South America provides plenty of opportunities for whale watching. Whales are found along the lengthy Pacific coastline, from Colombia in the north down to the extreme southern tip of Chile. On the Atlantic side, whales are found in abundance along parts of Argentina’s rugged shores, and further up along the coast of Brazil.
Puerto Madryn and Valdez Peninsula, Argentina
Argentina is a South American hotspot for commercial whale watching, with the small Patagonian city of Puerto Madryn serving as its hub. Whales can be seen year-round, but the main whale-spotting season runs from June to mid-December. Land-based whale watching is possible from Puerto Madryn, but is particularly popular from the nearby Valdez Peninsula nature reserve. Boats also take tourists out, with many departing from Puerto Pirámides, a small town inside the reserve. Southern right whales, killer whales and orcas all swim in these waters. Head to the northern point of the peninsula for the best opportunity to see orcas beaching themselves while trying to catch young sea lions and elephant seals (year-round but best from February to early May).
Santa Catarina, Brazil
Brazil isn’t typically associated with whale watching, and has lagged behind other South American destinations in developing whale watching as a major tourist attraction. But the southern state of Santa Catarina (capital Florianopolis) attracts plenty of Brazilian and international visitors who come to spot southern right whales between July and November. You can see them from the land, but it’s best to go out on a boat tour.
Fernando de Noronha, Brazil
Another spot worth mentioning in Brazil is the archipelago of Fernando de Noronha. These islands and islets lie some 225 miles off the coast of northeastern Brazil, with regular flights to and from Natal and Recife. Fernando de Noronha is a wildlife-spotter’s paradise — and a World Heritage Site — with an abundance of flora, fauna and marine life. Humpback whales, short-finned pilot whales and melon-headed whales can all be spotted from Fernando de Noronha, as well as various species of dolphin.
Chile has some of the most diverse whale spotting opportunities in South America, with species including humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, killer whales, orcas and southern right whales. One of the best places for whale spotting is Chiloé Island. Here you’ll find Chiloé National Park, a prime spot for seeing blue whales and large baleen whales. The best time for whale watching is from late January to April.
Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
The Galápagos Islands are world famous for their endemic species, including blue-footed boobies, marine iguanas, Galápagos giant tortoises and Galápagos penguins. Visitors can also spot whales year-round thanks to the nutrient-rich waters surrounding the Galápagos, but the most whale activity is from July to November. You can expect to see sperm whales, short-finned pilot whales, humpbacks and Bryde’s whales during a trip to the Galápagos.
Machalilla National Park, Ecuador
If your budget puts the Galápagos Islands out of reach, then stay on Ecuador’s mainland and head to Machalilla National Park near Puerto López. The whale watching infrastructure in the park is actually superior to that of the Galápagos. Humpback whales are the main draw, especially from June to October when they give birth to their calves. Puerto López holds an annual whale watching festival, typically in June.
North Coast of Peru
Between mid-July and late-October, thousands of humpback whales come to breed off the north coast of Peru. If you’re lucky, you might see a whale from the shore, but a boat tour will get you far closer. Whale watching tours along Peru’s north coast typically leave from Los Órganos and Máncora in the Piura region, and Punta Sal in Tumbes.
Pacific Coast of Colombia
In Colombia, humpback whales arrive along the nation’s Pacific coast between July and November. Here they breed and give birth in the warmer waters before once again moving on. Among the best locations for whale watching tours in Colombia are Bahia Solano and Nuquí in the Chocó department, and further south at Bahía Málaga and Gorgona Island.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.
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