Whale Watching on Cape Cod

Go on a Whale Watch!

For many, watching these majestic creatures rise from the ocean depths may be the most memorable moment of their Cape Cod vacation.

Whale watching cruises leave regularly from Plymouth, Barnstable and Provincetown Harbors. Most companies offer a comfortable vessel, snack bar, onboard field guides or naturalists, morning, afternoon and sunset cruises. Trip lengths vary depending on location.

Most even guarantee a sighting!


Most whale watching companies guarantee a sighthing. Photo by Jane Booth.

Each cruise will take you to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the favorite feeding grounds of whales. Each year, beginning in late winter, whales return to the Sanctuary, which encompasses over 600 square nautical miles, about 26 miles east of Boston, 6 miles north of Race Point in Provincetown and 7 miles from Gloucester. Because the water is shallow here, plankton--a favorite food of whales--rises closer to the surface.

During your trip, onboard naturalists will help you spot, identify and learn more about these gentle giants. You are likely to see humpback, finback and minke whales.  You may see a lone whale, a pod or even a mother and her calf!

Whales are known for putting on a show.  Perhaps you'll see whales breaching (leaping straight out of the water into the air), spyhopping (holding their heads high out of the water as if having a look around) or sounding  (executing a dive). Sometimes, a whale will slap the water with its flippers as if greeting you.

From hunting to watching

While humans trace their ancestry to animals who left the sea and moved to the land, whales trace theirs to mammals who left dry land and returned to the sea. Of course, all this happened fifty odd million years ago, but many still think these giants are fish, not mammals of the deep. In fact, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, once referred to the whale as "that spouting fish with the horizontal tail."

In the early 17th century, whales ruled these waters. In fact, the Pilgrims noted that, because of their size and number, one could walk across their backs to the shore. Regrettably, whales were as profitable as they were plentiful back then.

Whale oil was used to make candles, soap and crayons, and whale blubber was boiled to make oil for lamps and machinery. While whale skin could be turned into shoelaces and saddles, whale bones could become fishing poles, corset stays, pie crimpers, crochet hooks, yarn winders and even house frames.

Close up view of the whales aboard a whale watch cruise out of Barnstable. Photo by Jane Booth.

The sperm whale contained minute quantities of a substance called ambergris, which was used to make fine perfumes. Because it sold for $300 per pound, it was a very profitable by-product. The seamen often received the ivory teeth. All in all, because just about every part of a whale could serve a useful purpose--and turn a handsome profit--fortunes were made in the whaling industry.

Cape Cod, Nantucket and New Bedford soon became major ports for the fleets hunting these creatures. Provincetown, boasting hundreds of sailing vessels, was once one of the richest towns in Massachusetts.

A protected species

In short, many species of whales were hunted almost to extinction. Despite more than 40 years of protection, the North Atlantic right whale, whose numbers are estimated between 300 and 400, is still in danger. The right whale was listed as an endangered species by the federal government in 1973. To learn more about efforts to protect the species, visit the NOAA website here.

Each year in late winter, whales return to our waters from their winter homes along the Florida and Georgia Coast.

Courtesy of the Best Read Guide Cape Cod.

Whale Watching Features