It wasn’t my first whale watching trip but it was definitely one of the best. A perfect summer day in Maine on a lovely boat in Boothbay Harbor with calm seas and a bright, blue skies.
I’m never at my best on boats but this memorable trip soon had me feeling at ease with the high seas. There wasn’t a bumpy wave in sight!
As we motored away from the main harbour, the trip went to plan like clockwork. The marine life came out to greet us in their droves – from dolphins and porpoises to harbour seals.
But would we succeed in spotting the world’s largest mammals – the whales?
Whale of a time
It wasn’t until the day of the trip that I decided that the whale watching excursion was definitely on. As I peered out of the hotel window, I had to make sure there were perfect weather conditions. No rough seas, not a hint of wind and a good weather forecast.
After the hurricane which hit the USA’s eastern seaboard a few days earlier, I was understandably nervous.
But the weather was so perfect that it was just a case of hitting the sun cream, donning a daft hat and taking a sea sickness tablet (just in case!).
The Gulf of Maine is one of the very best places to go whale watching because of its cool, nutrient-rich waters which attract a wealth of marine life including whales.
We were on the look out for fin and humpback whales – but, as ever on these trips, there’s no guarantee of a sighting. It’s a bit like finding a needle in the Atlantic Ocean.
The whales are a law unto themselves – they move around the seas and they’ve often underwater which adds to the difficulty of finding them.
Boarding the boat, I was optimistic because the weather was so perfect that surely even the shyest whales would be out hunting for food in the clear, azure waters.
Cap’n Fish Boat Tours run most of the whale trips from Boothbay Harbor midway up the Maine coast. It’s a beautiful spot but the boat needs to travel way out to sea if there’s a chance of seeing the whales.
I’d heard on the grapevine that these huge marine mammals had been spotted about 14 miles off the shore the previous day – so we would be heading to the same area. The omens looked good.
As the boat, The Pink Lady, moved out of the harbour, my attention focused on the scenery and the many small islands. There were great views of the famous Burnt Island lighthouse too as we pulled out to sea.
It wasn’t long before we spotted seals bobbing up and down in the bay’s waters, as curious about us as we were of them.
As we moved out towards the high seas, we accelerated towards the best whale watching areas in the Gulf of Maine.
No luck at first but the scenery was interesting. There were lots of lobstermen in their fishing boats bringing in their lobster pots and baskets.
The many classy sailing yachts had us dreaming of owning a boat.
There were also some interesting sea birds that were new to us which the tour guide told us were petrels, a good sign because where they feed, the whales often hang out too.
But there were no whales. I was starting to worry that these elusive creatures had moved further up the coast.
We were looking for small clues as we cast our eyes over a seemingly endless sea of blue that went on and on for miles. We gazed into the expansive void on all sides.
Then, unexpectedly, came a hopeful sign that the whales were in the vicinity – about 16 miles out to sea.
Our pilot, Captain Steve, announced that he had spotted a whale blowing about 2 miles ahead of us. We accelerated towards the spot – and the excitement grew on board.
It wasn’t long before we got our first sighting of two large finback whales, blowing and riding the waves. These long, super-sleek mammals can weigh up to 70 tonnes but they glide along gracefully.
The tell-tale sign is their prominent dorsal fin on their backs. Compared with humpback whales, they are smoother and longer in appearance.
We followed their progress for the best part of an hour as they came up for air before diving again and disappearing under the waters.
They stay under the water about 10-15 minutes during which time they can dive down to around 700 feet. They can also move at a nippy 23mph in quick bursts.
It’s a real art working out where they’ll resurface when they come back up for air. But this pair were sticking around and didn’t seem fazed by our presence.
During their final resurface, they came pretty close to our boat and we enjoyed fabulous views of the whales swimming side by side. It was an exhilarating moment.
What a thrill to see these fabulous animals in the North Atlantic!
Finbacks are the world’s second largest whales after blue whales – and they are frequently sighted off the Maine coast.
They are huge mammals, reaching around 85 feet in length – the size of a two and a half double-decker buses. They can live to the age of 80-90 years.
It’s hard to believe that in earlier centuries people hunted these fabulous creatures and nearly drove them to extinction. Commercial hunting in the North Atlantic ended only in 1986. Remember the ‘Save the Whales’ campaigns?
Today we’re hunting whales to watch these spectacular creatures in their natural habitat.
After a long while tracking them, our cruise was over and it was time to go home.
As we headed back to the harbour a pod of dolphins played in the boat’s slipstream, enjoying the adrenalin rush they were getting from the disturbed waters.
On the return leg, there were yet more seals and some incredible sea birds plus an osprey sitting on its nest near the entrance to the harbour.
But the highlight had been watching the whales. What a show they put on – and how incredible these huge mammals are when you see them up close!
Tammy’s top whale watching tips
Boothbay Harbour is in mid Maine, New England, USA. Our trip was organised by the excellent Cap ‘n Fish who run boat trips several times a day including two whale watching trips in the early morning and afternoon.
The trips cost around £35 per person ($54) and take around 3.5 hours. Buy a ticket on the day or book in advance during the holiday season by phone. The company also has several kiosk sales points along the main trawl of Boothbay Harbor.
The boats are a decent size so they’re reasonably stable, if your sea legs aren’t too great. There’s also a small bar, cafe and a toilet on board. There’s a choice of seating on the open deck or you can opt to go under cover inside the boat.
As well as Finback and Humpback whales also look for the smaller Minke Whales and Basking Sharks on your excursion.
Other good whale watching spots in Maine include Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island where you can catch a whale watching catamaran from the main waterfront.
Further up the Maine coast near Campobello Island there are also whale watching trips from the Head Harbor Wharf back on the mainland.
In Massachusetts there are whale watching trips out of Provincetown on Cape Cod with views of the mammals breaching and spouting almost guaranteed.
Be aware that some whale watching trips can get cancelled during bad weather so try to pick a calm and clear day. Avoid misty and dull days with poor visibility. Pick your time of year – May to October is the viewing season in Maine.
Elsewhere in North America there’s great whale watching in the following places:
- Washington Stage, Oregon – Killer Whales are the big draw here between April-October.
- British Columbia, Canada – great territory for Killer Whales off Vancouver Island in the summer.
- Saguenay National Park, Quebec – watch Beluga Whales from the land as they swim in the fjord.
- St Lawrence river estuary, Canada – boat and dinghy trips run from Tadoussac or look out for the whales on the ferry crossing between Tadoussac and the southern mainland. We saw about 12-14 whales on a single dinghy trip.
- Alaska – trips run into the Gulf of Alaska and Inside Passage with the best viewing in the spring.
- Hawaii – great whale spotting opportunities between October-May around the West Maui channel.
Wear sensible clothes and a hat as it’s easy to get sunburned or cold on a boat once you’re out on the open seas – remember that weather conditions can be changeable.
Don’t forget to take binoculars and a camera with a zoom lens. I was amazed how few people had binoculars and looked at mine with envy!
Look for tell-tales signs of whales – blow flumes, disturbed waters, fins… Birds feeding on krill (small fish) on the water may indicate that whales are nearby as both like eating the same dinner.
Do your homework and go with a reputable boat company who know their whales. Their guided and knowledgeable commentary will help you get the most from your trip.