Expert tips to make the most of a dolphin- or whale-watching tour

by EMILY MATCHAR·

Image by Virginia Beach Tourism.

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'Look, dolphins!' the little girl calls to her mother. 'They're playing!'

I'm on the upper deck of Rudee Tours' double-decker boat out of Virginia Beach, and we've just spotted our quarry. Below us, in the blue waters of the Atlantic, at least a dozen bottlenose dolphins are surfacing. They do seem to be playing, slipping and sliding through the waves in twos and threes.

They're so close I can see their eyes and their toothy mouths that appear to be curved in perpetual grins. The boat cuts its engines and we all rush to the railing to frantically snap pictures.

This will later prove to be a pointless task – no matter how hard you try, a photo of a surfacing dolphin inevitably looks identical to a picture of an ocean wave: grey-on-grey. Trust me, take video instead.

Image by Virginia Beach Tourism.

Here are a few more tips to make the most of your whale- and dolphin-watching experience, from on-the-water experts (and one intrepid Lonely Planet author) based on my trip to Virginia Beach:

Consider seasickness

Do you turn green during car rides down winding roads, or clutch the airsick bag during choppy landings? If so, grab yourself some motion sickness meds before departing on a boat trip. As Randy Gore from Tidewater Adventures advises: 'the smaller the boat, the greater the tendency to have motion sickness'. Larger tour boats offer fairly smooth rides when the weather's good.

Dress the part

Take it from me, who shivered through a two-hour tour despite the mild 65°F (18°C) outside. The temperature over the water is lower, and the chill is magnified by the wind and the damp sea spray, so dress warmly – think hooded sweatshirts, windbreakers, hats, even gloves (though in summer you might not need all of those). If you're on a double-decker boat, queue up early to snag a spot on the upper deck, where you can avoid the sea spray and catch some solar rays as well. For kayak tours, wear a swimsuit or wetsuit – you WILL get wet.

Look but don't touch

This isn't an issue on big boat tours, where the railings are so high above the ocean you couldn't pat a dolphin or whale without hurling yourself overboard. But on kayaking trips like Tidewater's, the temptation to touch can be overwhelming – dolphins will swim right up to your boat and even appear to look you in the eyes. 'You wouldn't pet a stranger on the street, why would you pet an animal?' explains Randy Gore. So cameras on, but hands off.

Image by Virginia Beach Tourism.

Book ahead and arrive early

I got to Rudee Tours' dock half an hour before launch time, as indicated on my pre-purchased ticket. Yet I was one of the last to arrive, and found myself at the back of a very long line. The early bird gets the worm – the 'worm' in this case being a good seat on the upper deck. For kayak tours like Tidewater's, you must call ahead well in advance – often disappointed guests show up at the launch site without reservations, and the guides haven't brought kayaks for them!

Be relaxed

This is nature, and nature doesn't always run on schedule – it's possible that you won't spot the animals you were looking for, but that's OK. I went on a March whale-watching tour, but no humpbacks happened to surface. Instead, I got to see dozens of playful dolphins, which, as our guide pointed out, are from the same family as whales. Win! So roll with the punches and you'll have a great time. Around Virginia Beach, humpback whales are more likely to be seen during the winter months, while bottlenose dolphins tend to surface in warmer weather – every destination will have seasonal variations, so do advance research and, even then, expect the unexpected.

This article was originally published in July 2012 and refreshed in January 2013.