Alboran Sea, in the Mediterranean Sea, is one of the best places in Europe for whale watching. CC picture by Submon.org
After the extraordinary pictures of a Bryde’s whale taken by Francis Perez in Tenerife (Canary Islands, Spain) we wondered: which whales and dolphins can be seen swimming freely in Spain? Where are the best areas for whale watching and what is the best time to see them? Amazingly, more than 30 cetacean species live or pass by Spain shores, in the Atlantic, the Bay of Biscay and Mediterranean Sea.
We will try in this post to locate the 30 species of cetaceans that can be seen in different parts of Spain and the best times of the year to find them. You'll find out that it is much easier to see cetaceans in their natural habitat than you ever thought. We encourage you to you join a whale watching trip, much more enriching, educational and respectful than any marine park. Spain is actually one of the best places in Europe (if not the best) to see whales and dolphins in the wild, but it is also the country that has more marine parks, 11, and where more delphinids are kept in captivity. If you really like cetaceans do not go to the marine parks, travel to any of these parts of the Iberian Peninsula and the Canary Islands to see them in their natural habitat.
Whale watching in the Canary Islands
The Canary Islands are located in a a boundary of the Atlantic Ocean that separates the cold waters and the tropical waters so that the species that inhabit each of these waters, along with those that migrate along the year between the two waters, can be seen there.
In the Canary Islands waters there have been identified 30 species of cetaceans, being one of the places in the world with highest diversity of cetaceans and the largest in Europe. Just go to Puerto Colon in Tenerife, where you'll see many schooners that make daily departures for whale watching creating a quite interesting economic activity with more than 500,000 customers every year.
Video courtesy by Rafa Herrero, Aquawork
Another feature that makes the Canary Islands an ideal place for whale watching is the depth of its waters, averaging more than 1,000 meters between islands, reaching 2,500 meeters in some points. This creates a rich ecosystem for numerous and abundant fish schools that come in search of food ... and cetaceans in search for those schools. These waters are even home for giant squids, the favorite food of the sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) which can therefore be found, although not as common as other cetaceans, in Tenerife and La Palma all throughout the year but especially during spring. Then they appear in groups of up to 6 of these whales and may be accompanied by their calves. These two islands are the best for whale watching trips but Tenerife certainly takes the top spot. Although you can take part in one of those trips from all of the islands in the archipelago.
Group of Atlantic spotted dolphins (Stenella frontalis) between Tenerife and La Gomera islands. Imagen de Joachim S. Müller
Other cetaceans that can be easily found in the waters of Tenerife (up to 21 species can be seen on this island) and La Palma are short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus) and bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus). There are an estimated 500 specimens of resident pilot whales in the waters of Tenerife and 250 of bottlenose dolphins. The south of Tenerife is considered one of the largest breeding areas of this species in Europe. The Minke whale (Balaenoptera edeni) is also quite common on the island and it approaches Tenerife all throughout the year following the shoals of sardines.
The Atlantic spotted dolphin (Stenella frontalis) is also very common in the Canary Islands and can be seen from autumn to early summer, especially, again, in Tenerife. Among the dolphins, another species that is possible to be found, but in the winter, is the common dolphin (Delphinus delphis).
Many other species of cetaceans visit the Canary Islands, but they are more elusive as they do not reside or have fixed patterns of migration, such as the killer whale (Orcinus orca) and the false killer whale (Pseudorca crassidens) that pass through the islands following the bluefin tuna back to the Mediterranean Sea on their migrations; or the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), which passes near the islands during the summer, following their way between breeding grounds in the Cape Verde Islands and foraging into the North Atlantic in summer. Finally, it is also possible to find blue whales (Balaenoptera musculus) during the winter in all the islands, but this is certainly a rare event.
Whale watching in the Mediterranean Sea
Although whale sightings occur in different parts of the Mediterranean Sea, from the Cape de Creus through Columbretes and Balearic Islands, there are more chances to see whales and dolphins in freedom in the Alboran Sea and the Costa de la Luz. Specifically Tarifa and the Strait of Gibraltar are privileged places to see a particular species, hardly visible in the rest of Spain, the killer whales.
