Your Guide to Whale Watching in Boston

Our intrepid reporter hits the high seas in search of waterspouts and hungry whales

It’s summer, and you’re in the port city of Boston. Maybe you’re thinking you’ll take advantage of those two factors and embark on a whale watch. Here’s a tip from me: Get those neck muscles in shape. Because if there’s one thing you'll be doing out on the Atlantic Ocean, it's swiveling your neck 180 degrees.

Prepare to scan the ocean blue (well, here in New England its hue is closer to green) for “blows”—the waterspout expelled by a whale as it prepares to inhale. As someone shouts “Whale!” and points, you'll slide into full-swivel mode because the magnificent creature you came to see is now within sight.

Of course, there are no guarantees in life, but Boston Harbor Cruises promises this: On any of its 3-4 hour whale watch cruises—four high-speed catamarans cruise out of the harbor five to eight times each day, seven days each week—you will see whales. In the event that you don't, BHC grants you a rain check for another whale watch. But know that the odds are heavily in your favor; whales are spotted 95% of the time.

For the New England Aquarium Whale Watch presented by Boston Harbor Cruises, BHC has partnered with the Aquarium since 2013 and uses vessels that carry from 249 to 400 people and feature plenty of sheltered, indoor seats on two decks, and numerous observation levels outside.

Once you're out in the ocean, five possible types of whales could surface in our area, details that are explained by expertly trained narrators and naturalists; our guide for this adventure is Annie Goodenough. Keep your eyes peeled for the superstar Humpback, the swift Finback, the small Minke, the occasional Atlantic White-Sided Dolphin (yes, technically a whale) and the classic Right whales, which the boats can’t approach because of an endangered species status.

To get to primary whale feeding territory, it takes about an hour. Stellwagen Bank Natural Marine Sanctuary is an 842-square mile area that’s roughly three-quarters the size of Rhode Island and sits three miles north of Provincetown, stretching north to Cape Ann.

What can you expect whales to do (or to not do)?

On one past voyage, we spotted a Humpback along the starboard side of the boat, maybe 200 feet away. It dove down with that huge tail splash—not quite a breach, but a lunge. A lunge means that the whale goes up over the surface, but doesn't fully breach it. The lunge gave us a full sense of the whale's majesty, grace and power. We also got to see it swim under the cat’s pontoons, over to the port side.

Keep in mind these massive mammals are out here to eat fish and the krill—it’s always dinnertime in whaleland—not to perform. These aren't Sea World captives, so catching one in action is taking a spin of nature’s roulette wheel. Experiencing a Humpback breach is—to use a baseball analogy—like seeing a game-winning grand slam. Big wow factor.

Head naturalist Laura Howes says a breach happens about 10 to 15 percent of the time.

In cahoots with about 300 other people on a boat, all of who share one desire leads to excitement. Whenever there's a whiff of a waterspout, there's shouting, pointing and head pivoting. On our sail, we saw about 10 whales, most of them Finbacks, which rise above the surface briefly before quickly diving back under and going about their business. Near the end, two humpbacks, about a football field away, surfaced for a few moments.

Goodenough, who like all the guides was trained by the Aquarium, is in her second full-time year at the mic, a job she truly loves. (When the season’s over, she does the same thing in Maui.)

“I make sure people have good background info on what we could see,” the 23-year-old Elmira College biology and environmental studies grad says, about her spiel as we speed toward Stellwagen Bank. “That’s pretty consistent. Once we’re out whale watching, it’s off the cuff.”

Do the whales react to the boats? From time to time, says Goodenough. “But they’re focused on eating. If we were to bother them, they would swim away. The Humpbacks are more active and crowd-pleasing. Finbacks are trickier to keep watch on. It’s nature, and nature has its highs and lows. Every trip is special in its own way, and it's never a repeat show. Every glimpse of them makes that much more special.” 

Tips For Whale Watching in Boston:

  • Go out on a clear day. Fog really hinders the “watching” part of a whale watch.
  • Keep warm. Expect a good 10-degree drop in temperature from the mainland and lots of wind. Bring layers—you can always shed.
  • Hungry? Drinks, snacks and sandwiches available on board.
  • Or not. Sometimes choppy waters can make for a rough ride. While no one we saw went for them, there were plenty of barf bags available, just in case.

Tickets: $49. Departs Long Wharf. 877-733-9425.

Jim Sullivan
About the author
As former staff music writer for The Boston Globe and a contributor to myriad publications including The Boston Phoenix ...