In 1984, Madeira Island went from being a whaling hotspot to a protected area for thousands of marine species. That is why if you were wondering what to do in Madeira one of the best options will definitely be whale and dolphin watching
From boats, catamarans, to renting your own sailboat, Madeira has many options for you to learn about all the species that live in the sea. So here is what you should consider if you want to see whales and dolphins on your next vacation.
When to travel to Madeira to see dolphins?
It is important to note that one of the advantages of Madeira, compared to other destinations, is that you can see cetaceans all year round. The privileged location of the island makes it a perfect destination for those who wish to see these species in their natural habitat.
Thanks to its location, Madeira is a perfect place to observe different species of dolphins all year round.
Some species live in the vicinity of the island and are found from January to December. But also some seasons are perfect to see more exotic and difficult to spot species.
What species can you find?
From January to July: Common dolphin: Compared to other species, the common dolphin is a little smaller in body size. You can also recognize them by their coloration: dark gray on top and light on the bottom. Another thing that distinguishes them from other dolphins is the number of years they live. Although this depends on their habitat, they can live up to 30 years.
February to April and July to November: Striped Dolphin: It is a robust dolphin, so you will be able to identify it quite easily. Its coloration is bluish-gray on top and its underside is white. It is one of the most jumping dolphin species and has a fairly high record, which averages 7 meters.
March to October: Tropical spotted dolphin and Atlantic spotted dolphin: As its name says, the spotted dolphin is identified by its pattern of gray spots on its sides and by having small spots on its neck and belly. This species of dolphin is found in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. This is because they are very sociable and friendly with dolphins of other species.
May to September: Rough-toothed dolphin: This species is a bit more difficult to spot, as it tends to stay underwater for a long time. But if you travel during this period you will have more chances to see it, since it usually reproduces during these months and chooses the waters near the Canary Islands and Madeira to do so. It is considered one of the most intelligent dolphin species. This is due to the way it swims and its ability to hunt for food.
**From May to October: Risso's dolphin, Risso's dolphin, gray dolphin or Risso'**s dolphin: This dolphin species is very sociable. Although they are usually in groups of 10 to 50 individuals, they have been found in groups of up to 4,000. When they become adults, they can be easily identified by the wounds on the skin of the Risso's dolphin. This is due to the fact that among Risso's dolphins, when playing or fighting, they tend to hurt each other because of the shape and position of their teeth.
What is the best time to see dolphins?
Dolphins have the advantage of being much easier to spot throughout the day. Whales, on the other hand, tend to be a bit more difficult to spot, as it will depend on the time of day or the time of day you do the tour.
That's why I recommend, in case you choose to do a single tour on the island, that you take advantage of booking a tour early in the morning or during the late afternoon. This way you will have more chances to see whales and dolphins.
You will notice that Madeira Island has a lot of options for these whale and dolphin tours and all of them offer options for all budgets. Prices vary according to the services offered by the tour, as well as the amenities and additional activities included.
It is important to note that none of the tours guarantee dolphin sightings. Since they are wild species that live in their natural habitat, there is no guarantee that they will appear. So remember that you will see dolphins if they feel like approaching.
The good news is that, unlike whales or orcas, dolphins are usually much friendlier to boats. In fact, it is much more common to see dolphins than whales, as dolphins tend to "play" with the boats they encounter.
It is very common to see photos or videos where tourists are just a few meters away from dolphins. This is because these cetaceans are usually very playful, and use the waves generated by the boat to jump over them.
Also, thanks to the clarity of Madeira's waters, you will see how they try to follow the boats or swim under them. Sometimes, it even looks like they are trying to race the boat.
If you are still hesitant to book a dolphin watching tour, remember that there is open communication between the pilots of all the boats, no matter which tour company they belong to. This implies that if a boat sights dolphins and/or whales, they will communicate with each other to share the place so that all tourists can see these beautiful cetaceans.
Catamaran or boat?
The privileged location as well as its climatic characteristics make a boat trip always an excellent option.
