look at these majestic creatures. Green sea turtles can live to be 80 years old and are some of the largest sea turtles in the world. Because many of the turtles in Turtle Town stay close to the reefs year-round, sea turtle spottings are abundant in this area.

2. The Big Island, Hawaii

Aerial view of the big island of Hawaii

While you’re already cruising around the Pacific, it’s worth the detour to visit the Big Island of Hawaii for giant manta ray spotting. Giant manta rays are the biggest rays in the world, boasting wingspans of up to 29 feet. These graceful giants resemble birds in flight as they glide through the crystal blue waters off the Kona Coast of the island.

One of the best locations to spot giant manta rays is Keauhou Bay on the Big Island. Rays can be viewed up close while they gather in shallow waters for feeding. Boaters can also snorkel or dive in the warm waters to get an even closer look.

Manta rays are not the only exotic marine life that boaters can spot around the Big Island — it is also home to spinner dolphins, sea turtles and humpback whales. When you’re ready to get your feet back on land, the Big Island also has beautiful beaches, waterfalls, volcanoes and more to explore.

3. Baja California Sur, Mexico

Boasting miles of sandy beaches and rich diversity of sea creatures, Baja California Sur is a perfect destination for viewing marine life. Gray whales can be viewed in the state’s placid coastal lagoons from winter to early spring before they migrate north for the summer.

Visitors can also view beluga whales, blue whales, sperm whales, humpback whales, Bryde’s whales and other marine wildlife. By boating just a mile or so off the coast, you are likely to spot at least one of these ocean mammals that often approach boats and perform surface behaviors.

San Ignacio Lagoon is a popular whale spotting destination in Baja California Sur as it is a breeding ground for gray whales. Some of the other best destinations for boating near marine life in Baja California Sur are Magdalena Bay, Ojo de Liebre Lagoon and Guerrero Negro. For the best whale watching experience, visit Baja California Sur between January and April.

4. San Juan Islands, Washington

Up north on the West Coast, boaters can view wild orcas swimming among the San Juan Islands in Washington state. Orcas, commonly known as killer whales, are the largest species of dolphins and can grow as long as 32 feet. Although they are vicious predators in the wild, orcas do not attack humans and are safe to observe from a distance in your boat.

During early spring, orcas travel up the coast to feed on Chinook salmon that are abundant in the Pacific Northwest. Orcas typically stay in the region until mid-fall, providing the perfect opportunity to spot the iconic black and white creatures all summer long. For the most memorable orca watching experience, consider taking a sunset cruise around the San Juan Islands to snap pictures of them jumping.

5. Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Pack your passport, and you can boat across the border to Vancouver to continue viewing stunning marine wildlife. The waters around Vancouver and Victoria in British Columbia are perfect for spotting Pacific white-sided dolphins, blue whales, humpback whales and orcas in their natural habitat.

With hundreds of thousands of Pacific white-sided dolphins populating the North Pacific, it is easy to spot at least one while boating in the waters around Vancouver. Although Pacific white-sided dolphins are smaller than their orca cousins, these black, gray and white dolphins typically travel in groups of 10 to 100, making them hard to miss. For the best Pacific white-sided dolphin spotting, visit Vancouver between early spring and mid-fall.

6. Nunavut, Canada

Another Canadian destination for boating near marine life is Nunavut. Although the climate in Nunavut is harsh, it is worth braving the cold to view a variety of Arctic wildlife including walruses, polar bears, beluga whales, bowhead whales and narwhals.

Each year around July, a few thousand beluga whales visit the Hudson Bay in Nunavut to molt and mate. Beluga whales are small white whales with a distinctive prominent forehead and playful personality. These social creatures travel in pods and communicate with other whales through whistles, clicks and clangs. During the month that they stay in the region, it is easy to spot hundreds of beluga whales splashing and playing in the waters at once.

Bowhead whales can be spotted in the waters around Nunavut all year long, as they are one of the only species of whales that can endure the seasonal ice coverage. These massive whales grow up to 60 feet long and can weigh up to 100 tons. For the best bowhead whale spotting, take a cruise along the east coast of Baffin Island during the summer to watch them feeding.

If you want a truly unique marine life viewing experience, you can also spot narwhals in the waters around the islands in Nunavut. With long ivory tusks extending through their upper lip, narwhals are strange and incredible mammals. Narwhals typically travel in pods of up to 20 animals and can be spotted closer to shore in the summer.

7. Cape Cod, Massachusetts

A lighthouse along the shore in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.

If you live on the East Coast and want to stick a little closer to home, Cape Cod offers excellent humpback whale spotting from April to October. These gentle giants gather off the coast of Massachusetts to feed on plankton after wintering in the south. Although humpback whales can be found in every ocean of the world, they were first spotted by whalers in New England who named them Megaptera novaeangliae, meaning “big wing of New England.” Humpback whales are recognizable by their massive pectoral fins and small hump in front of their dorsal fin.

