Are you interested in whale watching in Massachusetts?
Whether it’s your first time or you’ve seen whales before, a New England whale watching tour can be an exciting and educational experience.
We can attest to this firsthand as we not only have had the opportunity to see whales in the wild on numerous occasions but have enjoyed a Massachusetts whale watching tour while we were visiting the state.
So what did we think? Read on to find out!
Whale Watching In Massachusetts
We will discuss everything from tour options to what season you should visit to the common whale sightings. Then we will share our personal experiences on a tour and what we saw during our 4 hours at sea.
7 Best Whale Watching Operators
There are plenty of tour operators to choose from. We feel confident in saying that you will have a great experience no matter which tour company you choose.
Whale Watching Boston
Boston is a great option to grab a whale watching tour. Not only can you visit the whales but after the cruise, enjoy this historic city and see what else it has to offer during a visit.
Plus Boston is a great hub to visit a ton of cute cities in the area like Salem and Newburyport.
1. Boston Harbor City Cruises
In Boston, there is a whale watching experience called the New England Aquarium Whale Watch Cruise. The company takes you on a custom catamaran that can hold up to 400 people and travels at nearly 40 mph. The trips are 3.5-4 hours and include a naturalist with sightings guaranteed. Snacks and drinks are available for purchase during the cruise.
Whale Watching Gloucester
Gloucester is where we grabbed our tour from and has some of the best whale watching in Massachusetts. If you are in the area, swing by Rockport as it is only minutes away and has tons of things to do.
2. Cape Ann Whale Watch
You will be aboard Hurricane II for this excursion. The Hurricane II is a 115-ft long double-decker boat that the company touts as the fastest in the area. Trips are 3-5 hours depending on where the whales are located. The boat has a naturalist guide on board, and sightings are guaranteed. This company has been in business for over 40 years.
3. 7 Seas Whale Watch
This cruise takes you aboard the Privateer IV. The Privateer IV is a 108-ft long (32.9 m) double-decker boat that CAN hold up to 300 people. But the company chooses to only do tours for up to 149 people so that there is room to move about for the best experience looking at the whales. This is a family-run business that has been running tours for nearly 40 years.
Whale Watching Plymouth
Are you instead spending time in Plymouth for the day? You can grab a tour from here as well!
4. Captain John Boats
Similar to those already mentioned, Captain John Boats uses a double-decker boat to get you back and forth from the viewing site. They have several boats in their fleet, holding between 140-280 passengers. Trips are around 4 hours with sightings guaranteed and a naturalist on board.
Whale Watching Provincetown
You have a couple of great options if you are catching your tour from Provincetown.
5. Dolphin Whale Watch
Set sail on one of their aptly named Dolphin fleet double-decker boats. In business since 1975, this company is the longest-running whale watching tour on the East coast. Trips are 3-4 hours led by a naturalist and sightings are guaranteed.
6. Sea Salt Charters
This is the only one we are sharing that is a private charter. Instead of you and your closest 150+ new friends, these charters are limited to a max of 6 individuals. Though pricey, this would be a personalized experience. Tours are 3-4 hours on a 28 ft boat. You will have a knowledgeable boat captain and are allowed to bring your own food onboard.
Whale Watching Cape Cod
Cape Cod is our last coastal port on the list.
7. Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises
In business since 1980, this company is one of the oldest operating companies on our list. And their whale watch vessel is 3 levels high for your viewing pleasure! With a professional naturalist on board, you will be educated and entertained for the approximately 4 hours you are aboard.
Best Time For Whale Watching In Massachusetts
Whales can be seen in Massachusetts from mid-March until November. This is when the whales migrate to the warmer waters of New England.
Most whale watching tours run daily from April to October.
If you happen to visit during March or November, you will have far fewer options to see them as tours will be harder to find, if at all. During this “shoulder season,” you aren’t as likely to see whales, so tours choose not to operate.
The high season is July and August.
Best Place To Go Whale Watching In New England
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a protected area located about 25 miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
It covers an area of approximately 840 square miles and is home to a rich diversity of marine life, including several species of whales that come to feed on the abundant plankton and fish found in the area.