For dolphin watching, although there are many different boats to choose from, most tour companies offer 2 options: the Catamaran and the speedboat. Both options are ideal for whale watching, but here are the advantages for you to consider when deciding which one to choose. You can
- Bigger boat = More freedom: This can be very useful, since many times the dolphins or whales are not in front of where you are sitting. While the captain of the boat will orient the boat so that you can watch the show from all angles, having ample mobility can be an advantage.
- Seating comfort: Tours usually last between 2 to 3 hours, and if you tend to suffer from back pain, more lumbar comfort can be helpful.
- Restrooms: Catamarans have restrooms on board, something that on extended tours is a fundamental advantage.
- Accessibility and space: Another point in favor of the catamaran is the accessibility and space for everyone to enjoy the sightseeing. Also, some tours usually offer refreshments and snacks, which makes it very convenient if you forgot to bring food or drinks.
- Price The value of the tours is usually lower on catamarans, since they have a larger capacity than a boat, the value of the tour tends to be lower. It is important to take into account that sometimes the amount of people makes us have to wait to take a picture.
- Speed: The speedboat offers something that the catamaran does not, and that is speed. Speedboats can easily visit several spots, which increases the probability of seeing cetaceans. Many people enjoy the speed and the waves in this type of boats.
- Smaller size: Another favorable point of the speedboat has to do with its size. Having a shallower draft allows the boat to easily access caves or beaches.
- Closer to the water: Many people enjoy sailing in these boats because being closer to the water, it offers a better view of the dolphins. This is not a minor fact, since dolphins tend to get very close to the waves produced by the boats.
- All seated: Although this may not seem so attractive, it is essential for safety and enjoyment. If you have children, they will not be able to get up from their seats, so you can always keep an eye on them.
Other options to see dolphins
In case you have small children, I also recommend you to find out about the Pirate Ship tour. This option is perfect for the little ones, as it consists of a ride around Madeira Island in a replica of one of Columbus' Caravels. This tour is one of the best activities to do with children in Madeira Island
This replica of the Santa Maria makesa complete tour around Madeira Island, so there is a good chance of spotting dolphins.
- Duration: 3 hours
- Departure time: 10.30 am
- Address: Marina do Funchal, 9000-055
- Website: Click here
Finally, there is an additional option for adventure enthusiasts and people with experience at sea. Some sites in Madeira allow renting boats, with and without crew. Although this option gives you the freedom to spot dolphins, it is not the most advisable, as you will not have the knowledge of the locals to find the places where dolphins are usually seen.
In case you have maritime experience and you decide to choose this option, remember that Madeira is a protected place for these species, so you must navigate carefully and respect the indications of the experts.
Also keep in mind that in the case of crossing with cetaceans you should not feed them, do not pass through the middle of a place where there are dolphins or whales, and always keep more than 100 meters away. By avoiding sudden changes of direction or speed, and keeping as little noise as possible, you may be able to see the dolphins approaching your boat.
Choose the company according to your preferences
All tours are different and offer options for all budgets. All the companies that offer whale watching tours can be booked online, where you can also read comments that will help you decide.
I recommend that you do some research on the internet before traveling, as you will be able to compare budgets, read recommendations and have all the information before choosing. As mentioned before, no tour guarantees to see dolphins or whales. A good recommendation is to choose a tour that offers an extra free ride in case you do not see dolphins.
Although it is quite common to see dolphins, it may happen that you do not get to see them. If this is the case, keep in mind to have a flexible vacation schedule that allows for a second outing to try to see them.
I also recommend that you do not book the tour for the day you arrive in Madeira, as the island sometimes suffers from strong windstorms. This causes some flights to be delayed and you will be forced to restructure your plans.
Where is the best place to board?
This may depend on your budget, visiting times and where your accommodation is located. The most tours available, and therefore the most variety of options, are in Funchal.
This can be an advantage, as it will allow you to research which best suits your budget, schedule or the amenities you are looking for.
Please note that depending on the time of year, some tours include additional activities such as snorkeling, swimming with dolphins, visiting other islands or scuba diving. Funchal is a perfect place for scuba diving on the island, because of its crystal clear and warm waters.
Most of the Funchal tours depart from "Marina do Funchal", which is located 1 km from the historical center of the island's capital. I recommend that if you are staying near the center, you walk along the bay while strolling along Avenida Do Mar.
