Tenerife Whale Watching: Sailing among the Orcas and Pilot Whales

Pilot whale in Tenerife, photo by Neptuno Sea Company

“Get out of the water! Get out!”, Andy shouted over the microphone. Swimming beneath the giant rock formations of Los Gigantes, on the western coast of the largest of the Canary Islands, had to be just a refreshing stop on our Tenerife Whale Watching tour. Responding to the tour guide’s call, swimmers quickly rushed to the boat ladder, the quickest way out of these waters.

Shogun was an Arabic sailboat, 26 meters in length and 8 meters in width. Getting off of it was an easy task. One just needed to gather some courage and jump into the sea, with supposedly 20-meter depth under the surface. Getting out was a different story. The boat ladder could support one person at a time. Cutting our swim break short was abrupt. Should we form a line to get back on board?

Swimmers stirring under the water surface at Los Gigantes, Tenerife, Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
An unexpected event can quickly cause a stir

With five of us still in the water and the rest of the 40ish guests elbowing on the fence of the deck, the moment suddenly became darker. Even if the water was at its warmest (24 degrees in October), something sent chills down my spine.

Just a moment ago, the boat speaker played Pink Floyd. The song dispersed by the wave, and I swear I heard that nerve-racking theme song from “Jaws”. Would we become lunch for sharks?

“Oh no!”, yelled a girl heading towards the boat ladder, after something brushed her leg.

An older gentleman with glasses swam behind, startled and in panic.

In front of me, a bald beefy guy with a beard, in bright orange swimming trunks. I thought I would remember him from this trip only as skin-burned someone who forgot to put on the sunscreen. I thought that would have been his most painful memory. But then…

Something grabbed him in the water.

Whales in Tenerife

Pilot whales' dorsal fins protruding from the water in Tenerife, Spain, during the Tenerife whale watching excursion with Neptuno Sea Company, photoby Ivan Kralj
Dorsal fins of pilot whales cutting the surface of Atlantic

Belonging to the Canary Islands, the southernmost part of political Europe, Tenerife is geographically closer to Africa than mainland Spain. Just off the coast of Morocco, the seven islands are dwarfs without Snow White. It’s a place of eternal spring, with a year-long temperate climate!

Warm waters and a deep seafloor provide a hospitable home to rich marine life such as giant squid, jellyfish, and fish. Sadly for them, they are also on the menu of cetaceans, the aquatic mammals that visit the channel between Tenerife and La Gomera. For some, this open buffet restaurant is a perfect permanent habitat. For others, a nice bed&breakfast while they migrate through the Atlantic Ocean.

Approximately, one can see two dozen types of whales and dolphins in Canarian waters. From 300-kilo Risso’s dolphin to gigantic Sperm whale that can grow up to 60 tons (!), a variety of unexpected visitors can emerge during the Tenerife whale watching excursions.

However, the most common residents of Tenerife waters, whose sighting probability reaches 90 percent, are Short-finned pilot whales.

With a slightly lower appearance chance ratio (50 %), the Bottlenose dolphins reveal themselves to the lucky ones, usually in groups of 10 to 30 specimens.

While there is a certain probability of encountering these majestic animals, Tenerife whale watching tours resemble a lottery. And as with any lottery, one should approach it with common sense.

Neptuno Sea Company tour guide Andy put it in a very basic language: “This is not a zoo or a theme park! This is the Atlantic Ocean!”

Tenerife is definitely a world-class location for observing whales and dolphins, but the realistic approach will prevent disappointments. There is no manipulation in nature. Effie Trinket‘s message in the “Hunger Games” can only express hope: may the odds be ever in your favor!

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Can you see killer whales in Tenerife?

Killer whales or Orcas, the world’s largest dolphins, do visit Tenerife, but their appearances are quite rare. These distinctive black-and-white predators were last seen in October 2018. They appeared near Los Cristianos, a small town on Tenerife’s southwestern coast, and attacked the pilot whale family.

However, there is one place where your chances of seeing killer whales in Tenerife grow to 100 percent! Sadly, it’s in Loro Parque, the zoo on the outskirts of Puerto de la Cruz, one of the island’s most popular tourist attractions.

Killer whale enclosure in Loro Parque is called Orca Ocean, but no artificial environment can replace the Atlantic

Loro Parque can boast about the world’s largest collection of parrots, the largest indoor penguin exhibition, and the largest show pool with bottlenose dolphins. Beside a variety of sharks, monkeys, sea lions and wild cats, there are currently seven orcas in Loro Parque.

