Whale Watching on Cape Cod

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Whale Watching on Cape Cod

In today’s Cape Cod Times newspaper, there was a photo of a whale swimming about a half mile off Race Point Beach in Provincetown yesterday afternoon, March 18, 2010. That marks one of the earliest sightings of whales returning to Stellwagan Bank just off Cape Cod Bay, and heralds the beginning of the whale watching season here. Many types of whales are found here in season, including finback (the largest), humpback (the most playful), right (the most endangered), killer, pilot, and minke. 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.

Stellwagen Bank is an 842-square-mile section of shallows lying in the Gulf of Maine just off the mouth of Cape Cod Bay. 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. A protected National Marine Sanctuary since 1992, Stellwagen Bank attracts the whales due to its abundant food supply, which includes plankton, squid, herring, and sand eels.

Humpbacks feed for about six or seven months along Stellwagen Bank, 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. For many, humpback whales are the most popular species to watch because they are inquisitive enough to come very close to the whale watching boats and have an engaging tendency to perform.

Whale watching in Cape Cod Bay

When Rich and I first moved to Cape Cod, we were intrigued by the many whale-watching excursions offered throughout the spring, summer, and early fall. Rich, ever the skeptic, thought that whale watching was akin to “submarine races” and other questionable activities designed to take advantage of the ill-informed or naive tourist. That, of course, was until we went on our first whale-watching adventure.

We departed from Barnstable Harbor, just 15 minutes from the Inn, aboard the Hyannis Whale Watcher, a new state-of-the-art jet-powered boat that can literally turn on a dime. It was a perfect summer afternoon. Just outside the harbor we cruised past the quaint cottage colony and lighthouse at Sandy Neck sitting on the open top deck of the boat. In less than an hour, across very calm seas, we reached our destination.

State and federal agencies have strict guidelines for whale-watch boats. On Cape Cod, they are prohibited from coming within 300 yards of most whales and 500 yards of the endangered right whale. As the boat approached the feeding ground, the captain cut the engine and jockeyed for position. The onboard naturalist came over the P.A. system cautioning us to watch for “whale foot prints” on the water, the distinctive pattern left on the surface of the ocean after the whales breach and dive below.

Whale watching on Cape Cod

Whale “Footprint”

“Thar she blows” echoed through my mind as I scanned the surface of the ocean, looking for a foot print or a spout from the blowhole of an active whale in the area. I didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes we spotted our first whale, a minke. As the naturalist directed us to this first sighting, eager cries from the opposite side of the boat lured us toward the stern. Soon we were surrounded by humpbacks, finbacks, and the omnipresent minkes. We, and our fellow travelers, found ourselves scurrying back and forth across the deck to catch a glimpse of each whale as it appeared on the scene, and scouring the horizon for more. With each new sighting, the naturalist was careful to enlighten us with fascinating insight on whale behavior, plus commentary on the local ecology and history of Stellwagen. Some naturalists, who have worked around whales for a long time, can identify individual whales by distinctive markings on its flukes, underside, body, or head, and often know specific details of its life, from offspring to travel patterns.

Rich was absolutely in his glory trying to juggle between binoculars and his new digital camera, though I thought the best approach was simply to wait for the “oohs and aahs” of my traveling companions and focus where their fingers pointed me. Several times during our trip, the captain maneuvered the boat so that all aboard could have a front row seat. In the end, we counted dozens of sightings, some a good distance away, but many so close to the boat we could almost reach out and touch them. The most exciting moment during a whale watch, of course, is when (or if) one of the whales shoots straight up out of the water and splashes down into the sea in a maneuver known as breaching.

All too soon it seemed, but actually after more than an hour at the feeding grounds, our captain announced that we must leave. On the return trip, we spotted dolphin, and several basking sharks sunning themselves in the shallow depths near Sandy Neck. And, as an added bonus, we were treated to one of Cape Cod’s spectacular sunsets as we neared the harbor.

Sunset on Cape Cod Bay

Needless to say, Rich is now a total convert, enthusiastically encouraging all our guests to take a whale watch cruise. No one has ever been disappointed, and several have told us stories of mothers and calves breaching together, humpbacks seeming to wave their tail fins, and once, of the captain having to turn off the engines while a humpback scratched its back on the bottom of the boat.

Our Sea Dream and Moonglow guest rooms have views of Sandy Neck Beach and Cape Cod Bay in the distance, but to get up close and personal with the whales, you really need to take a whale watch excursion. Typically the boats run from mid-April through the end of October and are 3.5 to 4 hours in length. All whale-watching excursions guarantee sightings during the season, so on the off chance that no whales are spotted, you’ll be given a rain check to use at another time. We offer a “Whale of an Adventure” package from mid-May through mid-October that includes two nights at the Inn, breakfast, afternoon tea, evening cordials, dinner for two one night, plus two adult whale watch tickets starting at $649 per couple all-inclusive. Visit our Special and Packages page for more details.