Whale Watching

People whale watching from a boat
A humpback whale swims near the port side of a whale watch vessel. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Whale watching along the East Coast originated in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the 1970s and the most common destination for those vessels was an area that is now Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Watch this Story from the Blue video to learn more. Whale watching has become a major industry and recreational activity with the primary focus on humpback whales due to their reliable presence and dramatic behaviors.

USA Today’s 2016 Top10 survey for “Best Places in the US to See Aquatic Life” put Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the top spot. Other lists from environmental organizations, magazines, and newspapers have ranked the sanctuary among the world’s premier whale watching locations.

Whale Watch Operators

People whale watching from a boat
Whale watch companies depart from several ports in Massachusetts for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Several students on a whale watch observe a whale and another vessel. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Several whale watching operators, from Newburyport to Provincetown, Massachussettes, make regular trips out to the sanctuary and adjacent waters. Schedules vary, but most companies offer trips from the beginning of May until the end of October, although several may start earlier or end later in the season. Check the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism’s Whale Trail website for links to daily whale watch operations, and visit individual companies’ websites to learn more about specific trip details.

Whale SENSE recognizes whale watching companies committed to responsible practices. The program originated with NOAA Fisheries, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. In recognition of their commitment to protecting whales, participating companies are approved to display the Whale SENSE logo. This logo indicates to passengers that a company follows responsible whale watching practices.

Visit Whale SENSE, to learn about responsible whale watch operators and tips for your whale watching experience.

Whale Watching Tips for Boaters

Mmore people whale watching from a boat with binoculars
It is important to learn the whale watching guidelines if you go out on a private boat. Photo: Anne Smrcina/NOAA

Some boaters spend time whale watching during their on-the-water excursions or fishing trips. If you decide to stop and enjoy the spectacular show, please take these precautions:

  • Do not chase or harass whales. That is against the law and can lead to serious fines. Learn about safe boating around whales through See A Spout, an education program developed by NOAA Fisheries, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, and the sanctuary or visit the New England marine life viewing guidelines from NOAA Fisheries.
  • Post a lookout to watch for whales. These animals may not sense your approach when feeding and may pop up right in front of you. Look for hovering birds; they know when whales are approaching the surface.
  • Keep a slow speed in areas where there are whales or other vessels watching whales. If there is one whale present, there may be others. A collision with a vessel can be life-threatening for the whale and may do significant damage to a boat. Use the free Whale Alert app to receive notifications of right whale sightings, regulations, guidelines, and other timely information.
  • Do not discard litter overboard. It may be ingested by the animals and cause harm.
Big whale and two people watching it

What Species Will I See?

Learn about the wide range of species you could encounter during a whale watch.

Humpback whale tail sticking out

Recognizing Humpbacks

Learn how researchers distinguish one humpback from another by identifying their unique “fluke prints.”

Whale coming out of the water

Whale Behaviors

Find out what different whale actions mean and what they are called.

Kids watching a whale from afar

Tips for a Successful Whale Watch

Make the most of your whale watch experience with these comprehensive tips.