There is no other feeling like spotting your first whale.
My first whale was at sixteen on a solo trip to Tenerife, where I volunteered in marine conservation. I spent the time monitoring pilot whales and various dolphins. Funnily enough, I instantly looked forward to whale sightings more than dolphins! Whales have a sedate grace that tumbles you head over heels, and I was hooked. Then, two years later, in Australia, I was lucky enough to spot a humpback whale.
While whale sightings in Tenerife or Australia are pretty much guaranteed, whale watching in the UK is a different kettle of fish. Heading out with a snorkel and flippers from Blackpool Beach is definitely not the answer. In fact, heading out by boat from most coastal towns isn’t either. I’ve already got a guide on ocean view hotels where you can spot whales. But for this guide, we’ll focus on the best places in the UK to take a whale watching tour.
To spot whales in the UK, you need to plan a visit to particular locations. Don’t be put off though. To help you increase your chances of whale sightings, I’ve created a guide to the best places for whale watching in the UK.
The Isle of Skye, Scotland
The Isle of Skye is a Scottish darling for wildlife lovers – marine or otherwise. You can spot humpback whales, minke whales, basking sharks (which are sharks but an honourable mention), and orcas (which are dolphins, but we’ll include them for this article).
The AquaXplore boat sails every day between April and October, specialising in regular minke whale and basking shark sightings. However, their website says they occasionally encounter orcas and sperm whales!
Alternatively, for added adventure, you can splash out and purchase a snorkelling tour with basking sharks. Basking Shark Scotland offers single and multi-day tours priced at £195 per person. For this rate, you embark on a full day at sea with a marine biologist – snorkelling with basking sharks that you spot on the way. The peak season for basking sharks runs from July to September, so plan a visit around then if you want a go.
As a general guide, June and July are the best months for whale watching around Skye. While the wider season lasts from May until September, you can expect almost daily whale sightings in these two months.
The Shetland Islands, Scotland
In the Shetland Islands, you get all the draw of the Isle of Skye’s whales, just with longer peak months and higher chances of sightings. And, unlike Skye, you won’t be surrounded by as many other tourists.
In my best road trips in Scotland article, I compared the Shetland Islands to a Scottish Galapagos and, considering its diversity of marine life; I stand by this statement. You can expect to see minke and humpback whales often in peak months, alongside regular orca sightings! Plus, the island has an expeditionary, remote atmosphere that makes wildlife watching even more exciting.
Shetland Sea Adventures is a good company to whale watch with and runs daily charters in the peak season. While whales aren’t officially guaranteed, your chances are very high.
Those in Northern England can rejoice; you don’t need to travel up to Scotland for a whale sighting.
Whitby Coastal Cruises run daily evening cruises throughout July and August on the Yorkshire coast. However, they still run fewer regular cruises throughout the rest of the Whitby whale season (June to October). The whale watching cruise lasts a generous two hours, which is usually enough to get you a glimpse of a passing cetacean. The rates are also extremely reasonable. I’ve compiled the latest 2022 prices into the table below:
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Along Whitby’s coast, minke, sei, fin, and humpback whales have been spotted in recent years. If you want to see a whale, Whitby is easily one of the best places for whale watching in the UK. There are also plenty of things to do in Whitby other than whale watching. You can read my guide on things to do in Whitby here.
Cornwall is not only a great surfing destination but also one of the best places for whale watching in the UK. Penzance, in particular, is a whale hotspot.
You are most likely to spot fin and humpback whales, although Cornish orca and blue whale sightings have recently made UK news. Like Whitby, the best time to see whales in Cornwall is from the end of summer to early autumn, so visit then for optimal sighting chances.
Marine Discovery Penzance advertise minke, humpback, basking shark, and leatherback turtle sightings – leaving lots of wildlife to spot en-route. Of course, you are often accompanied by dolphins as you look for whales too, which is a strong sweetener. The company has quite an early season start, running from March to November ‘on most days’. If you are planning an early-season whale watching experience, not many companies start as early as Marine Discovery Penzance – just something to consider.
Portrush, Northern Ireland
Portrush has more than a few strings to its bow, and we will add whales to that as well. Portrush is one of the best places for whale watching in the UK and perhaps the best in Northern Ireland.
The tiny seaside settlement is more coast than town! And, for such a small place, it carries the honourable weight of the Causeway Coast and its many heritage sites extremely well.
The most popular whales to sight near Portrush seem to be basking sharks and minke whales. However, west of Rathlin island, orcas are a fairly common sight in the summer months as well.
Aquaholics run tours from Portrush Harbour to Rathlin Island and the Giants Causeway. The four-hour trip combines sightseeing and wildlife watching, only costing £35 per adult. Seal, dolphin, and porpoise sightings are almost guaranteed as well – making it a worthy gamble for whale watching.
St Davids, Wales
Off the Pembrokeshire Coast, May to September is the best period for whale watching. And, for a convenient base in one of the best places for whale watching in the UK, I’d suggest staying in St Davids.
Voyages of Discovery run daily two and a half hour cruises from St Davids throughout the peak season. However, they run a limited winter schedule, too – something you might want to keep in mind even though chances of sightings drop significantly.
At £64 per adult, the cruise is a little pricier but is convenient for those staying in St Davids and has a 25% whale sighting success rate (which is quite impressive on an annual, not seasonal basis). Of course, the cruise also has a 90% dolphin sighting success rate, which should soften the blow if you don’t spot whales.
Minke whales are the most popular whales to spot here, although fin whales have also been sporadically sighted.
Devon is a strong addition to our best places for whale watching in the UK.
You can catch glimpses of minke, pilot, and humpback whales. Orcas (remember: dolphins, not whales) also occasionally venture into Devon’s waters – so I’ll keep my fingers crossed for you! Similarly, if you strike lucky, you might see a basking shark (another honourable non-whale mention).
Devon Sea Safari is one of the most popular whale-watching tour boat companies. Their Marine Wildlife Sea Safari tours depart from Teignmouth and embark on a two-hour trip to Torbay, with a search pattern for marine life en-route. The price is quite reasonable, at £42 per adult and £27 for those under 16s. They recommend that children are over eight years old, although I’m not sure if this is guidance or a solid restriction – so it might be worth checking if you are a family.
UK whale watching FAQs
Where is the best place to see whales in the UK?
The Northern Scottish coast is the best place to see whales in the UK, especially the Shetland Islands.
Where is the best place to see orcas in the UK?
The best places to see orcas in the UK are around the Shetland Islands and the Isle of Skye.
Where is the best place to see blue whales in the UK?
It is VERY rare to see a blue whale in the UK, but one was spotted off the Cornish coast in 2015.
Where is the best place to see humpback whales in the UK?
The best place to see humpback whales in the UK is around the Shetland Islands.
Spotting marine life is one of the most exciting activities in the UK. While it might require some research, there are plenty of good places for whale watching in the UK – so don’t be so quick to rush abroad.
Have you experienced a whale sighting? Drop your suggestions and experiences in the comments below.