8. Crystal River, Florida

Another popular East Coast destination to view marine wildlife is Crystal River in Florida. Between November and April, this warm river in Citrus County is home to the largest population of wild manatees in the world. Hundreds of manatees can be spotted relaxing and roaming in the sunny shallows, and visitors can even swim, snorkel and dive with the manatees to view these fascinating sea mammals up close.

Manatees are sometimes called sea cows because they can often be seen drifting through the water at a leisurely pace of about five miles per hour. However, when necessary they can swim up to 15 miles per hour in short bursts. Manatees grow up to 13 feet long and can live about 40 years.

Because manatees are an endangered species, it’s important to practice safe and passive viewing. Manatees should never be approached or touched but can be observed from a distance.

9. Bimini, Bahamas

The tropical islands of Bimini in the Bahamas are known for their coral reefs, excellent sport fishing and the abundance of dolphins that can be spotted in the crystal clear waters.

Atlantic spotted dolphins are the most common species in Bimini and are recognizable by their gray speckled appearance, with dark spots on their lighter bellies and pale spots on their darker backs. Atlantic spotted dolphins are extremely social and playful animals that are known to ride the waves behind boats. If you take a cruise around Bimini, you may enjoy a surface display of jumping and flipping dolphins behind your boat.

Bimini is also home to common bottlenose dolphins who can be seen playing with the Atlantic spotted dolphins and similarly surfing the wake behind boats. Known for their acrobatic displays, bottlenose dolphins can breach up to 16 feet out of the water. Visitors can view dolphins from their boats or dive in and snorkel for a more interactive experience.

10. Cancun, Mexico

Cancun is home to a massive population of whale sharks that can be spotted off the coast near the island of Isla Mujeres. These impressive creatures can grow over 30 feet long and are the largest fish in the world. Despite their formidable jaws and shark-like appearance, whale sharks feed primarily on plankton and are harmless to humans. Boaters can spot whale sharks around Cancun from late spring to early fall.

Tips for Viewing Marine Wildlife

A list of tips for viewing marine wildlife.

Viewing marine life can be thrilling and entertaining for boaters, but it’s important to think about safety, too. If proper care is not taken, boaters may frighten or harm sea creatures, or marine animals may threaten or injure boaters. When boating near marine life, follow these guidelines for viewing marine animals safely:

Stay at least 300 feet away:

    •  Maintain a safe distance of at least 100 yards at all times when viewing marine mammals. According to federal laws, some animals may require longer viewing distances in certain situations, such as killer whales which must be viewed from at least 200 yards away in inland waters in Washington State.

Slow down to no-wake speed:

    •  When nearing a sea creature, slow down your vessel to no-wake speed and put your engine in neutral when whales or dolphins are passing. Boating too fast near marine animals can cause them to become startled or act erratically. Only re-engage your engine when the animal has left the area.

Limit observation time to 30 minutes:

    •  In popular destinations, the same animal may be viewed by several boats in the same day. Limit your viewing time to about 30 minutes to respect the animal’s privacy and space.

Do not approach when other boats are around:

    •  If another boat is viewing an animal, wait your turn and do not approach while the other boat is near. Crowding a sea creature with multiple vessels is more likely to disturb it. Be careful not to trap the animal between your boat and the shore so it can swim freely.

Never chase marine creatures:

    •  When viewing a sea creature, stay a safe distance away and navigate parallel to or behind the animal. Avoid any sudden changes in direction or speed and never approach a marine animal head-on. If the animal swims away, do not pursue or follow it.

Watch for mothers with young:

    •  If you spot a mother with a baby, keep a safe distance and do not approach the animals. Whales, dolphins and other sea mammals can be protective or unpredictable when their calves are nearby.

Be wary of animals that may be stressed:

     A marine animal that feels stressed or threatened may swim erratically, dive for a prolonged time or display other aggressive behaviors. If you believe a sea creature is stressed, slowly navigate away from the area.

By following these tips for viewing marine wildlife, you can experience the joy of seeing marine creatures up close in their natural habits while keeping your family and the animals safe.

View Marine Life From Your Formula Boat

A large Formula Boat to use for viewing marine life.

If you are ready to explore one of these beautiful destinations for viewing marine life, a Formula powerboat can get you there. With comfortable seating areas and convenient swim platforms, our premier powerboats are perfect for viewing dolphins, whales and other marine life anywhere in the world.

For overnight excursions, choose our luxurious Formula 45 Yacht or comfortable Formula Performance Cruiser. For day trips, Formula offers a full line-up of popular day boats to choose from. With Formula, you can even build your dream boat for whale watching, sea turtle spotting or any other boating adventure!

When you choose Formula Boats, you enjoy superior quality and exceptional performance. Our luxury powerboats are backed by more than four decades of experience and the caring customer service of the Porter family. The Formula name stands for the best in recreational boating. Contact us today to experience the Formula difference for yourself.

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