It is one of the best places to go whale watching in New England because it is a prime feeding ground for several species of whales, including humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, and the endangered North Atlantic right whale.
While at the marine sanctuary, you hopefully will have the chance to witness these magnificent creatures breaching, fluking, and feeding in their natural habitat.
The sanctuary is also home to other marine mammals, such as dolphins, porpoises, seals, and sea birds.
Add in the stunning scenery of the Massachusetts coast as you come and go from the shore, and this is one of the best places to spend some time during a trip to New England.
What Species Of Whales Will I See
Let’s talk about the whales you are likely to see.
Humpback whales are one of the most recognizable and beloved species of whales, known for their acrobatic displays.
They are large, baleen whales that can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh up to 40 tons. They are easily identifiable by their long pectoral fins, which can be up to one-third the length of their body.
Their heads are covered in knobs, and their flukes are wide and deeply notched, making them easy to identify.
Humpback whales are migratory animals that travel long distances between their summer feeding grounds in cold waters and their winter breeding and calving grounds in warmer waters. They are known to travel up to 16,000 miles per year.
These are the most common and most popular whales to see on a tour. Why? Because this species puts on a show more than other species, including breaching and tail slapping.
They are also more tolerant of boats than other species and tend to be more playful and curious around the tours.
You have more than a 90% chance of seeing this whale species during your cruise.
Minke whales are found in every ocean around the world, from the coldest Arctic ocean water to the warmest Indian ocean water.
Adult minke whales can grow up to 30 feet in length and weigh up to 10 tons, making them the smallest of the baleen whales.
They are sleek and streamlined, with a dark grey or black back and white belly. They have a pointed snout and a ridge on their head that is used for feeding.
Minke whales are fast swimmers and can reach speeds of up to 20 miles per hour. They are usually solitary creatures but may form small groups or pods on occasion.
They are also known for their ability to breach.
After humpbacks, they are the next most common whale to see during a tour. You have around a 75% chance of seeing one.
Fin whales are next on the list to possibly see during your excursion.
Full-grown fin whales can grow up to 85 feet in length and weigh up to 74 tons. They are the second-largest whale species after the blue whale.
If you get a chance to see one up close, you can expect them to have a dark gray or brown top with lighter tones on the underside. They have long, pointed heads, and their bodies are marked with asymmetrical coloring, with a white or light gray area on their right lower jaw and a dark area on their left.
Swimming at up to 25 miles per hour, these whales are known for their long, haunting songs, which can be heard over long distances in the ocean.
Despite their large size, they can be difficult to spot in the wild due to their elusive nature and tendency to dive deep into the ocean.
If one is spotted during your whale watching tour, you will most likely only see its dorsal fin as it comes up for air.
Other Possible Sightings
There are other species besides humpback, minke, and fin whales that do appear in the area.
Sei whales, blue whales, and pilot whales are also a possibility. If you are lucky, you might see the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Be on the lookout for pods of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, sea turtles, and other marine life as well. You never know what you might get to see out on the water.
What To Bring For The Best Whale Watching In New England
We recommend you bring these items onboard with you during your tour.
When searching for wildlife in the distance, binoculars are always a good idea. If you aren’t an avid photographer with a long zoom lens, binoculars allow you to see the wildlife up close. We carry a pair in our camera bag at all times.
Sunscreen & Sunglasses
If you go on a sunny day (or even if you don’t) we can’t stress enough about putting on sunscreen. You will be outside in the sun for 3-4 hours straight with very little opportunity for shade unless you go inside the cabin.
Sunglasses can be extremely helpful in protecting your eyes. Most boats are white to help cut back on the heat that is created on the surface, but the downside is they sometimes can have a glare.
On top of that, you don’t want to be squinting into the sun the whole time you are watching the ocean for whales. Plus, we don’t know about you, but squinting into the sun gives us headaches.
It can be the warmest of days but still feel cool offshore. It can often be up to 15 degrees colder on the water. Between the ocean breeze and the moving boat, you may be more comfortable if you bring a sweatshirt or wear pants.
