How To Choose Binoculars For Whale Watching (Best UK Guide)

How To Choose Binoculars For Whale Watching (Best UK Guide)

It might just surprise you how many places in the UK it’s possible to see whales just off the coast. From Scotland’s west coast, Cardigan Bay in Wales, to as far South you can get in the UK, Cornwall, all have regular whale sightings. The most common whale seen around the UK coastline is the Minke whale which seem to frequent the Northwest Scottish coasts and are also often spotted off the coasts of North Yorkshire too.

There are numerous boat trips to venture out into the North sea and see the whales in their own environment but even getting so close you’ll still benefit from a decent pair of binoculars. Unless you plan on making regular boat trips to watch the whales we wouldn’t encourage you to buy a pair of marine binoculars. But a decent pair of binoculars that will be good enough to see whales from the land or at sea can also be used for many other purposes too.

Choosing Binoculars For Whale Watching From A Boat

The first thing everyone thinks of when the word binoculars comes up is magnification, and there’s a good reason for that. The whole idea of buying binoculars is so you can see objects clearly that are too far off to see just with your naked eye. Many people also assume that the higher the magnification the better, but that’s not always the case.

The fact is too much magnification can result in dull, blurry images making the binoculars almost useless. If you were to ask a sailor on the best size binoculars for using at sea he’d almost certainly recommend 7×50 binoculars. That’s 7 times magnification, why would such a low magnification be best for using at sea?

It’s not all about the magnification, there are plenty of other factors that make for perfect marine viewing. For instance, that second number, 50 refers to the objective lens diameter. That’s the lens furthest from your eye (closest to the object you’re looking at), and that’s a very important factor.

Objective Lens Diameter

For you to see the image through the binoculars clearly, you need light, that light can only enter the binoculars through the objective lens. So the wider the diameter of the objective lens, the brighter the image you can see through the binoculars. Another thing that makes both the magnification and the objective lens diameter so important is the size of the exit pupil.

What Is The Exit Pupil And Why Is It Important?

The exit pupil is the diameter of the beam of light that reaches your eyes when you look through the lens of a pair of binoculars. It’s important because it has to match, or be as close as possible to our own pupil size. The human pupil is around 7mm at the age of 30, it decreases by roughly one mm every 10 years, so at 40 it’s 6mm and so on.

Given that the binoculars exit pupil should match our own pupil size, it’s important to know the size of the binoculars exit pupil. It’s often quoted in the specs but it’s a simple one to work out without looking at the specs. As long as you know the objective lens diameter and the magnification level, you can work out the exit pupil. Just divide the objective lens diameter by the magnification, the answer will be the exit pupil in millimeters.

In our sailors binoculars from earlier which were 7×50 the exit pupil is 7.14mm because


So that particular pair of binoculars will allow just over 7mm of light to enter the lens tubes to illuminate the image of the object (in this case whale) that you’re looking at. 

The Field Of View (FoV)

The FoV refers to the width of the view you can see through the binocular lenses right to left (or port to starboard) while looking straight ahead. In the specs you will either be given the angular FoV which should be between  6° and 8° or the linear FoV which should be between 105m per 1,000m to 140m per 1,000m.

Eye Relief

This is the perfect distance between your eye and the eyepiece of the binoculars and still being able to see the full FoV. Quoted in the spec in millimeters. The average eye relief is between 12 to 16mm. If you wear glasses you will need what’s known as long eye relief which is anywhere between 16 to 24mm. This will allow space for your glasses and still get that perfect distance for viewing.

Good Light Transmission Is Important For Whale Watching

Light plays an important part in the way you can see the image through binocular lenses, so it’s probably no surprise that a good light transmission is important too. In the case of binoculars light transmission is aided by the type of glass used for making the prisms and the lenses. Let’s have a quick look at the glass used.

BAK4 Glass

This is the glass used to make the prisms in the very best binoculars. BAK4 glass has the least imperfections of any optical glass and is only used in high quality precision optical glass.

BK7 Glass

This is slightly lower quality than BAK4 but it is still high quality precision optical glass. It just has slightly more imperfections than BAK4 glass. BK7 glass is used in most binoculars apart from the top quality which have BAK4.

ED Glass

Extra low Dispersion glass is specially formulated to reduce something called  chromatic aberration, which is basically colour distortion and can cause some images to have halos. ED glass is also precision optical glass and is used for making binocular lenses.

Waterproof Binoculars For Whale Watching

Whale Watching

Whether you’re whale watching from the shore or in a boat, having waterproof binoculars makes good sense. If water does enter the internal areas of the binoculars they will never be the same again. For whale watching from land we’d recommend binoculars with an IPX6 industry code, this means no rain or water splashes will enter the binoculars.

