Migrating sperm whales and killer whales, as well as resident pilot whales and fin whales and common, striped, and bottlenose dolphin can all be seen in the Strait. Boats leave every day (conditions permitting) from Tarifa with expert guides who will take you to the best spots for seeing these magnificent creatures.
According to a 2001 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the whale watching industry, which began back in 1954, was, by 1998, moving more than $1Bn and attracting more than 9Mn people/year across 87 countries and territories, supporting IFAW’s claim that "these magnificent creatures are worth far more alive than dead". Also according to the report, by 1998 Spain was one of three countries (along with the U.S. and Canada) able to boast more than 1 million whale watchers per year. While the vast majority of Spain’s whale watching takes place off the Canary Islands, the Strait of Gibraltar is also an excellent spot for watching both resident and migrating species.
The added advantage of The Strait is that, even if you fail to spot any whales, the experience of floating on this dramatic divide between two continents is memorable in itself. On a cloudy day, you cannot see Morocco from Tarifa, but on a clear day (the majority) the little white houses at the top of Africa look so close that they might as well be the next Spanish village along the coast. The 14km-wide and 300 metre-deep Straits are dominated by the towering Jebel Musa, the mountain (851m) that marks the northernmost point of Africa and whose northern face drops almost vertically into the Strait. The Jebel Musa and the Rock of Gibraltar are supposedly Greek mythology’s Pillars of Hercules, formed by the Greek hero when he decided to break through the original Atlas on his way to completing one of his twelve labours.
There are several groups organising whale-watching trips in the Strait. The best way to watch these wonderful creatures is to charter your own boat and skipper. This can be done through Nature Tarifa, who have two sizes of boats (for 7 and 10 people) that they keep at their base in Barbate. Skipper, Ignacio Soto, will take you to the best spots, turn off the engine, and let you soak up this memorable experience in total silence. Africa on one side, Europe on the other, and you in the middle with giant whales, and in perfect silence. Just unbeatable! Alternatively, there are several groups running trips on bigger boasts out of Tarifa. Whale-watch Tarifa (WWT), for example, is a non-profitable organisation set up in 1996 to support the protection and observation of cetaceans in their natural habitat. WWT boats leave Tarifa normally once a day (twice in high season), but you would do well to book, and also we suggest that you try and organise whale-watching as early in your trip as possible as sea conditions in the Strait are often far from perfect for gentle whale watching (Tarifa has been christened the "Wind Capital of Europe" with good reason!)
Whichever of these two options you decide on, your boat will probably head towards the middle of the Strait, crossing any shipping heading out to the Atlantic. This is one of the busiest stretches of water in the World, and Algeciras, which is just another 10km around the coast from Tarifa, is Spain’s busiest port. This obviously represents a major risk for the resident and migratory whale and dolphin populations. According to WWE, the probability of sighting dolphins in the Bay of Algeciras 10 years ago was as high as 99%, with groups of 100-1000 not uncommon. The probability has now dropped to 90% and groups are now more likely to muster just 12-40.
What you are likely to see will depend on the time of year. In the spring, for example, you will probably see dolphins and pilot whales, and there is also a high probability of spotting sperm whales on their way into the Mediterranean. The summer months are best for watching killer whales chasing the tuna that are returning from the Mediterranean having just spawned. It is also a good time to see finback whales. The autumn, meanwhile, is the moment for watching resident species, such as pilot whales and the common, striped, and bottlenose dolphin and their newborn. Several factors govern whale migration and these include climate change, as well as water temperature, depth, and salinity, the topography of the sea-floor, and of course food and breeding. As a rule of thumb, whales will generally travel to cold waters to feed and warm waters to give birth.
We have made several whale-watching trips, but on the last one, which was in early summer, we saw plenty of dolphins and three massive sperm whales. In my view, it is impossible to tire of seeing dolphins on the open sea. And if you have never seen them before, it is an absolute must and, believe me, it is difficult to tell who is more excited as parents and children run frenziedly across the deck to catch a glimpse of these mesmerizing creatures as they surf the bow-wave first on one side and then dive deep before reappearing on the other side. And then when they finally disappear, you are left, chin on guard-rail, gazing into the deep pleading for them to return.
Seeing a whale at close quarters is often described as a magical experience and, certainly, it is difficult to explain it any better. The majesty of these creatures is perhaps the overwhelming impression; the grace and unhurried nature of their movements, apparently unperturbed by all around them. Sightings are often some way from the boat, and perhaps only the tip of the whale’s head can be seen (and at a distance), and, following whale-watching code, the boat will never deliberately get too close to the whale, always waiting for it to make an approach. If you are lucky enough for it to do so, and it comes along side, close enough to enable you to see any distinct markings and maybe even an eye, it is an experience you are going to want to repeat again and again. Your guide will normally warn you when the whale is preparing to dive. They know the signs and, on cue, the giant lifts his tale, as if to wave goodbye to the lookers-on, and slips silently below the surface as it dives deep. The sperm whales that we saw dived for around 45 minutes, a time period that is well within their capabilities given that sperm whales are the dive masters in the cetacean world; they have been known reach depths of up to 3,000 metres and to stay down for as long as 2 hours. Although we were told that it was usual for sperm whales to resurface at the same spot, with several children on board, we decided to call it a (superb) day and headed back towards the Spanish coast, the kids of course on constant watch for more dolphins.