By Matt Villano, on May 20, 2013

Whale-watching in Boston

We heard the whales before we saw them – their arrivals punctuated by staccato sounds that sounded like a cross between a crash symbol and a burst of static on the television.


Woosh! Woosh! Woosh!


As their arched black backs broke the surface of the water in front of our whale-watch boat, the leviathans let out giant blows, exhaling violently after minutes of holding their breath for a series of underwater feasts.


Woosh! Woosh! Woosh!


With each gasp came a giant cloud, a spray of ocean mist created by the force of the blow. Before we knew it, bobbing in the unusually calm waters of Massachusetts Bay – in a National Marine Sanctuary called Stellwagen Bank – we were surrounded. Our cetacean friends lingered near the surface for a while, some bobbing up and down rhythmically, others floating like logs with 10 or 15 feet of back exposed to the morning sun. Then, without warning, one of the whales arched its back, raised its giant tail as if to wave goodbye and slipped into the depths. The others followed suit. And then they were gone.


This scene is common during summer in the waters near Boston. Starting in early May, thousands of humpback whales descend on the area from other parts of the Atlantic. They come with one thing on their mind: To feed on small schooling fish. Pretty much non-stop. The regularity of this annual buffet makes Southern New England one of the best places in the world for visitors to see these whales up close. It also makes for one heck of a family vacation to Boston.

A humpback whale surfaces in Massachusetts Bay


I spent the better part of three summers working as a naturalist on whale-watch boats around the region. Collectively, those sun-baked days sparked a near-maniacal passion for great whales. They also gave me a great sense about which trips will put you in the best position to have an experience you’ll remember forever. No. 1 on my list: Trips leaving from Gloucester, a fishing town on Cape Ann, about 50 miles north of Boston.


Generally speaking, ships that call this port home are smaller than their competitors, making trips intimate and personal. What’s more, because Stellwagen Bank is in the middle of Massachusetts Bay, travel times from Gloucester also tend to be shorter (about one hour) than spots that are farther away. If the animals cooperate, this means you might spend half of a 4-hour trip with the whales.


Perhaps most important, Gloucester and nearby Rockport are destinations onto themselves, with great shops and restaurants to explore when you’re back on solid ground. A note to sweet tooths: Get a bag of almond cookies at Virgilio’s Italian Bakery in Gloucester and thank me later.


I also recommend whale-watch excursions from Cape Cod and Nantucket. Many of the trips from this region – especially the ones out of Provincetown – spend time in Stellwagen Bank. But because Cape Cod is so far south, all trips from this part of New England also include time on the open ocean, putting you in prime position to spot whale species such as Fin and Minke, as well as the occasional pod of dolphins or pilot whales. If you’re particularly lucky, you might also see other critters, such as sunfish, bluefin tuna, or even a whale shark.


On one trip out of P-Town, my boat even spotted a trio of transient Orcas; in whale-nerd circles, this is the equivalent of spotting, say, Mike Tyson. We celebrated back on shore with lobster rolls and beer.

Viewfinder Tip: Pick up balance bands and/or Dramamine if you even think you could get sick.

Finally, if you’re visiting Downtown Boston and don’t have time to get out to the hinterlands, there are a handful of whale-watch excursions that leave right from Boston Harbor. The best of this bunch is the whale-watch sponsored by the New England Aquarium. While the boat is huge, though it takes upward of 90 minutes to get out to the Bank, the outfitter guarantees whale sightings; if the boat captain comes up empty you’re guaranteed a return trip for free. Now that’s a whale of a deal.

What are your favorite places to view wildlife?