Whale Watching in New England
New England’s history has long been tied to whales. As soon as the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, the whaling industry took off. Part of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, in fact, was set in New England.
Today, though, the whaling industry is confined to a number of world-class museums. (The New Bedford Whaling Museum is a must-see!) And now, more and more visitors come for whale watching trips.
New England offers some of the best whale watching in the country. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund named Massachusetts one of the best places for whale watching in the world. During the summer months, humpbacks, Minke, finback and right whales flock to the cooler waters off of New England to relax and feed. And for visitors that means an almost certain chance of seeing whales. (Some whale watching companies see whales on 99% of trips!)
Planning a yacht charter in New England? Here’s everything you need to know about whale watching, from the best places to go, to what time of year you’ll have the best luck seeing these massive mammals.
Best Time for Whale Watching in New England
Whale watching season in New England occurs at the perfect time of year. Right as the sleepy beach towns start waking up in spring, the whales start migrating into New England’s waters. In other words, New England’s whale watching season coincides with beach and sailing seasons.
In general, the season lasts from April to October, as a variety of whale species migrate to feed on krill, herring and mackerel during the summer months. Typically, though, your best odds are during peak season – June through August.
What to Expect: Species You’ll See
New England’s waters are home to an abundance of marine wildlife. In addition to seeing whales, visitors can also glimpse dolphins, seals and an abundance of sea birds. The most common whale species include:
- Finback – Also known as fin whales, these massive creatures are found across New England. Finbacks are the second-largest whale species, behind only blue whales. And they’re distinctive in that they have a dorsal fin on their backs. These are most commonly found in the Stellwagen Bank, near Boston, as well as in Cape Cod Bay.
- Humpback – A species of baleen whale, humpbacks are some of the most exciting to watch. They’re well known for breaching and jumping high above the water. Humpbacks can be found all along New England’s coast, especially in Maine and around Narragansett Bay. This is one of the most common species.
- Minke – Minke whales are one of the smaller baleen species found in New England. Measuring about 25 feet long, these whales typically travel alone. That makes it more difficult to see Minkes on whale watching excursions.
- Northern Right – Right whales are rare and extremely difficult to spot in New England. In fact, right whales were once thought to be extinct. But there are small populations, with spottings as far north as Maine.
- Sei – Sei whales resemble orcas, albeit they’re much larger. Some measure up to 50 feet, in fact. This species is less-commonly seen in New England, but can be found when Stellwagen and along the southern Maine Coast near Jeffrey’s Ledge.
Where to Go: 5 Best Whale Watching Locations
New England offers a diverse range of habitats to explore, from the rugged coasts of Maine, to the deepwater harbors of Cape Cod and Boston. Some of the most famous places include:
- Maine Coast – Throughout the entire Gulf of Maine, you’ll find whales, as the waters are nutrient-rich and full of small fish species. Many trips launch from Bar Harbor, the resort community that’s centrally located on the gulf shore. And Kennebunkport is another prime Maine whale watching destination. In particular, humpbacks, minke and finback whales are the most abundant species.
- Narragansett Bay – Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay benefits from the warm waters brought in by the Gulf Stream. In summer, water temperatures peak in the high 70s, and with the warm waters come a variety of marine mammals. Finback whales are a common sight, as are humpbacks and minkes. One species to watch for is the False Killer whale, a dolphin species that closely resembles an orca.
- Stellwagen Bank – Stellwagen Bank is a deepwater plateau at the edge of Massachusetts Bay. And it’s one of best New England whale watching destinations. Part of the reason is that the bank is a federally protected marine sanctuary measuring 842 square miles. Visitors frequently see humpbacks, minke and finback whales. Yet, there are several other species that are rarer to spot including orca, right whales, and belugas.
- Cape Cod – Thanks to its proximity to the Stellwagen Sanctuary, Cape Cod Bay and the Cape’s Atlantic coast are prime whale watching destinations. In addition to whales, many trips are also great for seeing dolphins, seal and even turtles, and the bay is also an important breeding site for the endangered right whales. If you go, head to Provincetown, a hub for whale watching trips on the cape.
- Jeffrey’s Ledge – This ledge is a major drop-off in the southern reaches of the Gulf of Maine, near Cape Ann. Many trips to the region launch from Portsmouth, NH. Here, you’ll find a wide range of whales, especially in the peak months of May through August. Species include fin whales, humpbacks and white-sided dolphins.