Where to Go
The whales arrive on the east coast, in the department of Rocha, and they leave the same way. They usually stay in Maldonado for the majority of their time in Uruguay, and this is where they procreate and take care of their babies. Because of this, it’s best to try to spot them in Rocha from around mid-June to mid-July, and from mid-September to mid-October, and in Maldonado for the rest of the time.
Rocha is the wilder coastal department in Uruguay. Most of the small towns in Rocha are fishing towns with unspoiled beaches that are not heavily visited during the winter. Visiting these small towns can be quite lonely, as most shops and restaurants are closed at this time of the year. There are some cities like La Paloma that have more amenities, such as a cinema and a casino, and more citizens that stay around for the whole year. Rocha’s waters have stronger currents and waves than Maldonado, and the wind is very strong on the coast. There are special viewpoints at strategic locations to spot whales in La Paloma, La Coronilla, Punta del Diablo, Cabo Polonio, La Pedrera, Santa Teresa, and Barra del Chuy.
Maldonado is also made up of small towns in which you won’t find many traces of civilization. However, you will definitely find bars and restaurants open in Punta del Este, which is a prime location to see the whales. Picking a sunny weekend to go is the best, because it has a lot of greenery as well as the beach. Whales can usually be spotted from Punta Ballena and Mansa beaches in Punta del Este.
The best way to go whale spotting is to rent a car in Montevideo and drive towards the coast. There are places to rent cars right next to the airport and in the city centre. Because whale spotting is not an exact science, no one really knows where the whales will be at any given time, and being able to drive to different places is a great advantage. Alternatively, you can take a bus to the coastal cities from the airport or the bus station, but you will then be confined to staying around one area, so the best option is to go by car.
Even if you go in September, when spring is around the corner, pack warm clothes and long trousers. It can be very warm when the sun is up, but the strong winds can freeze even the sunniest of days. Swimming in the ocean is not recommended, because there are no lifeguards at this time of the year and the cold water can be dangerous. Another thing to bear in mind when planning a trip is that whales are very difficult to spot after a big storm, because the water and currents can be very turbulent, so it’s best to choose a sunny, calm weekend.
Booking a Tour to See the Whales
There are several tours you can book to spot whales on a boat, from the cities of Piriapolis and Punta del Este in Maldonado. This is very convenient, as it can be hard to spot them from the shore, even though they’re there, because they might be too far away. Make sure that you’re going on a boat that is approved by the Uruguayan whale conservation society, because they know and respect the right distance to keep from the whales, both to be safe and to avoid disturbing them.
What to Pack
Pack some binoculars so you can spot the whales up close even if they’re far away. Also pack warm clothes, rainproof layers and shoes, just in case. You can also take a picnic to have on the beach.
What Not to Do
Don’t try to swim, kayak, paddle board, sail, or get close to the whales in the water by any other means. You might interrupt their mating, and scare them, which would be detrimental to them and the conservation of their species. In addition, it is extremely dangerous to get near them because they are huge, heavy animals that can do you some severe damage if they bump into you.
What to Spot
The first thing to spot if you’re looking for whales is a big crowd of people on the beach. Once whales start appearing in the ocean, the word gets around and people flood the beaches to see the spectacle. Ask them where the whales are, so they can point them out for you. Other signs of whales are a lot of birds circling the sky in one location, and water being blown up in a V shape up to 4 meters (13 feet) high.
Ask the Locals
The best way to find out where there could be whales is by asking people once you reach your destination. Most locals know if whales have been spotted nearby, and when.
What Am I Going to See?
You will most likely see the whales’ tails, the calluses on their backs, a mother with a baby, or water being blown up in a V shape. They are usually quite far away, but they might swim up close out of curiosity. Whatever they do, don’t go into the water, as it is dangerous for you and them.
Don’t Get Frustrated if You Miss Them
There’s a chance that you won’t be able to see much, or anything at all. After all, it’s hard to predict where the whales will be at any given time. Even though we know their trends, nature is unpredictable. Even if you don’t see them, you might spot some of the other marine animals native to the Uruguayan shores. Make the most out of your trip anyway! You can have a good time chilling and walking on the beach looking at the waves, and going to a bar or restaurant nearby.