Tenerife is one of the best places in the world for whale watching trips, where you can see the magical marine mammals in their natural habitat. The beautifully warm waters which remain temperate throughout the year, combined with the rich marine ecosystem which provides plenty for the creatures to eat, makes this part of the Atlantic Ocean a real haven for a variety of marine life, including whales.
In total, there are 17 whale species in the waters around the Canaries. Out of these, 2 species — the short-finned pilot whale and the sperm whale — are permanent residents. The other 15 visit the waters from time to time to breed or as they pass through on their way to more exotic parts of the world to feed or mate. So although you can see whales at any time of year on the best whale watching tours in Tenerife, you can increase your chances of seeing rare species if you plan to visit at the right time of year.
If you’re fed up of only seeing whales in TV documentaries or in aquariums and want to witness the true majesty of them in the wild, here’s everything you need to know about Tenerife whale watching.
Table of Contents
- The Best Seasons for Whale Watching in Tenerife
- The Most Incredible Whale Species in Tenerife
- Ethical Whale Watching in Tenerife
Best Seasons for Whale Watching in Tenerife
There are some species of whale which call the waters around the Canary Islands their permanent home. This means that whichever month you head out to sea, there’s a good chance you’ll spot them. But the majority of whale species around Tenerife only pass by on their way to another part of the world, meaning you’ve got to time your trip just right if you want to see some of the rarer species.
Because we want you to have an amazing experience as see as much of our local marine life as possible, we offer whale watching tours all-year-round. So no matter which month you holiday on the island, you can always hop on our boat and go whale watching with us for the chance to spot anything from the common short-finned pilot whale to the mesmerising blue whale.
Best months for whale spotting in Tenerife
So you can plan your trip accordingly and don’t leave disappointed, we’ve put together a short guide with the best season to see some of the most impressive whales around Tenerife. Just keep in mind this is only a basic guide and not a guarantee — wild animals are free to do as they choose!
The best season for short-finned pilot whales
Because there are so many short-finned pilot whales living around the Canaries, you can see them every month of the year. In the morning, the short-finned pilot whales are at their most calm and relaxed. But as the day wears on and the waters become slightly rougher, the whales become more active. So if you want to see short-finned pilot whales at their most energetic and playful, sign up for an afternoon boat trip.
The best season for humpback whales
Although there are some humpback whales which permanently live in the waters around Tenerife, it’s still quite rare to see one. However, one incredible whale was spotted in between Los Cristianos and Los Gigantes in September 2018. This is great proof that no matter which time of year you visit, you might just see something incredible! To have the best chance of spotting a humpback whale, plan a boat trip during the winter months (December, January and February). This is when the whales head for the warmer waters close to the equator to breed.
The best season for orcas (killer whales)
Summer (June, July and August) is the best season to spot orca whales in Tenerife. At this time of year, the mammals pass through Canarian waters while migrating and following bluefin tuna as it goes back to the Mediterranean Sea. However, this is one of the few species that moves freely from hemisphere to hemisphere in search of better food. So although summer is the prime season to spot them, you could see orca whales in Tenerife at any time of year.
The best season for sperm whales
There are some sperm whales which permanently reside in the waters around Tenerife, meaning you can technically see them at any time of year. But if you want your chances of spotting them to be as high as possible, plan your visit for the spring months (March, April and May). During this season, even more of the species migrate to the Canaries where the warm water is preferable for mating.
The best season for blue whales
The Most Incredible Whale Species in Tenerife
Of all the whales and dolphins there are in the world’s oceans, 1/3 of them live or frequent the waters around the Canary Islands. This huge population of magnificent marine life means you’re almost certain to spot a handful of dolphins or whales in Tenerife when you head out on a boat trip.
As well as the pilot whales and sperm whales which live in the Canaries all-year-round, there are another 15 species of whale which pass through the waters seasonally, on their way to feed, mate or give birth. Some of these species are a lot more common than others. But while your chances of spotting some of these incredible creatures are somewhat slim, the sight is guaranteed to take your breath away when you do.