The killer whale enclosure in Loro Parque is called Orca Ocean, but no artificial environment can replace the Atlantic. Mothers rejecting their calves, rake marks on their bodies, missing teeth and abnormal behavior of floating on the surface of the pool, are the less visible side of doing tricks for the audience’s pleasure.

Even if there have been no fatal attacks on humans recorded in the wild, Loro Parque did experience a couple of controversial incidents with two of the oldest orcas in captivity. One of these attacks ended with the death of an animal trainer.

Despite the criticism coming from a number of animal rights organizations and wildlife charities, Loro Parque in Tenerife remains one of the most popular zoos in the world.

With 20-something species of whales passing by Tenerife island on a daily basis, there is certainly a more animal-friendly way of paying respect to these beautiful creatures.

Shogun boat trip – sail Tenerife like an Arabian Sheikh!

Wooden Arabian sailboat Shogun anchored by Los Gigantes in Tenerife, Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
The wooden Arabic sailboat serves the seas for more than four decades

I decided not to visit Loro Parque, and keep Puerto de la Cruz in vivid memories only through the Botanical Garden Tenerife. One of the most important collections of plants in the world was displayed as an exciting exhibition. And I had no ethical problems with it!

Whales were far better off in a natural surrounding of an ocean. No fences, no trick training, and no applauding audience. I was about to embark on my first ever whale watching excursion!

Neptuno Sea Company organized bus pick-ups in front of different hotels along the northern coast of Tenerife. The big red bus arrived at 9 am. We encircled the island all the way to Costa Adeje, the departure point for whale watching tours on the southwestern coast.

In Puerto Colon marina, tied for the pier number 14, there she was, floating in its glory. I wanted to call it a ‘she’, as sailing tradition enjoined. But instead of a female name on its teak shell, the wooden boat bore the name of Shogun, the title of Japanese military leaders.

This authentic sailing boat was constructed for the private use of an Arabian Sheikh in 1978. It was renovated in 2008, and it continued bringing glimpses into oriental luxury ever since.

The crew took souvenir photographs of all the guests right upon boarding, and we were ready to sail off. In the next five hours, the Shogun boat trip to Los Gigantes would be in the hands of the captain Domingo and tour guide Andy who quickly established himself as a stand-up comedian. Whether he spoke in English, French, German, Italian, or Spanish, the pieces of information he shared were always sprinkled with a bountiful dose of humor.

Our first whale spotting in Tenerife

Shogun boat crew standing on the prow and using binoculars to spot the whales in Tenerife, photo by Ivan Kralj
A game of hide-and-seek is on, but we have binoculars!

Pushed by the combined power of wind and motor, we headed north. The day was promising sunny weather. Wiser tourists, unlike that bald bearded guy in orange swimming trunks, started applying sunscreen. The wind was filling Shogun’s red sails, but it also caressed our sun-exposed skin, until it was too late. Maybe exactly because of that reason, the bald guy in orange swimming trunks would stay a minute longer in the waters of Los Gigantes later, surrendering to the calming effect of the sea.

Fish farms we passed by often attract bottlenose dolphins looking for easy prey. But that Monday, no dolphin showed up. Where were they hiding? With just the occasional flying fish jumping out of the sea, our whale watching excursion resembled a game of hide-and-seek. Was it just the wrong day? Were the percentages of the probability of encountering these marine mammals just blown out of proportion? How do we get odds in our favor, madam Trinket?

The depth of the sea between the islands of Tenerife and La Gomera can reach up to 2.400 meters. Finding whales and dolphins suddenly resembled looking for a needle in a haystack. The ideal feeding ground for these fantastic mammals was also a vast blue membrane to hide under.

The crew used binoculars to scan the territory of the whales. The sentence “This is the Atlantic Ocean, not a zoo” suddenly sounded like a preventive alibi for possible failure.

But then the boat engine went silent… Out of nowhere, almost like deus ex machina, two dark shadows scratched the surface of the sea. “Look over there!”, someone shouted.

A mother and its baby quietly traveled the channel. Our silenced breathing was only cut by mist pluming out of the whales’ blowholes. What a beautiful spectacle!

