Cape Cod provides visitors with the opportunity to observe the largest creatures on earth in their natural habitat. Nothing is quite as thrilling as seeing these enormous mammals gliding smoothly through the water. Often, you'll see whales in pairs or threesomes, composed either of a mother and her calf or these two accompanied by another adult whale acting as guardian. Ironically, the whales are visitors here too: they come to the area annually to feed on Stellwagen Bank, which lies roughly 6 miles northeast of Provincetown. Predictably, this city on the tip of the cape offers some of the most appealing excursions, since trips from this location offer more time to look at whales and less time getting there and back.
"There" of course is Stellwagen Bank, an 842-square-mile section of shallows in the open ocean lying in the Gulf of Maine just off the mouth of Cape Cod Bay. Long a prime fishing area, Stellwagen's unique conditions and topography enable it to support a tremendous diversity of marine life, from single-cell organisms to great whales. But it wasn't always that way. The shallow platform known as Stellwagen Bank was once dry land where mastodon and mammals roamed. It is believed that about 12,000 years ago, the bank stood well above sea level and may even have been connected to Lower Cape Cod. Early humans arrived in New England about 11,000 years ago and they may have witnessed the beginning of the final chapter in the history of Stellwagen Bank. By then, as waters from the melting glaciers continued to raise the level of the sea, Stellwagen Bank slipped beneath the waves. Today it is covered by at least 65 feet of water and attracts a wide variety of sea life, including huge quantities of plankton (tiny single-celled plants which float in the water) and the many species of fish and marine mammals who feed on them.
A protected National Marine Sanctuary since 1992--the first area in the Northeast to receive that designation--Stellwagen Bank attracts the whales that migrate here because of its abundant food supplies. Many types of whales are found here, including finback (the largest), humpback (the most playful), right (the most endangered), sei, minke, killer (also known as Orca), and pilot whales (also known as black fish). Each species has its own distinct habits, but, generally, the whales begin arriving in this area in early spring and leave for warmer waters in early winter.
Although the whales may be busy feeding underwater at Stellwagen Bank, they'll take time out to flirt with the whale-watching boats and will often voluntarily approach the boats and swim alongside and underneath them for hours. Humpback whales are the most popular species to watch because they are inquisitive enough to come close to the boats and have an engaging tendency to perform. Humpbacks feed for about six or seven months in the waters of Stellwagen Bank, which is rich with plankton, squid, herring, sand lance, and other sea life, and then leave the area, fasting until they return the following year from their wintering ground in the West Indies, where they breed and give birth.
Different species of whales feed on different types of sea life. Right whales, for instance, feed mostly on plankton. Whales follow the food sources, and whale-watching boats follow the whales, so when you're out on one of these boats, you'll often find yourself zipping around a bit until the boat operators get a handle on exactly where the whales happen to be. If you leave from either Barnstable or Provincetown, you'll generally see whale-watch boats from Plymouth and Boston approaching from the other direction.
Despite the fact that whaling was for centuries an important New England industry (see our Historic Cape Cod chapter), it was the 20th century that brought some species close to extinction. Between 1910 and 1963, 140,000 humpback whales were killed; today only a few thousand survive. The right whale, so named because it is relatively slow-moving and floats when killed--therefore the "right" whale to take--is practically extinct; researchers estimate there are fewer than 300 northern right whales left in the Atlantic Ocean today.
In 1975 a group of school children took the first whale-watching tour on the East Coast, conducted by Captain Al Avellar of the Dolphin Fleet out of Provincetown. More than 25 years later, the concept of peacefully watching whales, rather than killing them, has caught on and now tens of thousands of people leave every summer from Plymouth, Barnstable, and Provincetown to visit the summer homes of the whales. During whale-watching trips, staff members, often naturalists or marine biologists, provide commentary about the natural history of the area, especially the whales and their habitat. When the scientists spot whales, the excitement in their voices is genuine; for many it's like encountering old friends. Those who have worked around whales for a long time can identify individual whales by distinctive markings on the flukes of the whale's tail, underside, body, or head, and often know specific details of their lives, from their offspring to their travel patterns.
The most exciting moment during a whale watch comes--if you are lucky, that is--when one of the whales shoots straight up out of the water and splashes down again into the sea in a move known as "breaching." A collective "Ooh" rises from the boat and all is quiet for a moment as viewers take in the awesome scene. After that, you'll be hooked, finding yourself telling your friends that they absolutely must experience a whale watch and offering to accompany them so you can experience it again!
The issues and restrictions that accompany whale-watching tours are far more complex than those for other types of tours. State and federal agencies have developed guidelines for the whale-watching industry that are probably based as much on safety for the marine mammals as for the humans. For example, boats are prohibited from coming within more than 300 yards of most whales and 500 yards of the endangered right whale. In 1999, environmentalists and whale-watching concerns met to discuss ways to ensure that whale-watching would be as safe as possible for these huge, trusting mammals. This fostered a spirit of comradeship between whale watch captains, who now stay in constant contact monitoring whale pod movement. The days have gone when whale watch boats would try to outmaneuver another boat for position. Instead, boats today approach an area where whales might be and cut the engines so all is quiet except for the lapping of the ocean's surf on the side of the boat. There is an incredible feeling that will come over you--you know they are out there, you closely watch the surface of the water, not knowing which direction to look in, and then suddenly, dark dorsal fins rise above the waves in graceful synchronization just feet away from the boat.
Whale watching is now a $100 million industry in New England--an important part of the Cape's tourist economy, having extended off-season business in areas such as Provincetown. Since whale watching begins in April, many seasonal shops, restaurants, and other businesses in Provincetown open then rather than waiting for Memorial Day. If you decide to take a whale watch out of Provincetown, make a day of it and include some shopping, lunch, or dinner--but be prepared to sleep well that night; a few hours on a whale-watching boat can tire you out!
