We heard that Madeira is a great place to see whales and dolphins, so doing a dolphin and whale watching cruise was high on our list when we visited Madeira with kids this April.
Before booking a whale watching tour we did some research as to when is the best time to see whales and dolphins in Madeira, which tour company to book with, and what type of boat to take. We read numerous reviews and ended up booking this Dolphin and Whale Watching by Luxury Catamaran Trip.
In this post I am sharing practical information about dolphin and whale watching in Madeira, our experience, review of our dolphin and whale speed boat tour with Magic Dolphin, as well as some tips and a map to help you plan your trip. Find out!
When is the best time to see whales and dolphins in Madeira
There are several types of whales that can be seen in Madeira throughout the year, so depending on the season there is always at least 2-3 species around. Over 20 different kinds of dolphins can be seen in Madeira depending on the season, so there’s even bigger chance to see dolphins than whales.
Our research showed that the best time to see whales in Madeira is from April till October, since the most species are present at that time. However, our local guides told us that the very best months to see whales in Madeira are May – June and September – November. They confirmed that dolphins are always around and said that Fin and Sei whales are often seen in winter too. So I’d say that no matter when you visit Madeira, it’s always worth taking a whale watching tour.
What types of whales and dolphins can you expect to see in Madeira
Pilot Whale and Sperm Whale can be seen throughout the entire year. Other species of whales you can expect to see in Madeira (depending on the season) include Sei Whale, Humpback Whale, Fin Whale, Bryde’s Whale, Minke Whale, and even Orcas.
Bottlenose dolphins are the most common species and can be seen in the waters near Madeira the whole year. The other species you might see (depending on the season) include: Common Dolphin, Striped Dolphin, Pantropical Dolphin, Atlantic Spotted Dolphin, Rough-toothed Dolphin, Risso’s Dolphin, etc.
What are the best whale watching boat tours in Madeira
Whale watching excursions are extremely popular in Madeira and there are many companies offering whale and dolphin watching trips from Funchal. I don’t think one is necessarily better than another in terms of whether you get to see wildlife or not. They all communicate with each other and share information when they find cetaceans. The same strict rules in terms of not disturbing sea life apply to all tour companies, so there isn’t much difference either. And like with all wildlife watching, it’s always a matter of luck too.
Despite this, there are significant other differences between whale watching tour companies, and mainly in price and service. We did our research and booked a whale watching trip with Magic Dolphin. They have excellent reviews on TripAdvisor as well as on GetYourGuide and they offered the best price-quality whale watching tours in Madeira.
For example, their Dolphin and Whale Watching by Luxury Catamaran Trip costs 10 EUR per person less and Whale and Dolphin Watching Sea Safari by Speedboat costs about 5 EUR per person less than the exact same trips offered by other companies. Furthermore, they take fewer passengers on their catamarans than their competitors, therefore giving you a more intimate experience.
Catamaran vs. speed boat whale watching trip
Once we chose what we thought was the best price/quality whale watching tour company in Madeira, the next choice was between the catamaran whale watching tour or a tour on a speed boat. The duration of the two tours is about the same (2-3hrs), but the price difference is quite big, so it might be a serious consideration when traveling with a family. However, there were several factors to consider and we ended up booking a speedboat tour for our family. There were two main reasons for this – see my comparison below.
Here are the main advantages of catamaran whale watching trip:
- more luxurious
- indoor as well as outdoor seating including luxury sunbeams and seat pads, as well as trampoline nets at the front of the boat
- bathrooms onboard
- bar with snacks and drinks
- summer trips include a stop for swimming with snorkels and googles provided for free (don’t forget your swimsuit and a towel)
- catamaran is also much cheaper
Here are the main advantages of a speed boat whale watching trip:
- no motion sickness (this was very important to us)
- we also found the speedboat safer with kids as everyone remains seated during the trip, whereas on a catamaran we would have had to constantly keep an eye on them making sure they wouldn’t do anything dangerous (this was our deciding factor to go for a speedboat trip rather than catamaran for a whale watching trip with kids)
- powerful engines ensure that you can cover large distances quickly, therefore giving you more chances to see multiple groups of whales, dolphins, and turtles during the trip
- lots of fun and adrenaline (our kids loved how the boat was ‘flying’ over the waves!)
- less people than on catamaran trips (max. 18)
- you can observe sea life from really close distances (several dolphins were within hands reach for us)
- Magic Dolphin offers you a FREE second trip on a speedboat if you don’t see any sea life the first time
Dolphin and whale watching trip in Madeira – our experience
We were in Madeira for a few days, yet to avoid disappointment and hassle we booked our whale watching trip in advance. If you travel in high season, booking in advance is a must, especially if you aren’t very flexible in terms of timing.