Sleeping giants of Canary Islands

Pilot whales, a mom and a baby, swimming in Tenerife, Spain, shot during the Tenerife whale watching excursion with Neptuno Sea Company, photo by Ivan Kralj
Mom and baby whale swimming side by side

The first thought was that the homemade Canarian sangria, slightly stronger than the one you could find on the Spanish peninsula, made us see double. But in fact, a family of two pilot whales let us enter their calm universe for a minute. Unconstrained by the theme park industry, this “orca ocean” was a world where mothers did not reject their cubs but swam together as the only survival method.

Pilot whales can grow up to six meters, and can weigh up to two tons! To maintain that size, a rich diet of squid, octopus and small fish is employed. They typically feed by night and sleep by day.

When we saw them emerging on the sea surface, we saw the behavior called logging (floating like a log). It is basically – a nap. Whales are mammals, so they cannot breathe underwater. In order to recuperate from the night hunting efforts, they engage in surface resting combined with logging, during which only one-half of their brain sleeps at any moment. The other half has to beware of the surroundings and remind the whale it’s time to breathe in.

The stars of our whale safari slowly navigated the channel, and at one point even crossed under our boat. After some time of observing the whales, we would continue on, and then encounter a few more of these “sleepswimmers”. Or is “sunswim” the correct version of what we call moonwalking in the human world?

There is something humbling in meeting these marvelous animals face-to-face. Living life at its simplest, taking only as much as one needs, and fitting in perfectly in the miraculous balance of nature that provides; could we learn anything? Belonging to the only species of animals that distorts this balance for its gain, we humans could never sleep so peacefully.

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Something is lurking in the waters of Los Gigantes

Participants of Tenerife whale watching excursion jumping from Shogun boat into the sea of Los Gigantes for a swim, Tenerife, Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
Anchoring in a bay seems like a perfect moment for a cooling swim, and there’s a camera to record your master dive

We continued towards the Bay of Masca and anchored under the impressive Acantilados de Los Gigantes (Cliffs of the Giants). Not everyone jumped at the opportunity for a swim break at the foothill of 600-meter high cliffs.

The massive rock wall rising out of the sea looked both spectacular and intimidating. A sturdy end of the volcanic island, overlooking the dark Atlantic waters. Guanches, the aborigines of Tenerife, called this vertical masterpiece of nature – the Wall of Hell.

A dozen of us decided to seize the Tenerife whale watching day with an energizing swim in the vicinity of the stunning natural wonder of Los Gigantes. The depth was such that, despite the proximity of the island, no one could see the bottom of the seafloor.

A call for lunch and a tempting smell of vegetable rice and roasted chicken drumsticks saw most of the swimmers heading back to the boat. With five of us remaining in the water, the crew started throwing pieces of bread in the sea, and tropical fish developed an appetite too.

Andy the guide, the sangria maker and the DJ, all-in-one, decided to spice up this unusual picnic in the wild. The music that spilled out of the loudspeakers was appetizing, but only for great white sharks that watched the 1975 blockbuster.

It’s fascinating how John Williams’ ingenious composition successfully carved into our collective memory and invoked the feeling of panic we associated with Steven Spielberg’s thriller.

The suspense was in the air. It provoked some hysterical laughter, but also the sense of real approaching danger.

I decided to garnish the musical accent of the “Jaws” theme by grabbing the bald guy in orange swimming trunks underwater. Fear is best fought with laughter.

We were all out of the water in no time!

Neptuno whale experience – adventurous and fun

Hopping on the Tenerife whale watching excursion with Neptuno Sea Company provided an expedition that was fulfilling in a variety of aspects. It brought new insights, loads of entertainment, while at the same time never jeopardizing the safety of passengers or whales.

Sun-burned man standing at the bar of Shogun sailboat during the Tenerife whale watching excursion, Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
There are many ways to remember the sailboat excursion; one is by not bringing the sunscreen

The return to Puerto Colon after lunch was an opportunity to reflect on this adventurous day trip while soaking up the sun on the chill-out deck.

Those hanging at the disco deck had the privilege to order music of their liking. We were saying goodbye to the whales with Scorpions and Queen, holding Caipirinha in one hand, and cameras in the other.

In the last half hour of the trip, a speedboat raced toward us and docked sideways, as in some James Bond movie. The girl embarked Shogun with sets of freshly printed souvenir photos that combined our portraits from the marina and photos of whales and dolphins. One cost 10 Euros, two 15.

