Include a whale-watching cruise when planning a trip to Boston

Art Weber

        It’s a good bet that when someone mentions a trip to Boston it’s a surprise if they sing the praises of whale cruises out of Boston Harbor.
        The fact is, Boston Harbor has easy access to one of the absolute best places in the world to look for whales. It’s pretty much a slam dunk to see whales on the watches out of Boston Harbor. The cruises venture not far offshore to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 842 square miles of relatively shallow water at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.
        It’s one of the world’s best and most active marine sanctuaries, alive with whales, dolphins, seabirds and other marine life.
        The day-to-day variables include what kinds of whales you can see, how many and for how long, how close they approach, their behavior and the weather. Trips are fully guaranteed; if you don’t see a whale, you get a ticket for another cruise.
        The aquarium’s Whale Watch Cruise is available March through November.
        “The best variety of whales is typically early in the season,” said Tony LaCasse, media relations director for New England Aquarium.
        “For the trips in March and April you often have to be a bit hardy. Temperatures, winds, and waves can all be a factor,” Tony said. “I’d say mid-May to mid-June is always a good time. In June, the numbers slow down but we consistently see whales. Late July and August are great months; the water can be like glass.”
        Their Watch success is all about the availability of food, and whales need lots of it. Stellwagen is not only rich, but rich in the right stuff. Humpback whales, for example, love sand lance, a bottom-dwelling fish that burrows into the mostly sand and gravel bottom of the reserve.
        “Sand lance is Godiva chocolate to humpback whales,” Tony said.
        You see them from big, wide-beam 400-passenger catamarans that are stable, fast and comfortable, with three outside viewing decks. And you see the whales with the assurance that they conduct their trips, which average 3.5 to four hours long, in accordance with responsible whale watching practices.
        Heidi Hansen, one of two naturalists on board the New England Aquarium’s Whale Watch boat for a trip two years ago, commented on a cruise in late May.
        “You know it’s great when you can’t decide what was the best part,” she said. For her, that day was like meeting with old friends. The naturalists and crew know many of these whales; they see them year after year and know them well enough to give them names.
        While they take the time to educate and introduce passengers to the world of whales, they’re also about research. They take photos and keep records on what they see, note the behaviors they observe, and, by identifying unique markings on the underside of the tails, monitor individual whales.
        It’s all important. In recent years, humpback whales off the East Coast have been dying at an alarming rate and researchers want to know why. Of particular importance is recording any sightings of the rare Northern right whale, a species that, sadly, is on the edge of extinction.
        “We started the day with a group of humpback whales including Nile, Milkyway, Firefly and others, who did a couple bouts of bubble net feeding.” Heidi said.
        A total 19 humpback whales, each about the size of a school bus, were observed feeding on that three-hour watch, with plenty of extra bonuses. Among the other large whales that can be seen at Stellwagen are the blue whale, the finback, sperm whale, minke, sei, and the right whale. Eight smaller whale species, such as the pilot and beluga, have also been observed.
        It can be an incredible experience. Top it off with a meal at nearby historic Union Oyster House on the harbor front, America’s oldest restaurant.
        For more information visit


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