In this chapter, we acquaint you with several of the organizations that conduct whale-watching excursions. Always call ahead to make sure the trips haven't been canceled because of adverse weather or rough sea conditions. Reservations are a must in summer, and a good idea even in spring and fall, since seating is limited. In addition, most companies require that you pick up your tickets 30 minutes to an hour prior to sailing time.
Cruise prices are competitive, and all companies offer various discounts. Prices are generally lower in the spring and fall--both great times to experience the Cape. Whale-watch tours run from mid-April through the end of October and usually last between three and four hours. Most companies offer three trips a day: the morning boat ride is ideal for families with small children, the afternoon trip is usually the most crowded, and the sunset trip is the most romantic and beautiful, though it can be tough to see the whales at dusk.
All charters guarantee sightings; in the rare chance no whales are spotted, you'll be given a rain check to use at another time.
Scenic Water-Tours in Plymouth
For the last 57 years, Capt. John Boats has been sharing the marine environment of Cape Cod Bay with summertime visitors. From Whale Watching and Deep Sea Fishing, to cruises aboard the Pilgrim Belle, their authentic Mississippi-style paddlewheeler, Splashdown Amphibious Tours, and the Plymouth to Provincetown Ferry, the captain knows you take your recreation, and your fun, seriously. He won’t let you down.
Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises
Barnstable Harbor• (508) 362-6088, (800) 287-0374• www.whales.net
About 3 miles north of Hyannis in Barnstable Harbor, next door to Mattakeese Wharf Restaurant, the Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises run excursions across Cape Cod Bay to the Stellwagen Bank area. The company's 110-foot cruiser, which seats approximately 300 people, can move at 35 miles an hour. Travel time to reach the whales is often less than an hour and trips last three to four hours. Naturalists provide the commentary and also point out landmarks on the shore, including the 100-year-old cottage colony on Sandy Neck, a barrier beach at the entrance of Barnstable Harbor. The boat has a full galley serving breakfast, lunch, and snacks along with beer and wine; you may bring a small cooler on board with your own food, but no liquor and no glass jars or bottles, please.
The cost is $24 for adults, $20 for adults 62 and older, $15 for children ages 4 to 12 and free for children 3 and younger. Parking is $6.
Group rates for 20 or more are available. The boats are wheelchair accessible. For educational groups, the Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises also offers a floating classroom that makes morning nature trips into Cape Cod Bay.
Cape Cod Whale Watch
MacMillan Wharf, Provincetown• (508) 487-4079, (877) 487-4079• www.capecodwhalewatch.com
Cape Cod Whale Watch may be the new boat on the docks, but Captain/co-owner Henry Souza is no newcomer in the Provincetown waters. Souza, a well-known marine environmentalist with more than 18 years of experience in fishing and piloting whale watch boats, has received prestigious environmental awards for excellence. The company's slogan "Choose the Whale Watch Company that really cares about the environment" describes its commitment to protecting Cape Cod's Bay. And it's not just a marketing pitch. Souza has researched and now employs an alternative for pumping the boat's waste out at sea, unloading it at the dock between trips Many consider Souza and the Cape Cod Whale Watch "the conscience of the industry."
On board the 100-foot Adventurer, a state-of-the-art, high-speed vessel, a trained naturalist gives passengers an interesting and educational commentary on the environment and on the whales. Sightings are guaranteed on each three-hour excursion and the total experience is meant to "enrich the mind and soul".
The Cape Cod Whale Watch sails daily from MacMillan Wharf, rain or shine, May through October. A full bar and galley is available on the cruise.We recommend making reservations in advance, especially during the peak summer season..Tickets purchased for trips in May, June, September, and October are $17 for those ages 12 and older and $10 for children ages 7 to 11; In July and August tickets are $19 for those older than 12 and $12 for kids ages 7 to 11. Children 6 and under travel for free. AAA and senior discounts are available and you can get a $3 coupon by visiting their website. Cape Cod Whale Watch is wheelchair accessible.
MacMillan Wharf, Provincetown• (508) 349-1900, (800) 826-9300• www.whalewatch.com
Originator of the whale-watching industry on the Eastern Seaboard, the Dolphin Fleet always has a naturalist on board from the Center for Coastal Studies, which maintains an impressive database on whales. The naturalists provide informative and entertaining commentary about the whales, many of which they know by name. We like the fact that whale watches on this line are small; although the boats can hold more, the number of passengers is limited to 145. The central cabin is heated, and the galley serves breakfast, lunch items, and snacks. During peak season the Dolphin Fleet offers nine trips a day. The cost is $19 for adults, $17 for senior citizens, AAA members or discount coupon holders, and $16 for children ages 7 to 12. Children 6 and younger ride free.
MacMillan Wharf, Provincetown• (508) 487-2651, (800) 442-3188• www.princesswhalewatch.com
With two 100-foot vessels, the Portuguese Princessmakes six trips a day in summer and two trips a day in spring and fall. Naturalists provide commentary and information and offer hands-on activities for children and adults. Full galley and bar service are available on board with the Happy Humpback Cafe offering Portuguese specialties, hot dogs, and snacks. The boats have heated cabins. Peak-season rates are $15 to $19 for adults, $13 to $16 for children ages 7 to 16, and free for children ages 6 and younger. (The 1 and 2 PM trips charge top rates. If you're looking for the best rates, try the 9 AM cruise--$15 for adults and $13 for children; the 5 PM cruise rates are next best.)