Believe us — we’ve seen all these whales on several occasions during our trips at sea. No matter how many times we spot them, the unparalleled sight never loses its magic and always fills us with wonder like it did the very first time. Sign up for one of our whale watching trips and experience this amazing majesty with us!
Short-finned pilot whales
Although they’re technically part of the oceanic dolphin family, short-finned pilot whales are classed as whales because their behaviour is more similar to large whales than it is to dolphins. According to the Atlantic Whale Foundation, there are approximately 1,000 short-finned pilot whales in the waters off the southwestern coast of Tenerife. Around 500 of these are permanent residents which can be spotted throughout the year on Tenerife whale watching trips and the other 500 pass through on their journeys to warmer waters to mate.
What do short-finned pilot whales look like?
Pilot whales have a stocky, robust body which is jet black or dark grey in colour, with a white or light grey patch behind the dorsal fin, on the belly and on the throat. This species has a bulbous forehead, no discernible beak and relatively short, curved flippers. The dorsal fin is set in the front part of the body and varies in size and shape, according to age and gender.
Short-finned pilot whales are often confused with their long-finned relatives. But they have plenty of distinctive features you can call upon to tell them apart. As their name suggests, they have shorter fins than their long-finned relatives, as well as fewer teeth — just 14-18 per jaw, compared to 16-26.
Adult male whales measure around 5.5m in length, while the females are usually 3.7m. Both species can weigh anywhere between 1 and 3 tonnes when they’re fully grown. By comparison, when they’re born, calves are approximately 1.4-1.9m long and weigh just 60kg.
How do short-finned pilot whales live?
Short-finned pilot whales are an incredibly social species and they’re rarely ever seen alone. They live in large groups of 10-30 members, although some pods are as large as 50 whales. In rare instances, pods made up of hundreds of whales have also been spotted. Each pod is primarily female, with just 1 mature male to every 8 mature females. Most females stay in their pod their whole lives and help take care of other females’ calves. Males leave their birth pod when they reach maturity in search of a different pod where they can mate.
Female short-finned pilot whales reach maturity after 10 years, when they begin having calves every 5-8 years. The gestation period goes on for just over a year and each female will produce 4-6 calves over her entire lifetime. Calves suckle for at least 2 years, but most will suckle for 5 years, with some even continuing up to 15. Male short-finned pilot whales tend to live for almost 45 years, while the females live up to 60 years old and go through the menopause.
What do short-finned pilot whales eat?
Squid is the short-finned pilot whale’s favourite food, but they also enjoy octopus, herring and cuttlefish. When their favourite squid isn’t available, they’ll eat any small fish. Each adult whale needs to consume around 45kg of food every day just to maintain their size, which they hunt at dawn and dusk. These whales dive down up to 300m below the surface to catch their prey and spend great lengths of time at this depth hunting for food. They often hunt in groups to increase their chances of success and when they do, they can cover an area of up to 800m.
Because short-finned pilot whales can hunt for their prey at amazing speeds of up to 9 metres per second and can quickly dive deep into the ocean, the species has earned the nickname “the cheetahs of the deep”.
Humpback whales are part of the baleen whale species and although they don’t live in the waters around the Canaries, they pass through while migrating to tropical and subtropical waters each year for breeding and giving birth. One of their most standout characteristics is “breaching”, which involves launching their bodies into the air, rotating then crashing back into the water. No one’s certain why they do this, but it’s an amazing thing to see!
Another characteristic that makes this species so special is their vocal abilities. Males sing detailed, complex songs which last 10-20 minutes and are repeated for hours on end. Again, experts aren’t certain why they do this, although it’s possible it’s related to attracting a mate.
What do humpback whales look like?
