In the distance, a mighty blow. A dorsal fin slides forward to reveal just a hint of the majestic creature below. We witness the humpbacks’ remarkable elegance of movement as it glides through the water below our boat. The whale finally rises again, gives us a tail wave and then pushes back into the deep.
Being able to catch a glimpse of some of the world’s largest mammals in their natural habitat is a truly special experience. Whale watching has to be the most exhilarating way to connect with nature and Nova Scotia is one of the best places to do it!
Nova Scotia whale watching
There are a number of great reasons why Nova Scotia is the ideal place to go whale watching.
First of all, the diversity of whales is impressive. As many as twelve different species of whale are found in the ocean surrounding Nova Scotia.
Secondly, the responsible stewardship of the local tour operators is second to none. While they work hard to ensure a memorable experience for guests, the safety and conservation of the whales remains the priority.
Already considering a trip to Nova Scotia? Then whale watching is a must!
Not only is there the chance to spot marine mammals in their natural habitat, but you also get to see Nova Scotia’s gorgeous coastline from the water. It offers an entirely new perspective on this beautiful province!
This post includes all the info you need to know about:
- Whales you can see in Nova Scotia
- The best time of year to go whale watching
- Three different ways to go whale watching
- How to choose the right whale watching tour for you
- The best places to go whale watching in Nova Scotia
This post was written in partnership with Tourism Nova Scotia. At the time of writing (February 2021), non-essential travel to Nova Scotia is not possible. Some of the places featured are temporarily closed. This post is intended to help future visitors plan their trip to Nova Scotia, when it is safe to travel again.
Nova Scotia’s whales
Twelve different species of whales have been spotted in the waters around Nova Scotia:
- The most regularly seen are minke, pilot, humpback, sei and fin whales, as well as the smaller white sided dolphins and harbour porpoises
- The legendary blue whale, the largest animal to ever exist, is occasionally spotted in the Bay of Fundy
- A rarer sighting still is the endangered North Atlantic right whale, of which there are only around 400 remaining
- The final three species – sperm, beluga and orca – are infrequent but welcome visitors to Nova Scotia
As well as these majestic cetaceans, keep an eye out for playful harbour seals, incredible rare ‘gentle giant’ basking sharks, huge Atlantic bluefin tuna and even leatherback turtles!
Above the water, there’s a chance to spot cute Atlantic puffins, black and white razorbills, voracious northern gannets and more.
The best time of year to see whales in Nova Scotia
Nova Scotia is a popular destination for whales to feed and breed during summer. The first whales start to arrive in late spring and then stay until autumn, typically leaving by early October.
The main whale watching season in Nova Scotia is therefore June to September, with August usually being the peak month for whale sightings.
- Whale migration patterns do, however, vary from year to year and between species. There are also regional differences (whales can sometimes arrive earlier in one area, for example)
- Whale watching tour operators all run on a different seasonal schedule. This is usually based on the reliability of whale activity in the local area
- If seeing a particular whale species is a high priority for you, it’s best to research the individual operators and ask if unsure – they are the experts, after all!
- The worst month for fog is usually June. Occasionally, fog can cause tour cancellations
- Some whale watching tour operators ‘guarantee’ sightings, which usually means that if no whales are seen, they will offer a free ride on another tour (no refunds)
How to go whale watching in Nova Scotia
There are three main ways to go whale watching in Nova Scotia:
- With a tour (scheduled or charter)
- From the shore
- While kayaking
Nova Scotia whale watching tours
Whale watching tours offer the best chance of seeing a whale in Nova Scotia. Tour operators are experienced with locating whales and other marine mammals. They also share information with each other to ensure more visitors get to experience a whale encounter!
Some whale watching tour operators are involved with marine mammal research, to help preserve critical habitats and provide public awareness and education.
Zodiac vs. boat?
Most whale watching tour operators in Nova Scotia offer tours on traditional boats as well as Zodiacs. The latter are rigid hull inflatable boats, almost raft-like in appearance. There are some significant differences between the tour experience on each:
- Closer to the water
- Less crowded (average of 12 people)
- Faster to reach whales
- Exhilarating – you will feel the bump of the waves!
- More exposed to the weather and ocean – you may get wet
- Not suitable for very young children, pregnant women or anyone with back problems
- Washroom free!
Traditional boats are:
- More comfortable, with space to move around and washroom facilities
- Bigger, with more people on board
- Slower than Zodiacs (longer tours)
- Ideal for photographers, with multiple viewing areas (more angles)
- A smoother ride
- Better protected from the elements, with indoor space for rainy days
- Great for young children, pregnant women and anyone with mobility issues
How long is a whale watching tour?
The average length of a whale watching tour in Nova Scotia is:
- 2 to 2.5 hours for Zodiac tours
- 4 to 5 hours for traditional boat tours
This allows for enough time to board the boat, listen to a safety demonstration, head out onto the ocean, watch whales and then return. Depending on the day, the boat may need to navigate further to find a location with whales.
It is important to arrive well in advance of your whale watching tour. Some whale watching tour operators ask guests to arrive one hour before to check in. This is necessary time to sign the required waivers, pay for tickets, use the washrooms and suit up (for Zodiac tours only).
How much does a whale watching tour cost?
The average cost of a whale watching tour in Nova Scotia is:
- $50-70/adult and $25-35/child for a traditional boat tour
- $55-85/adult and $35-60/child for a Zodiac tour
Tours in the Cape Breton area are generally cheaper (the lower end of the price bracket mentioned above) than those in the Bay of Fundy or on the South Shore.
