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Four ways to have a whale of a time

By George Webster for CNN
  • A guide to some of the world's best whale watching experiences
  • Our recommendations take you from chilly Scotland to tropical Maldives
  • Excursions range from day trips on vintage ships to holidays on luxury yachts

(CNN) -- They are the largest animals on the planet and spend around 90% of their lives underwater, surfacing to breathe for only fleeting moments.

From the unimaginably colossal sperm whale, to the stubbed-nosed beluga, to the sleek jet-black killer whale, the mysterious marine mammals have long been a source of intrigue and are yet still little understood.

It's perhaps small wonder then that they have become a highly sought after spectacle, spawning a whale watching industry that spans the five oceans.

Whether you're searching for an informative day trip or an adventure holiday, there are a variety of ways to see these astonishing creatures in their natural habitat.

The historic experience
San Diego

According to the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, the practice of organized whale watching gained momentum in San Diego in the 1950s, after the city's Cabrillo National Monument was named as a public venue for observing gray whales.

From early September through early April, California gray whales travel past San Diego in their 10,000-mile annual migration from the Bering Sea to Baja California.

If you want to whale watch in true historic style, then take a day trip out on the 139-foot "America" yacht. Widely regarded as the most famous vessel in yacht racing history, in 1851 the "America" was the first to win the international sailing trophy now known, in tribute, as the America's Cup.

The exquisite wooden craft today runs daily excursions from the Maritime Museum of San Diego and is well-suited for whale watching due to its low sleek lines, deep keel and ability to quietly approach the sensitive marine mammals without a noisy engine.

In fact, the owners of the "America" are so confident about the smooth ride offered by the yacht that they offer a no sea sickness guarantee, stating: "If you lose your lunch...we will replace it!"

Responsible tourism
Isle of Mull, Scotland

Around the chilly Isle of Mull in Scotland, minke whales -- known for their inquisitiveness and "human watching" tendencies -- can be found in droves.

Due to their relative abundance, they are often the focus of whale watching cruises, and so creating a sustainable industry around them has become a top priority.

For the conscientious tourist, Responsible Travel -- a small, family-run travel company that has won a handful of environmental awards -- offers a weekend break in conjunction with the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust.

In addition to getting the chance to catch a glimpse of minke over the course of two days, visitors also can participate in an ongoing aquatic mammal survey by documenting the observed behavior of the whales and help conduct a photo-identification study of the local minke population.

Expert guides

For those who want to combine a desert island vacation with a highly educational tour of marine life, then the Maldives is the place to go.

The sprawling archipelago of coral atolls located in the middle of the Indian Ocean provides a habitat for a spectacular array of deep-sea beauties, including the long-finned pilot whale, the dwarf sperm whale and the rarely sighted Bryde's whale.

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To help you identify and truly understand the different breeds and their habits, wildlife specialist Naturetrek offers a two-week package with Dr. Charles "Chaz" Anderson, a renowned marine biologist and one of the world's foremost whale authorities who is also responsible for discovering several new breeds of fish.

Taking place aboard the "MV Ari Queen" -- a cosy, specially chartered cruise yacht -- other highlights of the vacation include the chance to snorkel with manta rays, an interesting pallet of seabirds and even the occasional whale shark.

Guaranteed sightings
Kaikoura, New Zealand

Although most whale tour operators are knowledgeable about the animal's migration habits, there's generally no guarantee of spotting one on any given day.

Not so, however, around the small coastal town of Kaikoura in New Zealand. Lying hidden just offshore, the two-kilometer-deep Kaikoura Canyon is one of the planet's great undersea wonders.

Two powerful sea currents converge in this vast trench, drawing huge quantities of plant and animal nutrients to the surface in a great upwelling.

This is the stimulus for a population explosion of small fish and crustaceans that subsequently attract a flabbergasting food chain of larger marine life, the most famous being the holy grail of cetacean sightings: the giant sperm whale.

In fact, so confident is New Zealand's Whale Watch tour company that visitors will get the chance to gawk directly at the world's largest creature, that it promises to refund 80% of your fare if no whale is sighted.