Humpback whales are easy to spot because of their enormous size, chunky body shape, discernible hump, knobbly heads and long pectoral fins. They’re dark grey or black in colour with white patches on their undersides. The head and lower jaw are shrouded with bumps called tubercles which are actually hair follicles and typical of the species. Between 270 and 400 dark baleen plates, each 46cm long, appear on each side of the whale’s mouth.
Male adult humpback whales usually grow up to 13-14m, while females are slightly larger, reaching 15-16m in length. Both genders usually weigh somewhere in between 25 and 30 tonnes, with some exceptional examples weighing over 40 tonnes. The largest humpback whale ever recorded was a female who was a staggering 27m long, weighing a whopping 90 tonnes.
Newborn humpback whales are tiny in comparison — usually around the size of the mother’s head, which is just 6m. The calves weigh around 2 tonnes and feed regularly from their mother for the first 6 months of their lives. After this, they combine nursing with independent feeding for the following six months. Females are the first of the species to reach sexual maturity, at around 5 years old, followed 2 years later by the males.
How do humpback whales live?
Instead of living in pods like many whales, humpbacks prefer to live solitary lives. Some form small transient groups made up of 2-3 whales which grow apart after just a few hours. However, some groups stay together for several months during summer, when they help each other hunt. The only exception to this case is a limited number of females who have developed lifelong bonds and spend years in the same pod with other female whales as a result of cooperative feeding. When the calves are still nursing and living with their mothers, they usually swim close together and often touch flippers as a sign of affection.
Although humpback whales don’t often live in groups, they are fairly sociable and enjoy interacting with other species of marine life — especially bottlenose dolphins. They’ve even been known to use their immense size to protect other creatures, such as seals and smaller whales, from orca attacks.
What do humpback whales eat?
The humpback whale’s diet is made up of mostly krill and small fish, such as haddock, pollock, mackerel, herring and salmon. This species spends most of their time in the polar waters during winter where they hunt for food. When summer arrives, they move onto tropical and subtropical waters to breed and give birth. At this time of year, they don’t eat at all and live exclusively off their fat reserves.
Humpback whales have the most diverse hunting techniques of all the baleen whales. One of their most creative methods is known as “bubble net feeding”. This skill involves a group of humpbacks swimming in a decreasing circle while blowing bubbles underneath their prey. The diminishing bubble ring surrounds the prey and forces it into an even smaller space. When the whales have their prey just where they want it, they swim upward with their mouths open and swallow thousands of fish in one giant gulp.
Orcas (Killer Whales)
While they’re technically categorised as toothed whales, orcas are the biggest member of the oceanic dolphin family. Their large, stout size and sometimes threatening behaviour makes apex predators, which means no animal preys on them. They’re found in all oceans of the world and in an assortment of marine environments, from the chilly Antarctic to the warm subtropical waters of the Canaries.
This species got its original name (Orcinus orca) from the Latin god of the underworld, Orcus, because they’re said to look demonic, just like him. Their secondary name (killer whale) comes from the aggressive hostility they can show toward other animals at sea.
What do orcas look like?
Adult orcas are one of the easiest species to identify because no other whales look like them. They have a heavy and robust black body with white oval white patches above their eyes and on their chest. They’ve also got a large dorsal fin which can stand up to 1.8m tall. Perfectly formed for hunting, orcas have very strong teeth, with remarkably powerful jaws which help to keep their prey trapped when hunting.
The largest member of the dolphin family, adult male orcas are usually 6-8m long and weigh over 6 tonnes. Adult female orcas are slightly smaller, measuring around 5-7m and weighing 3-4 tonnes.
Newly-born orca calves look a little different to their adult counterparts and because of this, they’re often mistaken for false killer whales or Risso’s dolphins. When orcas are born, they have a slight yellow or orange tint which fades to white as they reach adulthood. As you’d expect, they’re also significantly smaller and lighter than the adults, measuring around 2.4m and weighing approximately 180kg when they’re born.
How do orcas live?
