MONTEREY BAY, CALIFORNIA
There can’t be many things cuter than a sea otter (pictured below). If in doubt, take a trip to Monterey Bay, the location for Big Blue Live, where one sighting of the resident otters lolling back on the ocean swell, cracking shellfish on stones on their chests, will have you instantly smitten. Around Moss Landing and Elkhorn Slough, whole rafts of them come year-round to feed, play and snooze, making this an easy place to spot them. It wasn’t always so – in the 19th and early 20th century, the Bay’s sea otters were hunted to near extinction, along with its whales, sardines and abalone. But thanks to concerted conservation efforts, the once depleted waters are now home to thriving kelp forests and abundant wildlife. As well as sea otters, you’ve every chance of seeing seals, sea lions, whales and dolphins, especially in summer.
Madeira has plenty of marine wildlife, with more than 20 species of cetaceans either resident or regular visitors. Boat trips operate from Funchal harbour, and you don’t have to head too far out before you’re likely to encounter bottlenose and Atlantic spotted dolphins, pilot whales and, if you’re lucky, the odd bigger whale or turtle. Along the way, a marine biologist imparts nuggets of knowledge, such as how to calculate the number of dolphins in a pod – for every one you can see above the surface, you can reckon on there being another three below. If conditions are right, you can tick off that bucket list item – swimming with dolphins. Slipping into the water, you hold on to the side ropes of the boat and watch the animals glide past – then clamber back aboard, grinning the biggest grin of your life.
WESTERN CAPE, SOUTH AFRICA
Drive an a hour and a half south east from Cape Town and you reach the seaside town of Hermanus, where, between July and the end of October, southern right whales come so close to shore you can watch them from the clifftops and coast road. The town even has an official Whale Crier who blows a kelp horn to alert visitors to offshore sightings. Head back west to the Cape Peninsula and there’s another treat in store: the rare chance to see penguins in the wild. Beautiful Boulders Beach near Simon’s Town is home to a colony of African penguins, a joy to watch as they bustle past you to go swooping through the waves.
Iceland is one of the finest places to spot whales, dolphins and porpoises – which makes it all the more sad that the country resumed commercial whaling in 2006. Many see that as reason enough to stay away; others argue that supporting local whale-watching operators demonstrates the value of keeping whales alive rather than killing them. If you fall into the latter camp, you’ll find boat trips running from ports along the coast: Husavik in the north is particularly popular. Suitably togged up in fleeces, waterproofs and life jackets, you can search for orca, minke whales, harbour porpoises and humpback whales. Humpbacks are known for their acrobatics, with a fondness for leaping out of the water and crashing down in a cloud of spray.
Whale-watching doesn’t have to mean that you have to dig out your passport – summer is a good time to spot oceanic wildlife all around Scotland. Stand on the shingle beach at Chanonry Point, a narrow peninsula north of Inverness, and you not only get wonderful views across the Moray Firth but you also stand a good chance of spotting the bottlenose dolphins that come to chase in the fish on the rising tide. Head over to the west coast of Scotland and you can while away time on ferry trips to and around the Western Isles by scanning the seas for minke and pilot whales and assorted dolphins. Or sail further out to the North Atlantic and the remote islands of St Kilda, where the cliffs and sea stacks are home to huge colonies of seabirds including gannets, guillemots and puffins – you may see basking sharks and orca on the way
In theory, spotting blue whales ought to be easy. They are, after all, the world’s largest animals (80 to 100ft long, with a heart the size of a small car). But they’re also rare and elusive, which explains why the relative abundance of them in the waters off Sri Lanka is turning the country into a popular whale-watching destination. Numbers peak around February and March when these ocean giants come in close to shore to feed on the krill. The same seas are also home to sperm whales and huge pods of spinner dolphins, known for their fabulous acrobatic leaps and twirls.
Big Blue Live begins on Sunday 23rd August at 7.00pm on BBC1