Some operators offer a 10% discount for reserving a tour online via their website.
For a more personalised tour, it is also possible to book a private whale watching charter. Of course, this is the most expensive whale watching tour option.
What to bring on a whale watching tour
Temperatures are always cooler on the ocean – you may be surprised by how much! Even on a hot summer day, bring warm layers to wear during your Nova Scotia whale watching trip. During the shoulder seasons, this includes a toque, scarf/Buff and gloves to keep your extremities toasty.
Zodiac tours will usually include use of flotation suits to wear over your clothes. Think of it as an insulated onesie to keep you warm and dry!
Sunglasses are an essential for whale watching tours. Polarized are preferable as they block glare from the ocean.
Are whale watching tours ethical?
Whale watching can be disruptive or even dangerous for whales if not done responsibly. Boats approaching too quickly, staying too close and making too much noise can harm the wellbeing of whales and also change their natural behaviour.
In Canada, the Marine Mammal Regulations require boats to stay a minimum of 100m away from whales. Of course, whales are allowed to approach on their own accord.
Crowding is a major issue in popular whale watching destinations. Thankfully, this seems less of an issue in Nova Scotia.
Our guide from Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises explained that they have an informal agreement (their own ‘code of ethics’) with other local tour operators that only one boat should be in the vicinity of a whale group at any one time.
For more information, I’d suggest researching ethical whale watching and the conservation commitments made by individual tour operators.
Whale watching from shore in Nova Scotia
With a bit of luck, it is absolutely possible to see whales from shore in Nova Scotia! We have watched whales from shore a number of times.
We were particularly lucky around the South Shore, spotting minke whales near Terence Bay and Crystal Crescent beach.
My favourite sighting, however, has to be when we watched porpoises while eating breakfast on the multi-day Cape Chignecto Trail near Advocate Harbour. The sizeable pod were having a meal of their own, feeding on a large school of fish just offshore.
Whale watching while kayaking
Being able to kayak with whales sounds like an unlikely dream, but it can happen (albeit rarely). I actually had a whale surface next to me while kayaking the 100 Wild Islands along the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia.
I was paddling between two islands when a blowhole suddenly appeared less than two metres to my left. It was such a surprise, especially as it was exceptionally loud!
I’m not sure what species of whale it was due to the shock, but it’s definitely the most impressive mammal encounter I’ve ever had. The whale was clearly as surprised as me as it didn’t stick around long!
There are a number of kayak tour operators in Nova Scotia, offering adventures in the Bay of Fundy as well as on the Atlantic coast
The best places in Nova Scotia to go whale watching
Cape Breton and the Bay of Fundy are the two most popular Nova Scotia whale watching destinations. This is for three reasons – the variety of whales, the high likelihood of seeing them and the large choice of whale watching tour operators.
The Bay of Fundy, including Brier Island
As well as having the highest tides on earth, the Bay of Fundy is also home to an impressive number of whales. Some of the world’s rarest can occasionally be spotted here, including the magnificent blue whale and endangered Northern right whale.
Most whale watching tours operating on the Bay of Fundy leave from Digby Neck and connecting islands (Long Island and tiny Brier Island), on Nova Scotia’s southwestern coast. Digby Neck itself is a 30km long peninsula extending into the Bay of Fundy.
We chose to join a Zodiac tour with Brier Island Whale and Seabird Cruises after hearing that this island paradise was surrounded by the best whale watching in Nova Scotia. Our tour definitely lived up to expectations, featuring a number of close encounters with huge humpbacks!
Travel tip – If you love the outdoors and want to explore beyond the beaten path in Nova Scotia, you simply must visit Brier Island. This tiny 7.5km by 2.5km island can almost entirely be explored on foot! And it’s absolutely beautiful
Cape Breton Island
Cape Breton is a large island in the northeast of Nova Scotia. Its unusual shape juts into the Atlantic Ocean, providing abundant marine life for whales and other cetaceans to feed on.
The most common whales to see around Cape Breton are fin (or finback) whales, minke whales, pilot whales and humpback whales. Atlantic White-Sided dolphins are also frequently sighted.
If you were already planning to road trip the famed Cabot Trail on Cape Breton Island, a whale watching tour is an ideal addition to your itinerary. There are a number of tour operators located around the route, such as Capt Mark’s Whale and Seal Cruise (Pleasant Bay), Keltic Express Zodiac Adventures (Ingonish) and Captain Zodiac Whale Cruise (Cheticamp).
Which is better: the Bay of Fundy or Cape Breton?
No matter which location (or tour operator) you choose, you’re bound to have an incredible whale watching experience.
If you’re having trouble between choosing between the Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton, here are some pointers:
- The Bay of Fundy has the biggest variety of marine mammals (up to 12 whale species!)
- Humpbacks are the most commonly seen whale in the Bay of Fundy
- The Bay of Fundy is also home to large, rare cetaceans like the North Atlantic right whale
- Cape Breton, on the other hand, is well known for its playful pods of pilot whales and dolphins
- Fin whales (the second largest species of whale) are also frequently seen around Cape Breton
Other places to see whales in Nova Scotia
The Bay of Fundy and Cape Breton have the most choice in terms of whale watching tours, but there are a few other options elsewhere in Nova Scotia as well.
If you only have time to visit Halifax while in Nova Scotia, it’s still possible to go whale watching! There are a number of companies offering whale watching tours by charter from the Halifax area.