Orcas are well known for their complex societies — only higher primates and elephants live in societies anywhere as complex as them. The nature of the society differs according to which location the whales live in and whether they’re resident or transient whales. The cetaceans which pass through the waters around Tenerife are incredibly social and live in families (called matrilines) made up of an average of 5.5 whales. Female orcas can reach a staggering 90 years old, so it’s fairly common for a matriline to be made up of children, parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. When the female of the species is born into a family group, she stays in it for her entire lifetime.
The matrilines are are so strong that individuals only separate themselves for a few hours at a time, when they need to mate or forage. Often 2-4 matrilines will group together to create larger pods which can happily separate for weeks at a time.
What do orcas eat?
Just like the way in which their social structures work, orcas change their diet depending on what’s available where they live. They hunt in groups, similar to wolf packs, and are known to prey on around 30 species of fish, 32 species of cetacean, cormorants, gulls and even land animals, such as deer when they venture into the water. Transient whales hunt almost exclusively marine mammals, including sea lions, seals, walruses, porpoises and other species of whale. But the resident orcas which live around Tenerife feast primarily on fish and squid, two marine species which are readily available in this part of the world.
On average, each orca consumes 227kg of food each day. They’re able to hunt for such incredible quantities of prey because they work closely together and employ clever tactics. One hunting method they use to catch fish is called “carousel feeding”, which involves forcing fish into a high sphere by flashing their white undersides or unleashing bursts of bubbles. Another technique they use to hunt sharks includes herding them to the surface and striking them with their tails to tire them out.
The sperm whale (also known as the cachalot) is the biggest of all the toothed whales and the largest toothed predator in the world. This species lives in all oceans on Earth, with approximately 240 sperm whales permanently living in the waters around the Canary Islands. Now protected by the International Whaling Commission and listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as vulnerable, sperm whales were a huge target of the whaling industry in the 19th century, when their numbers significantly declined.
The sperm whale is a real record breaker in the marine world. As well as being the largest toothed whale and toothed predator, it also boasts the largest brain on earth (more than five times the weight of a human brain) and is the second deepest diving whale, with the ability to plunge up to 2km underwater.
What do sperm whales look like?
The sperm whale’s unique body means it’s very unlikely to be confused with any other species. Sperm whales are dark grey, with a very distinctive shape that’s the result of its large, block-shaped forehead which can account for anywhere between 1/4 and 1/3 of the whale’s total body length. Beyond the bulbous head, the skin is wrinkled and features an S-shaped blowhole slightly on the left which releases a forward-angled and bushy spray. This species has no true dorsal fin, but it does have tail lobes (called flukes) which are thick and triangular in shape. They’re remarkably flexible and much larger than those of any other whale.
Adult male sperm whales average 16m in length, but they can grow up to an astonishing 20.5m and weigh up to 57 tonnes. Females are much smaller by comparison, usually only reaching 11m with a weight of up to 14 tonnes. Newborn sperm whales are similar in size and weight — most are around 4m long and weigh 1 tonne. But by the time they mature, males are typically 30-50% longer and three times as large as the females.
How do sperm whales live?
Adult male sperm whales who are not breeding live alone, while the female of the species and young males live together in groups. Mature males leave their original groups when they’re somewhere between 4 and 21 years old. Some form loose bachelor groups with other males that are similar sizes and weights. But as they grow older, they separate and live solitary lives.
The sperm whales which live in the waters around the Canary Islands reside in groups of 6-9 adult females aged up to 60 years old, along with their calves. Unlike other whales which live in groups, such as orcas, sperm whales rarely associate with their genetic relatives, with the exception of females and their calves which spend 75% of their time foraging for food and 25% of their time socialising with others in their group. When sperm whales socialise, they transmit complicated click patterns called “codas” and rub up against each other.
What do sperm whales eat?
Sperm whales typically live 3-5km off the coast, where ocean depths reach around 4km. This species prefers locations like these because it’s where their favourite food — the giant squid — resides. They usually dive 300-800m underwater, but will go as far as 2km underneath the surface when they’re hunting, where they can stay for over an hour. Sperm whales use their amazing echolocation abilities to find their prey in complete darkness, when visibility is practically zero.