Dolphins in Alboran Sea. Image by Maximo Lopez
From early spring, and especially in the summer months, groups of killer whales arrive to the Strait of Gibraltar, even very close to the port of Tarifa, in search of an extraordinary fish that can weigh up to 500kg: the bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus). These tuna go back to the Mediterranean Sea, after their migration across the Atlantic Ocean, to the same place where they were born, to spawn in June and July in the western and central Mediterranean Sea. At the same time, groups of up to 18 specimens of killer whales chase tuna fishing boats around Tarifa trying to hunt down an important source of food for them to continue with their migration. Again, later in August, when the tuna leaves the Mediterranean Sea to start their migration routes across the Atlantic Ocean, killer whales can be seen in the Strait of Gibraltar.
But besides killer whales, the Gibraltar Strait has several resident species throughout the year, such as the common dolphin, the striped dolphin (Stenella coeruleoalba), the bottlenose dolphin and the long-finned pilot whale (Globicephala melas).
Other species of cetaceans that approach the Strait of Gibraltar are the sperm whales during the spring and occasionally in summe. Finally two other whales can be spotted occasionally, on their way to the Mediterranean Sea, through the Strait: the fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and the common minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata).
Summary of the documentary "Las ballenas del viento" by Novo.es about whales and dophins in the Strait of Gibraltar
Another Mediterranean Sea area where abundant sightings of whales and dolphins happen is between Cabo de Palos and Cabo de Gata, on the edge of the Alboran Sea. There, there are places with depths of more than 1,000 meters, and a wide variety of cetaceans come in search of food: striped dolphins, common dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, pilot whales, Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus), fin whales and sperm whales, all making their appearance during spring and summer.
Here you will find different cetacean sightings companies with interesting fleets of schooners where you can spend quite a few interesting days together with marine biologists.
Whale watching in the Bay of Biscay
The Cantabrian Sea is also a great place in the Iberian Peninsula for whale watching. From the Rias Baixas (Galicia) up and especially the Bay of Biscay, you can find 27 species of cetaceans both resident in its waters or that visit them at some point of the year. In this area is where some rare species such as the beaked whales can more easily can be found, as 7 of the 20 species of beaked whales have been sighted in the Bay of Biscay and in Galician waters, but considering that these whales may spend up to 70 minutes submerged, their sightings are very hard.
Common dolphin facing off Cabo Peñas, Asturias. Pic by ©OCEANA Jesús Renedo
In the Cantabrian Sea the best place to find dolphins and whales in the wild are found off the coast of the Basque Country, with excursions from both Getaria and Cape Matxitxaco heading the pit at Capbreton. This pit has depths of over 2,000 meters plagued with food for cetaceans both small and larger ones. 20 miles from the coast you can see usually during the spring and summer months pilot whales, striped dolphins, bottlenose dolphins, common dolphins and harbor porpoises (Phocoena phocoena).
Other less common species but that can also be seen in the Bay of Biscay are fin whales, minke whales, sperm whales, Risso's dolphins and two beaked whales: the Northern bottlenose whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus) and the Cuvier's beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris). Other 6 cetaceans very unlikely to appear and that you can yourself very lucky if you see them in the area are the blue whale, the Sei whale, the humpback whale, the Sowerby's beaked whale (Mesoplodon bidens), the killer whale and Atlantic white-sided dolphin (Lagenorhynchus acutus).
In addition, 10 more species that can get to visit the north of the Iberian Peninsula sometime in the year, but have been rarely seen, are the right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) that Basque whalers historically fished, Blainville's beaked whale (Mesoplodon densirostris), True's beaked whale (Mesoplodon mirus), the pygmy sperm whale (Kogia breviceps), dwarf sperm whale (Kogia sima), the pygmy killer whale (Feresa attenuata), false killer whale, pilot whale, white-beaked dolphin (Lagenorhynchus albirostris) and the spotted dolphin.