We went in August and wore jeans and brought a light jacket. Though we didn’t wear the jackets, we were glad to have them as a backup rather than be cold for the 4-hour trip.
Motion Sickness Meds
This is technically something you should take before you go, but we still want to mention it here as it is important.
Consider taking non-drowsy motion sickness medicine even if you have been on boats before without getting sick. Ocean conditions are hard to predict. And since you have most likely booked your tickets in advance, you will not know the conditions before you arrive. If it is a windy day, you will encounter bigger waves, more rocking, etc.
As the whales are spotted, there are times when the boat sits idle rocking in the waves. Even those that normally don’t feel sick may start to get a bit nauseous.
In our opinion, it is better to take it and not need it than get out there and have your experience ruined.
You are, of course, going to want to bring a camera with you. We recommend a real camera, not a phone camera. One where you can switch lenses would be preferable. But a point-and-shoot with a large zoom will work as well.
We know many of you are thinking…but my camera phone has great quality and will be fine. Let us just remind you that the whales will be far away from the boat the majority of the time. Zooming into 2X on a phone camera degrades the image quality, and honestly, the whale will still be a tiny blob in your image.
Trust us and bring a real camera for this experience. We always have our DSLR Canon 5D with us.
📎 Tip: Photographing moving wildlife from a rocking boat can be quite difficult. Our recommendation is to turn on the function to take multiple shots at once when you push the shutter (if your camera has the ability). That way hopefully a couple of the shots won’t be blurry.
Our Experience Whale Watching
We booked with 7 Seas Whale Watch out of Gloucester.
One of the amenities 7 Seas touts is that they don’t overcrowd the boat. This allows more space to move around and see the whales once you arrive at the location. While we do agree there was space in certain areas of the boat, there was definitely a popular area that got crowded and stayed crowded the entire boat ride.
When we arrived at the dock, there was already a rather large line of people waiting to get on. As we had no prior experience, we didn’t know that people arrived early so they could get the “good spots.”
And the “good spots” are at the bow of the boat, at least according to all the people who got on first. Those at the front of the line rushed to claim their positions at the front of the boat.
As we missed out on that, we chose to head upstairs to the second level for the experience. And we actually think it worked out even better, especially for photography purposes.
There were only a handful of other guests up there with us, and it allowed us to move from one side of the boat to the other, depending on where the whales were providing the action.
In our opinion, you don’t need to get there early and be the first one on. There are plenty of spots where you can get the full experience and see lots of whales.
Getting to the location where the whales were located took a bit of time, maybe 45 minutes or so. We initially watched the shoreline, then later watched the seagulls (and people-watched who was on the boat). Once we arrived, we saw whales almost immediately.
The naturalist came on the loudspeaker and began telling us about the whales we were seeing. Most were humpback though we did catch glimpses of minke and fin whales during our whale watching cruise.
The crew was familiar enough with the whales that they were able to name and age certain ones based on tail flukes and other markings.
During our visit with the whales, we saw lots of dorsal fins and tail flukes as the whales came up to breathe and then dove down again. This is the majority of what you can expect to see while whale watching.
But we had an awesome sighting of a humpback’s head coming out of the water as it was feeding.
And to top off the experience, we had a 3-year-old humpback youngster come spend a good 15 minutes next to the boat just watching us curiously from under the water.
One of the best parts of the experience was that the naturalist was just as excited as we were during the trip. Even after going out day after day, she was so thrilled and practically screamed when we saw the humpback’s head come up during feeding.
It made everyone on the boat more giddy and excited about what we were experiencing.
In the end, the only thing that might have made the whale watching tour even more incredible would have been to see a whale breach. We had friends on another day that same week see a breaching, so it happens. For us, there is always a next time…
To Finish – Amazing Whale Watching in Massachusetts
There are some incredible tours to go whale watching in Massachusetts during the summer months. You are pretty much guaranteed to see whales.
In fact, Stellwagen Sanctuary (where most tours go) is in the top 5 places in the WORLD to see whales.
So if you have ever wanted to do an excursion like this, Massachusetts is the place to do it!