When conditions are more favourable and there is some light, sperm whales hunt upside down at the bottom of the ocean and look out for the silhouettes of squid which unknowingly swim above them. Sperm whales eat approximately 3% of their body weight each day, adding up to an annual total of 91 million tonnes eaten by all the sperm whales currently living in the world’s oceans.
The blue whale is the largest animal that’s ever lived on Earth. Its tongue alone can be as heavy as an elephant and its heart can weigh as much as a car! These majestic creatures used to thrive all over the world, until the beginning of the 20th century when they were widely hunted, almost to the point of extinction. While this dramatically reduced their numbers by some 360,000, you still have a chance of seeing blue whales in Tenerife today.
Despite their colossal size, there are still some brave creatures in the ocean which hunt blue whales. Sharks and orcas have both been known to attack the giant species, while some fall victim to injuries suffered from large ships.
What do blue whales look like?
Blue whales looking strikingly blue underwater, but on the surface, you’ll see they’re actually a mottled blue-grey. Their undersides are somewhat yellow in colour, caused by the millions of microorganisms which live there, and they have a wide, U-shaped head which gives way to a long, slender body, finally ending in broad, triangular flukes. This species’ dorsal fin is just 28cm high, making it tiny in comparison to its overall size, and there are prominent ridges in between its blowhole and upper lip.
As you can imagine, blue whales are difficult to weigh and measure because of their immense size and weight. Adult blue whales typically weigh anywhere between 45 and 136 tonnes, although the heaviest blue whale ever accurately weighed was an incredible 173 tonnes. Females are usually a couple of metres longer than the males, but males tend to weigh more because of their heavier muscles and bones.
It’s not just the adults who are enormous — blue whale calves are also mind-bogglingly large. Newborns can weigh up to 2.7 tonnes (that’s the same as an adult hippo!) and they drink around 380 litres of milk daily, causing them to gain up to 90kg every single day.
How do blue whales live?
Instead of living in large groups, blue whales like to live alone, in pairs or in small groups of 3. Larger groups of up to 60 blue whales have been spotted, but the animals are more likely to come together in such large numbers only when feeding. Since they tend to live so far apart, this species needs to communicate over very long distances, something which they do exceptionally well. They can transmit sounds and correspond with each other over a distance of 800km underwater. Because of this, although they might look as if they’re travelling alone to us, they could actually be in contact with any number of whales spread throughout the ocean.
During late autumn, when the mating season begins, males will follow females for long periods of time. Often a second male will compete with the first, resulting in the two of them racing at high speeds of up to 32km per hour to win the female’s attention.
What do blue whales eat?
Krill is the primary food source for blue whales — just one whale can eat up to a whopping 40 million krill in a single day. They dive to shallow depths (usually no more than 100m) for 10-20 minutes at a time to feast on the tiny creatures. To do this, they expand their throat plate, suck up a mixture of water and krill, then push out the water through their baleen plates, leaving behind just the krill which is then swallowed. Blue whales love to fill up on krill in the Antarctic, before migrating to the Canary Islands where the waters are much warmer and better suited to breeding.
Ethical Whale Watching in Tenerife
With all the controversy surrounding keeping whales in captivity in zoos, many people are making a switch and choosing to admire these wonderful creatures in their natural habitat in the wild. And while there’s a lot of misleading and sensationalist information about such parks being reported in the media, there’s no comparison between seeing a whale perform tricks in a park and seeing it behave naturally in its home.
Hopping on a boat and jetting off into open waters is definitely the most ethical way to whale watch in Tenerife. But taking care of marine life isn’t as simple as that. Unfortunately, some boats and their crew care more about protecting these majestic species than others and choosing the right company for your whale watching tour in Tenerife can be the difference between supporting the protection of these animals and hurting them long-term.