For whale watching from a boat we’d suggest you go the whole way and go for IPX7 which allows for the binoculars to be dropped into the water up to a depth of one metre for 30 minutes without any water getting inside.

Fog Proofing

To prevent your binoculars fogging up when going from a warm car to a cold beach you’ll need fog proof binoculars. To make them fog proof the manufacturers remove all of the air from the lens tubes and replace it with an inert gas like nitrogen or argon. As these gasses contain no moisture, they cannot react to sudden temperature changes so won’t steam up.

Dust Proof Binoculars

In the same way that the inert gas is sealed in the binoculars, no dust or sand or other undesirable microbes can enter either. Very handy on windswept beaches or on board whale watching boats.

Protective Armour Coating

Most of the better quality binocular brands come coated in either rubber or polycarbonate to protect the body of the binoculars. This coating prevents any accidental damage from dropping them on the beach or scraping them on boat railings etc.

Which Type Of Binoculars Are Best For Whale Watching?

When it comes to binoculars there are two main types, Porro prism and roof prism. They both have good and bad points, and as we don’t want to bore you with unnecessary facts and figures we’ll keep this brief.

Pros And Cons Of Porro Prism Binoculars

Advantages Of Porro Prism BinocularsDisadvantages Of Porro Prism Binoculars
Wider Field Of ViewHeavier
Less Costly (due To Lower Manufacturing Costs)More Difficult To Waterproof 
More 3D like ImageEasier To Misalign Prisms

Pros And Cons Of Roof Prism Binoculars

Advantages Of Roof Prism BinocularsDisadvantages Of Roof Prism Binoculars
Lightweight More Compact DesignMore expensive Than Comparable Porros
Easier To WaterproofRequires Advanced Tech And Precision Build
Optically Superior With P-Coatings
Easier to Carry/Conceal

Best Binoculars For Whale Watching From Land

Most of the above will still apply when looking for the best binoculars for whale watching from land, apart from the need for a higher magnification. This is because you will in theory at least be further away from the whales on land than if you were whale watching from a boat.

What Is The Best Magnification For Whale Watching From Land?

This depends a lot on how old you are, and how physically fit you are. Because as we age, or aren’t in peak physical fitness our ability to hold heavy objects out in front of our faces deteriorates. Not usually too much of a problem but with binoculars any slight shake will be magnified by a substantial amount.

Upto and including 10x magnification will be fine but any higher than this, say, 12x or 15x or even 20x will magnify that slight shake by as many times as the magnification value. A slight shake magnified 20 times will make any whale features indistinguishable. So if you want more than 10 times magnification, (which in reality means any object you see will appear 10 times larger through the binoculars than with the naked eye) you’ll need a tripod to support the binoculars.

Binoculars Weight

It’s not just the shakes either, to support a magnification of 20 times you will need an objective lens of such an immense diameter that just carrying the binoculars would be exhausting without trying to hold them up. 

Our Recommended Binoculars For Watching Whales From Land

After doing our own research and taking into consideration input from animal experts we would recommend watching whales from the shore using one of the following;

What Types Of Whales Can You See In The UK?

You might be surprised by just how many species of whales you can see from the shore in the United Kingdom. If you are fortunate you will see;

  • Minke Whales
    Minke whales can be seen from the seashores from Scotland to North Yorkshire.
  • Fin whales
    Fin whales can be seen from the seashores of the Outer Hebrides, the South coast of Ireland, and Cornwall.
  • Sperm whales
    You’ll need to travel to the Outer Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland to see Sperm whales from UK seashores.
  • Long-Finned Pilot whales
    The best beaches to see Long-finned Pilot whales are Cornwall, Devon, southern Ireland, and western Scotland.
  • Cuvier’s Beaked whales
    Cuvier’s Beaked whales are unusual sights around the British Isles but they have been reported off the coasts of Northern Scotland.
  • Humpback whales
    Humpback whales are migratory so your best chance of seeing them is Summertimes off the West coast of Scotland.
  • Killer whales
    Also known as Orcas, killer whales are often seen off the coasts of the Western Isles, Shetland and Orkney.

Frequently Asked Questions

What binoculars are best for whale watching?

The binoculars that are best for whale watching from a boat are either 7×35 or 7×50. For land whale watching  10×50 or 8×42 will be best.

Which is better 10×50 binoculars vs 10×42 binoculars?

10×50 are better than 10×42 because the larger objective lens will allow more light to enter and create a brighter image through the lens.