The morning of our trip we woke up to find that there was lots of wind and big waves in the ocean, so we were a bit worried how our whale watching trip would go. And we sure were glad that we booked a speed boat and not a catamaran. Upon arrival in Funchal we found that it was nice and sunny there (it was always sunny in Funchal during our 9 days in Madeira, even if it was raining or cloudy somewhere else) and the ocean looked much less threatening than it looked from our window in the morning. So we left Funchal full of hope that it would not be for nothing.
The ride on the speed boat was very smooth taking into account that the ocean was really rough, but the guides told us that the ride back would be quite a bit more bumpy. Then it started to rain and we were advised to put on a rain poncho (provided by the crew). The weather didn’t look good…
And then all of the sudden we saw dolphins and before we knew it we were completely surrounded by them. Not one or two, but tens, maybe even hundreds of dolphins were following our boat, jumping in the air, and putting up a real show for us. We didn’t know where to look first, let alone take pictures, as these creatures are quite unpredictable. Our kids were super enthusiastic constantly pointing the dolphins to each other and to us ‘look here’, ‘oh, look at that group’, ‘watch this one jump – wow!’…
We had seen whales and dolphins at several occasions during our previous travels, but this is the closest we had ever been to wild dolphins. And so many of them…. Sitting in the speed boat we could almost touch the dolphins as some of them came really close. It was a truly unforgettable experience!
After about 10 minutes we had to leave the group (it’s one of the strict regulations in Madeira in order to not disturb the wildlife too much), but we were followed by some dolphins. And then there was another group waiting for us a bit further, and another one… Or maybe they were the same dolphins just following us – no idea…
As we already exceeded the set time for the tour, we had to get back to Funchal. It was a bumpy ride and we found it strange how the boat kept going further from the coast instead of heading back to town. After a few minutes we asked the guides what was going on as we kept going further into the ocean. And that’s when they told us that someone had signalled a whale in this area and that they were trying to trace it. They asked the group if we wouldn’t mind coming back to Funchal a bit later and of course nobody did.
We then saw the ‘footprints’ of a whale – a flat water surface among the big waves, so we knew the whale was really close by. And then we saw a little fountain – yes, there was definitely a whale here. But he was playing hide and seek with us. At one moment we could see his tale a bit and then he dove deep in the ocean again… We circled around the area a bit more, but since we were already late to get back to town, we had to leave.
The ride back was quite rough, but really fun. So much adrenaline – a bit like a fun rollercoaster ride. Our kids were over the moon – not only did we see so many dolphins, caught a glimpse of a whale, but also had a really fun time on this super fast boat.
At the end we were all glad that we went on this boat tour despite of the wind and the rain and big waves. So I’d say give it a try when you are in Madeira as the chances of seeing sea life are really quite big here.
- Book your whale watching tour in advance. There are many boat trip possibilities in Funchal and it’s so much easier to compare prices, read reviews, and find the best whale watching trip for you on the internet than it is at the harbour.
- There are several companies that provide dolphin and whale watching tours from Funchal, and most of them offer several tours a day. Prices vary from around 25 to 50 EUR per person depending on the boat. Kids get a discount (again, depends on the boat).
- If you want to also swim with dolphins, take a look at this tour.
- In colder season carry a sweater and a rain jacket with you. Rain ponchos were provided on our speed boat trip, but I am not sure if it’s the case on other trips.
- Don’t forget a sunscreen lotion (in any season) and a sun hat.
- If you want to swim in summer, choose a catamaran whale watching trip. It’s best to wear your swimsuit in advance and take a towel with you.
- If you easily suffer from sea sickness I advise to book a speed boat trip. I get sea sick on the boat quite easily, but never experienced any issues on a speedboat.
- There is no age limit for children on a catamaran. For a speedboat they have to be at least 6 years old. I think it has to do with the ability to be able to quietly sit on a separate seat for a few hours. We found the speed boat safer with our super active boys and were a bit concerned about taking them on a catamaran. I think we would have spent more time watching the kids than dolphins.
- It doesn’t really matter which trip you book – morning or afternoon. The chances to see whales and dolphins are just as high.
- If you are not staying in Funchal city centre and arrive by car, you can best park your car at the CR7 museum parking lot. It costs +- 1,20 EUR/hr and is conveniently located just a few minutes walking distance from the Funchal harbour.
- If you are fascinated by whales and want to learn more about them, consider visiting Canical whale museum as well.
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