Sunday, May 29, 2011
My Top 10 (+1) Whale Watching Sites in the World – Part 2
6. Húsavík, Iceland: A nation with the word ‘ice’ embedded in its name has to be among my top favourites just for that reason alone, and Iceland has countless other reasons as well. The proverbial land of ‘fire and ice’, blue lagoon, hot water springs, active volcanoes, some of the world’s largest ice caps, rare flora and fauna, clean crisp air, ice covered mountains, lakes, mysterious coves and bays, and some of the world’s friendliest people; I can go on and on about Iceland but I must pause for the sake of this post. Iceland is among my most repeated European destinations and by now I have almost seen the entire country in a manner that most tourists simply can’t, all thanks to my numerous friends there who have gone out of their ways to take me around and to make me feel completely at home. In my next trip there I plan to cycle around the entire country following the national highway ring road. In my estimate I would take around 40 days to complete the tour at a leisurely pace. Another fact that makes Iceland particularly special to me is the fact that the President of the country is a personal friend. And I can’t boast this of any other country in the world.
Iceland has many whale watching locations but I would mention only Húsavík (northeast Iceland) else this post would become far too long; moreover this is the only location where I went whale watching in Iceland. May – September is the feeding season and also the prime whale watching time in Húsavík. The quaint harbour offers regular ferry rides into the Greenland Sea just shy of the Arctic Circle where humpbacks, blue, minke, pilot, orcas and fin whales feed throughout these months before swimming off into warmer areas to breed. The red and blue coloured ferries dance on the placid water like toys. Either before or after the whale watching ride, a trip to the whale museum is a must as it is one of its kind. And as you are already in this out of the world place, you must also visit the museum, the cross-shaped church (only of its kind in Iceland) and hike up to the highest point of Húsavíkurfjall from where on a clear day you will have a beatific glimpse of the icecaps. You must also take a boat ride to the Lundey Island that has a large breeding population of mesmerising puffins (hence also named Puffin Island) and fulmars and other seabirds. For staying don’t even think of anything but camping in the beautifully lush camping ground, where they have a fully functional kitchen, heated toilet and bathroom and laundry. Though it is a paid campsite, no one asked me for anything so I camped there for two nights complimentary.
7. Hermanus, Cape Town, South Africa: Sheer location wise I think Hermanus doesn’t have a rival in the world since from here one can watch whales frolicking from land itself. It is the home of Southern Right Whales from June to November being the high season and if you really dig whales then you just cannot miss the Hermanus Whale Festival. White endless beach with silky soft sand, rising mountain backdrop and a complete indulgence to leisure this place was created only for holidays. Don’t even bother to check into a hotel for you won’t be able to move away from the beach even after the stars have sprouted in the sky. Besides the whales, one can be indulged with hiking, boating, scuba, fishing, horse riding and for the intrepid few a caged dive right within the midst of the great white sharks is highly recommended. There are plenty of dolphins and seals too on the sides. Being located along the garden route originating at Cape Town, both entry and exit from Hermanus is paved in magnificent landscapes that are a sheer joy to your senses. A trip to SA must include Hermanus in the itinerary.
8. Baja California, Mexico: A misnomer alright since it is in Mexico, though neighbouring California. Mexico is a hot, populated, humid and Spanish country with little regard to laws or law abiding citizens. And the only reason for me to be at Baja California one noon was that of my companion who at that point of my life had seemed irreplaceable and irreparable for reasons I now forget. Though that is not to say that Baja California disappointed me in the least. Opening into the North Pacific and among the longest peninsulas in the world, Baja has a distinct culture and atmosphere than Mexico and is sparsely populated for most of the parts. Rarely have I seen such dramatic combination of sea and landscapes simultaneously as in Baja. The beaches are gentle, seemingly infinite with surf, sand and the sea to gladden the heart of even one on death penalty. The eastern sea beaches are more popular than the west and the southern part is totally taken over by deserts, dunes, volcanoes and landscapes out of an alien planet.
Baja has often been ranked as the world’s richest area for whale and dolphin diversity though I am no one to certify that. You will see Blue, Fin, Bryde’s, humpbacks, orca, sperm and several other species and the prized population of the migrating Gray Whales that swim all the way from the Arctic Ocean to breed in the lagoons on the western shores of Baja. Other popular activities you may indulge in include diving, snorkelling, free diving, sand surfing, shark diving (great white and hammerhead sharks) and fishing; tuna, yellowtail, roosterfish, Dorado, marlin and sailfish being the popular catches.
9. Hervey Bay, Queensland, Australia: Most beach lovers and whale watchers would perhaps censure me for placing Hervey Bay so lowly in my list but my only defence is that in general Australia is not one of my top destinations as the entire continent does not have a single patch of ice in natural surroundings. Otherwise purely from the point of view of the beach world and marine life, it is right at the top. Located in the South Pacific forming the gateway to Fraser Island and South Great Barrier Reef there’s little that this bay doesn’t offer to a sea lover. As a side note, I must admit that I did enjoy my trip there as also to Fraser Island that is the world’s largest sand island and has an astounding array of lakes and plant life. Being in the shadows of Fraser, Hervey Bay beach is as placid as a landlocked lake in a calm day. It’s well connected to Brisbane by air and land and the best way to see Hervey is on foot or cycle. Plenty of camping places you can simply laze around and no one will bother you at all. It goes well with the general fun loving and laid back Australian image. Between August and October you will find huge colonies of humpbacks residing within the bay and they literally hold an exhibition or circus for the human onlookers. The belly-up display to me was the funniest of all whale antics, where one whale would float like a dead fish with its white belly protruding out of the water for long. Many water birds also populate the bay making it a complete beach experience.
10. Azores, Portugal: Located around 1300 km from Portugal the Azores group of islands, hanging like a tiny droplet within the vast North Atlantic, are an autonomous region of Portugal. It has nine volcanic islands replete with quaint harbours, inlets, dreamy fishing villages, sandy green beaches, misty rolling pastures, ancient windmills and a culture rich in diversity. It is well connected to Europe and US by air. Best way around is by boats or cycle and walk if you don’t mind the steep hills and undulations. Besides whale watching, which you can do from any of the nine islands, you must hike up the hills and see some of the limpid caldera (volcanic) lakes. Though whales are abundant, mostly humpbacks and orcas, there’s little bird life or any other land based animals.
11. Vava’u,Tonga: This Polynesian Island group in South Pacific is one of the most exotic and remote sea destinations in the world and perhaps the only place on earth where even a non-swimmer like me can swim underwater along with the humpbacks. Yes, you read that right, you can actually swim with the whales at touching distance. I cannot think of any other experience of my life that can rival that of swimming alongside the humpbacks and to follow their trail as they fed, or surfaced to breathe or rolled and played with each other.
With the top ten plus one bonus places under the belt, there are smattering of few more that I have seen but couldn’t include in the above for reasons of diversity. Therefore Honourable mention must be made of Cape Cod (Massachusetts, US), Bay of Biscay (Spain), Isle of Skye (Scotland, UK) and Chilean Peninsula (Antarctica, also called Antarctic Peninsula).
That sums it up I guess! And if it hasn’t then please let me know the ones I have missed out. This is the holiday season, at least in India and many of you are outward bound with kids in tow, so if you love the sea and all things that live in the oceans then do visit one of the above and you will not regret your decision.
The oceans and the whales form a major ecosystem of our planet and along with beauty they teach us about life and harmony. Things that we humans have begun to forget in the recent years and that we must inculcate within our children for a better world and for their tomorrow.