Walking is also recommended, as there are not many places to park in Funchal, so if you have rented a car you will have to look for paid parking.
In addition to Funchal you can find dolphin watching tours in Machico, Porto Santo and Calheta. These are ideal alternatives to the tours offered by Funchal, to take boat tours from different parts of the archipelago. They all have several options to choose from and are unique sites, so it will be up to you to choose the one you like the most.
See dolphins from the coast
If you don't like boat rides or prefer to see the dolphins from land, there are also some options available. It is not the same as spotting dolphins from a boat, but with patience, binoculars and depending on the time of the year you will be able to see these cetaceans in their natural habitat from the coast.
Remember that the best time of the year to see dolphins from the coast is summer. During these months it is very common to see dolphins jumping out of the water. They are also more likely to be seen if there are abundant waves. Dolphins tend to play and jump on the waves, so if it is a day with very calm seas, it is unlikely that you will see one.
The best option to observe them from the coast may be the less crowded or shallower beaches. For a very small island, Madeira has beaches of all kinds: Porto Santo has several resorts of different depths, although depending on the time of year, there may be too many people for the dolphins to approach the coast.
Another good option is Calheta Beach, located on the southwest coast of the island. This beach is a privileged place for dolphin watching, as its warm, crystal-clear waters are ideal for waiting for dolphins to appear.
Locals often recommend visiting Ponta do Garaju to watch the dolphins and whales from land. The highest points of the island are a good option, although I recommend that you bring binoculars and be patient to see something in the distance.
Ponta de Garaju was a strategic place to observe the movement of the whales and to warn the fishing boats of their position, when whaling was still allowed.
Today this point has a statue of Christ the King, a cable car, a beautiful black sand beach and the old lookout point of the whale fishermen. If you are interested in getting to Ponta de Garaju or touring the interior of the island, I recommend that you ask about the 4x4 safaris available in Madeira.
Learn more about the cetaceans
In the tours it is very common to be accompanied by a marine biologist, who will give you thousands of data and information about cetaceans and all the species of Madeira's habitat. But in case you were left wanting more information, you can visit the Museum "Da Baleia da Madeira" or Whale Museum in Caniçal; Madeira.
Located 30 minutes drive from Funchal, this museum tells the whaling history of Madeira and the species that inhabit the area. It explains the history of the whale hunters, their lookout places and the boats they used.
It is a perfect alternative for days when the weather does not allow other types of excursions.
of the museum
- Days and Hours: Tuesday-Saturday: 13h00 -18h00 || Saturday and Sunday: 13h00-17h00
- Address: Rua Garcia Moniz Nº.1, 9200-031 Caniçal, Machico - Madeira
- Web site: Click here
Weather in Madeira
Thanks to its privileged geographical position and its subtropical oceanic climate, Madeira has very pleasant temperatures that usually range between 17 and 25 degrees Celsius, throughout the year.
The tourist peak of Madeira occurs during the months of July and August. During this time the temperatures do not drop below 20° C, plus the sea water is kept at a very warm and pleasant temperature .
To have the combination of a mild climate and fewer tourists, the months of autumn and spring (September to November - April to July) may be the best option for travel.
Also, although autumn and winter can mean better prices for accommodation and flights, keep in mind that the months of December and January are usually the rainiest months.
At this time you can have between 11 and 13 days of rain. So I recommend that you take this into account when planning your trip.
What to bring to see dolphins
If you want to visit Madeira to see dolphins and whales, I recommend that you bring a windbreaker and an extra coat. This is because the boat trips tend to be very windy and usually leave early in the morning or at dusk, where temperatures can drop a bit.
Remember to always leave with your bathing suit on, as it is very possible that during the tours you may dive into the water, either to snorkel, dive or swim close to the dolphins.
Regardless of the time of year you go, keep in mind to bring plenty of sunscreen. The sun exposure in Madeira is quite high, so I recommend that you take care of your skin. Finally, remember to bring your camera or have your cell phone ready!
Although the dolphins swim fast and slink through the waves, if you put it on burst mode you will probably be able to capture good memories of these particular friends.