New England’s whale watching tours dive deep

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Things to Do Gentle giants: New England’s whale watching tours dive deep Boston Harbor City Cruises and the New England Aquarium partner to create a conservation-minded whale watching tour to a marine sanctuary. Boston.com recently tagged along to learn more. A fluking dive, where whales dive deep into the water for minutes at a time. They leave their mark with a final flick of their tail above the water. Izzy Bryars
Just a few miles off the shores of Boston lies a biodiverse sanctuary brimming with multiple species of whales.
One of these whales, the Atlantic right whale, has been endangered in Massachusetts since settlers in the North Atlantic hunted them for blubber. Now, the species is protected and tracked across the state, with whale watching season only beginning after they safely migrate.
Through the New England Aquarium, Boston Harbor City Cruises (BHCC) facilitates a whale watching tour known not only for what you see, but the careful manner in which you see them.
A whale on the Boston Harbor City Cruise’s whale watch takes a deep, fluking dive to hunt. Behind the whale is the outline of the bubble net used to reign in prey. – Izzy Bryars
Both companies are on a list of “SENSE-ible” whale watch cruises through the WhaleSense program. The list tracks programs that practice responsible whale watching tours. As criteria, all staff members must undergo annual training and the company must complete an annual stewardship project.
As a member of WhaleSense, these tours are facilitated by crews made knowledgeable about how to engage with the whales. The goal is to see whales in their natural habitat, not change their behavior with interference.
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“It’s not like they’re performing for us,” said Bob Lawler, vice president and general manager of BHCC. “But where we are is where their food is. So they are feeding, which is an amazing sight to see.”
The tours are set apart by the expertise on board by naturalists from the New England Aquarium. Something I learned is that whales are conscious breathers, meaning they have to leave half of their brain on to sleep and can only rest for 30-40 minutes at a time.
My tour sailed out of Boston Harbor on a massive, triple-decker catamaran. The on-board naturalist instructed us to sit with the “wind on your face, and your eyes on the horizon.”
The view as the high-speed catamaran pulls away from Boston during the aquarium’s whale watching tour. – Izzy Bryars
After maneuvering away from the docks, the boat hit high speeds on the open water. For those without their sea legs, the catamaran offers complimentary ginger chews. But soon enough, the boat slows down once one of the naturalists spots whale activity.
Typically, whale activity is seen in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, around 30 miles offshore from Boston.
Stellwagen Bank sits between Cape Ann and Cape Cod, the two “arms” of the Massachusetts Bay. It was discovered in 1854 by Henry Stellwagen, a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy. The bank was previously referred to as “Middle Ground” until Stellwagen successfully mapped the area.
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In its 2020 condition report, the bank boasts its support of “over 575 species of invertebrates, fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.”
But on the Saturday morning tour I took, my group spotted whale activity less than 10 miles offshore — something nearly unheard of by the experts over the loudspeakers. From our location, we could see whales taking deep, fluking dives before the backdrop of the Boston skyline.
A whale pops their head up after creating a bubble net to capture prey inside. In the background, the Boston skyline. – Izzy Bryars
Humpback whales hunt using a “bubble cloud,” allowing their presence to be spotted easily from the vessel. The school-bus-sized mammals eat around 1 million calories a day, and they do so by making their food come to them.
The whales blow bubbles from underwater, causing fish to panic and swarm into the artificial net. From there, the whale can lunge into the net or swallow them whole from underneath.
The humpback whales spotted on Saturday’s tour formed what the naturalist referred to as temporary associations. Typically, whales hunt alone. But when they are faced with the opportunity to collaborate, they join forces to hunt their prey. A whale named Tripod, a 36-year-old female, created two different temporary associations with other whales to better hunt her prey.
Although whales typically hunt alone, Tripod and Spell formed a temporary association to hunt. – Izzy Bryars Tripod and Spell, using their temporary association to better hunt prey in the water. The pair stayed together for the entirety of the tour. – Izzy Bryars
The New England Aquarium uses cameras to photograph and identify whales, all of which have a unique tail print that sets them apart. The classic fluking dive, where whales dive deep and flick their tails above water, made it possible for the naturalists to identify the four whales we followed throughout the tour.
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The whale we saw the most, Tripod, has returned to the New England shores year after year. Even her mother, which scientists named Rune, was documented by the aquarium. Tripod stuck with Spell, the calf of a whale named Wizard. Also spotted was Tongs, a 36-year-old female, and Dome, a 39-year-old female with 13 documented calves thus far.
The tour certainly provided ample opportunity to spot several different whales. And while there were seats on the boat, most whale watchers spent their time standing by the railing hoping to see one of the humpbacks.
Tip: Naturalists use a clock system to explain where the whales will appear, so wear your sneakers to hike to 5 p.m. on the boat.
A beautiful fluking dive, seen through the crowd of other whale watchers hoping to catch a glimpse. – Izzy Bryars
The New England Aquarium is not the only whale watching tour in the region that follows the WhaleSense guidelines. If you get the chance this season, take a boat day and observe these majestic whales in their natural habitat.

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