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Whale Watching in Massachusetts: what you need to know for your best day on the water

whale watching in Cape Cod waters. Humpback feeding at surface showing baleen

Is there anything more fun to do in the summer than get out on the water? Well, if you’re in New England you know that being on the water on a whale watching tour is even more fun! Here in Massachusetts, we’re almost guaranteed whale sightings as just off the coast is the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary – the summer home of humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales and North Atlantic right whales. The national sanctuary has been named the best place to see marine life by USA Today. Spending a day whale watching in Cape Cod Bay is a great opportunity for enjoying these amazing marine mammals in their natural habitat. I’ve been out with Captain John Boats twice and highly recommend it.

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Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

The Stellwagen Bank sanctuary is part of the Gulf of Maine and is an incredibly rich marine habitat. What began as just an important fishing ground is now an active fishing, shipping and recreational area. The Gulf of Maine’s importance as primary feeding grounds for marine mammals has led to this being a top destination for whale watching on the East Coast.

Former director Craig McDonald describes the sanctuary:

“The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary stretches between Cape Ann and Cape Cod at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. Virtually the size of the state of Rhode Island, the Sanctuary was established in 1992 because of its remarkable biological, geological, oceanographic and cultural features.”

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Note all the whales swimming by this boat out of Provincetown

Whale Watching in Massachusetts: whales and more!

Most of the marine mammals you’ll see while whale watching in Massachusetts will be the humpbacks. These enormous whales (as big as a school bus!) are stunning and will put on quite a display. You will likely see behavior like bubble net feeding and fin slapping. Bubble net feeding is fascinating to watch. From the boat you’ll see a sudden disruption on the surface of the ocean. What is happening is that under the water the whale is releasing a stream of bubbles to corral small fish. Then the whale surfaces, gulping everything in its way before expelling the water through its baleen plates, leaving just the fish to swallow.

Pixar the humpback with baleen showing

The naturalist on board the boat can usually identify individual whales from the marking on their tail flukes. The whale pictured is known as Pixar. The sanctuary keeps track of these gentle giants in order to assess the health of the population.

Two other species of whales frequent the sanctuary but both are endangered. The fin whale (also known as finback whales) is the second largest whale in the world growing up to 75 feet long. It also feed using the baleen plates to strain its food. The last resident of the area is the Northern Atlantic right whale. This is a critically endangered species and is the focus of much of the conservation work done by NOAA and the marine sanctuaries.

Other wildlife to expect

If you’re lucky you might see common dolphins, tuna, and sea turtles. On my last trip the crew spotted bluefish and tuna, but I was on the other side watching the antics of Pixar, a large humpback. Three species of sea turtles feed and migrate through these waters.

Keep a lookout for seals. Gray seals and harbor seals are common in the waters of Cape Cod and are fun to watch. And where you find seals, you MIGHT find sharks! The onboard naturalist will be quick to point out any they see, especially if it’s a great white shark!.

For more detailed information on the wildlife you’ll see, check out the Stellwagen Bank website.

Pixar, the humpback whale

What to Expect on Whale Watch Excursions

A whale watching excursion is usually about 4 hours long. From most locations it’s an hour trip to get to the area where the whales are feeding. The company knows generally where the whales are located. There is a small snack bar on the boat selling coffee, muffins, and light meals, but you can bring your own snacks if you want. Just be sure to dispose of all your trash responsibly.

The trip to the sanctuary through Cape Cod waters is generally easy, but depending on the offshore water conditions you might experience some seasickness when the boat stops to enjoy the whales. If you tend towards motion sickness, I’d recommend taking a medication like bonine or non-drowsy dramamine before the boat ride.

Whale watching with a certified tour operator is an example of ethical wildlife tourism. To learn more about how to enjoy watching animals in their natural habitat read How to Enjoy Authentic and Ethical Animal Tourism

Everything You Need to Know About Whale Watching in Massachusetts

The whale watch season in Massachusetts runs from the beginning of May to late October.

Wear comfortable shoes and bring a light jacket or windbreaker. Even on the hottest day it gets cool when you’re out on the Atlantic Ocean.

Bring binoculars. Not so much for the humpbacks which are not shy and will put on a show for you, but with the binoculars you’ll be able to see some wonderful ocean birds while you’re out. Shearwaters, Storm Petrels, Jaegers, and lots of other birds are common in the sanctuary.

I recommend going with a certified whale watch operator. There are strict guidelines for observing these animals in a safe and responsible way. Check Whale SENSE for a list of companies following sustainable practices in whale watching.

Whale Watch Tour Operators in Massachusetts

There are many tour boat operators running responsible whale watching trips in Massachusetts. I have linked to those passing Whale SENSE standards.

If going out on your own, check out the See a Spout website which gives a simple outline of things to do if you see whales while boating and ALWAYS make sure to follow NOAA’s guidelines:

Guidelines for Safe Whale Watching from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary website.

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