For those who preferred the video footage (and let’s face it, “Jaws” remained in my memory because I saw them first with 3D glasses), the company offered a DVD. It compiled the shots of the Tenerife wildlife over the years (blue whales, killer whales, jumping dolphins, etc.), aerial views of the island recorded by drone, and the highlights of the very trip we just participated in. The DVD cost 34 Euros.

If you wanted just a little something to remember the Tenerife whale watching experience, there were souvenir necklaces made of nakar. The local artist was selling one for 5, or two for 8 Euros.

Tenerife whale watching price

DJ Andy making a homemade sangria on Shogun sailboat during the Tenerife whale watching excursion, Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
DJ Andy is also a barman Andy; sangria on a sailboat is a perfect way to make both your body and mind float

If you choose a Tenerife whale watching trip on Neptuno’s Shogun, the 5-hour experience will cost you 50 Euros per person, with free pick-up on southern shores. If you’re staying in Puerto de la Cruz, as I did, a Shogun boat trip will cost you 53 Euros per person, which includes bus pick-up and drop-off.

I sincerely recommend staying on the less-touristy northern coast of Tenerife. Check the best accommodation options in Puerto de la Cruz!

There’s a cheaper way to see pilot whales and dolphins with the same company. If you decide for a 2-hour trip on an authentic Portuguese Goleta Peter Pan, this smaller-group excursion with simple sandwiches will cost you 25 Euros per person. The departure is from Los Cristianos.

Children aged 6 to 11 pay half of these prices, while younger ones get on for free.

Soft drinks are complimentary on Neptuno trips, as well as a beer or wine with your lunch. Any extra alcoholic drink will cost you an additional 1 Euro, as well as Espresso. Regular coffee is 50 cents.

How to ensure responsible, ethical and eco-friendly whale watching in Tenerife?

The pilot whale on the surface of the sea as seen during the Tenerife whale watching excursion with Neptuno Sea Company in Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
In order to protect the new generations of pilot whales, support only legal operators!

In order to secure the sustainability of Tenerife whale watching, rules have been implemented for the tour boats. To make sure that disturbance of the animals is minimized, Tenerife Turismo regulated the speed, approaching zones, distances, whale watching duration, the concentration of boats, noise and other pollution, etc.

The companies that comply with the regulation of responsible whale and dolphin watching in Tenerife can be identified by the Blue Boat Flag (Barco Azul).

Some boats certify their whale watching programs as ethical through other labels, such as the World Cetacean Alliance and Friend of the Sea.

Neptuno is an experienced boat tour company operating since 1994. The Shogun holds the yellow flag with a blue boat badge that guarantees the marine wildlife sightseeing with maximum attention to their welfare.

If you would like to explore Tenerife whale watching even further, the Atlantic Whale and Dolphin Foundation offers volunteering programs. They start at 300 Euros per week, which includes accommodation, meals, and activities.

When can you see whales in Tenerife?

A woman sitting on the edge of the Shogun boat sailing by the Tenerife island, Spain, photo by Ivan Kralj
Tenerife is a year-long tourist destination and whales think the same way too; invest patience and you will certainly spot some of them whenever you visit!

What are the best months for whale watching in Tenerife and the Canary Islands? Thanks to the climate and the quality of the habitat, pods of pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins live permanently in the Tenerife water area. This means you can observe them throughout the year!

Sperm whales should be around all the time too but are hard to see. Your chances to meet this evasive species that prefers the ocean depths grow in March and April.

Springtime is also a good period for trying your luck with killer whale watching in the wild.

As for the rare sightings of other migratory whales, you’ll have the best chances to spot them between November and February. This is the period when humpbacks, fin whales and blue whales pass by Tenerife.

Finally, when speaking about Tenerife whale watching, there is no such thing as the best time of year. These are free-roaming animals!

Tenerife whale watching season never stops, and the close encounters depend only on the whales’ will to reveal themselves.

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Pilot whales are just one of the two dozen whale species calling Atlantic Ocean around Tenerife island their home. From sperm whales and orcas to bottlenose dolphins, the underwater inhabitants of the Canary Islands are silent passers-by during the boat trips. How does a Tenerife whale watching excursion look like?

Disclosure: My participation in Neptuno Sea Company's boat trip was complimentary, but all opinions are my own.

Also, this post contains affiliate links, which means if you click on them and make a purchase, Pipeaway might make a small commission, at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting our work!
Ivan Kralj

Editor

Award-winning journalist and editor from Croatia

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