Uruguay is one of the few places in the world where you don’t need to hire a boat or go on an expensive trip to watch whales. Between June and November you can watch them close-up from the beach itself as they swim north from the colder waters of Argentina to breed in the warm waters of Brazil passing Uruguay on the way.
The most common whales you are likely to see are southern right whales (known in Spanish as ballenas francas). It is also possible to see humpback whales.
These massive creatures are visible from beaches all along the coast of Maldonado and Rocha, particularly where the water is deep and so whales get really close to the coast (check out this amazing video where you really see the proximity). It is an incredible privilege to be able to sit on the beach and just watch whales playing only tens of meters away.
How to locate whales and dolphins
In the whale season, it’s not unusual to come across whales and dolphins (often referred to as ‘toninas’ locally) as you walk the beaches. This has happened to me many times (here I recount what happened one June when I was walking the beach Playa Grande in Punta del Diablo and here is the whale spurting).
Real-time sightings The best way to find out where to see whales is via real time updates in the Ballenas UY group on Telegram. There, thousands of Uruguay-based experts and members of the general public fascinated with whales share coordinates and videos or photos of sightings in real time. Remember these mammals are generally on the move so you need to get in your car and head to the spot as soon as you can. The group is in Spanish. If you have questions about what you read there, feel free to post a comment below.
Join the Ballenas UY group (this link will direct you to download or open the ‘Telegram’ app, open it from a mobile device —doesn’t seem to work on desktop)
Five best places to whale-watch in Uruguay
The map above shows beaches in Maldonado and Rocha (blue circles) where it is possible to view whales. Several viewing platforms (torres de observacion) marked in red on the map. The platforms are free to use, and unattended.
There are a bunch of beaches and viewing points throughout Maldonado and Rocha but you double your chances at:
- Punta Colorada and Punta Negra (two beaches near Piriapolis)
- Playa Mansa, Punta del Este between Paradas 23 and 40 (watch this video of a whale filmed from the air by a drone close to Parada 23)
- Punta Salinas, Punta del Este
- The bay at La Paloma
- La Pedrera
The law in Uruguay says that you need to keep at least 300 metres (that’s about one thousand feet) between yourself and a whale. So that means that potentially-harmful tourism ventures using small boats to trail the whales are not allowed.
Make sure you bring binoculars.
Whale-watching season in Uruguay
Most sources I have consulted say between July and November. However, someone who lives in Punta del Diablo has told me that they have seen whales during the month of June. So, if you want to improve your odds, come between August and November, but from June you may get lucky.
How to spot whales
The best times to observe are the early hours of the morning and late in the day, when the waters are calm.
Look out for:
- flocks of gulls circling – they hover above submerged whales
- churning water
- spray – the whale shooting water through its blow hole (don’t expect it to necessarily form a “v” shape – you read too many comics)
- glistening in the water – the reflection of the whale’s back.
These handy tips provided by Descubriendo Uruguay. The page is in Spanish but you should check it out for photos of what you might observe.
So save yourself an expensive trip to Patagonia, watch the whales for free and know your viewing is completely unobtrusive to them.
Essential resources for whale and dolphin watchers in Uruguay
The Ballena UY group on Telegram (find link above)
Uruguay is a whale and dolphin sanctuary – and that’s official
Photos: Uruguay in Photos