Whale Watching by Boat From Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Diving humpback whale

A humpback whale dives next to the boat off Cape Cod. Photo credit: I Robinson

The massive head of a humpback whale appeared right next to us, coming up from underneath the boat. The smaller (but still massive) head of her calf then cleared the surface and the two moved off.

Someone shouted. A group of whales was bubble-net feeding in front of us. It was hard to know where to look next, with whales at every point on the compass.

My friend from Trinidad, who was madly filming everything, had to borrow a camera within minutes of reaching the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank, where these encounters occurred. Hers had run out of battery.

She had already managed to film a group of about 20 harbor seals resting on the beach near Wood End Lighthouse, just minutes after leaving the dock. Then a fin whale emerged from the fog ahead of us, swimming out of Cape Cod Bay to feed in the currents along the outer coast. Our boat followed its path, finding the first humpback whales of the day near Race Point as the fog was lifting. This was shaping up to be a great whale watch.

In Your Bucket Because:

  • Stellwagen Bank is a major summer feeding ground for humpback whales with chances to see breaching, spy-hopping and fluke-slapping fun. These animals are around for the whole summer, not just migrating through so they have time to play. Mother and calf pairs are common as well.
  • You might get lucky in the spring or fall and catch a glimpse of some Critically Endangered North Atlantic right whales as they migrate through.
  • Good for wildlife lovers and families who enjoy the outdoors.

Important Summer Feeding Grounds For Whales Just Off Cape Cod

There’s a reason whale watches off Cape Cod are so rewarding. From April to October large numbers of humpback whales come to feed in the productive waters of Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau which attracts a wide variety of marine life. And one of the best spots to find whales is just a couple of miles from Provincetown on Cape Cod’s tip. In addition to the humpbacks; minke, fin, sei and even critically endangered North Atlantic right whales are seen here regularly.

Two humpback whales, one diving, one blowing on Stellwagen Bank. Photo credit: I Robinson

Trips in April and October may be chillier and rougher than in mid–summer but they offer the best chance of seeing the right whales as they stop to feed on their way to and from their summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy. Whale watch boats are not allowed to approach the right whales at all and these whales are not as likely to interact with boats as the humpbacks, but having the chance to see a critically endangered species in its natural environment is quite a thrill.

The Humpback Whale Show on Stellwagen Bank

Still, most people come for the humpback whales, the showoffs of the whale world. Most whale watch trips get to experience them bubble–feeding (making a circle of bubbles to confuse and trap small fish) but that’s just one part of their repertoire. Spy-hopping (sticking their heads straight up in the air for a quick view), fluke-slapping (just like it sounds — slapping their long white fins on the water), and the most spectacular show of all, breaching (coming clear out of the water and landing back down with a huge splash) are just some of their well-known antics.

The Hyannis Whale Watcher Returns From Stellwagen Banks Off Cape Cod. Photo Credit: D. Smith

Not Just Whales: Seals, Ocean Sunfish, Sharks, Dolphins and Seabirds

The fun doesn’t stop with the whales. On each of the many whale watch trips I’ve taken from Cape Cod, there have been a variety of other marine animals to entertain us. Sometimes there have been mola mola, or ocean sunfish and occasionally blue sharks. Both gray and harbor seals are regularly seen on or near the shore.

Atlantic white-sided and common dolphins are also here year round. Bird watchers will have a good chance to see a decent variety of pelagic species, including shearwaters, jaegers and petrels, feeding in conjunction with the whales. Auks, especially razorbill and murre, and gulls join these feeding frenzies as well.

Practicalities

  • There are two whale watch companies on Cape Cod. From the Inner and Mid-Cape, Hyannis Whale Watcher is the easiest to access, avoiding summer traffic. On the Outer and Lower Cape, Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown is the best bet. Dolphin Fleet’s whale watch season runs from mid-April to late October, while the Hyannis Whale Watcher doesn’t start its cruises until mid-May, also ending in late October.
  • Bring layers of clothing as it is often much colder out on the water, especially early and late in the season. To avoid sunburn pack hats, sunscreen and sunglasses. If you’re prone to motion sickness, take medication, avoid greasy foods and eat lightly even if the harbor looks calm. It can get choppy once you are in open water.
  • Bring binoculars if you have them. The whales do come close to the boat but there are often many groups around so you can be watching a distant group while waiting for the nearest whales to come back up to the surface.

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