If you go whale watching off the coast of Massachusetts, chances are you’ll end up in Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary. There, you’re just about guaranteed to see whales. In fact, several tours offer a refund if you don’t.
The 2,180-square-kilometre area seemed like the natural spot to start my exploration of the state’s Whale Trail — a route that runs from Newburyport in the north to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in the south, highlighting 40 points of interest along the way.
Setting off from Boston on the New England Aquarium Whale Watch boat I learn we might see humpbacks (known as the acrobats of the marine world because of the way they breach), finbacks (which are among the largest whales in the world) and minkes (at about 10 metres, the smallest of the large whale species).
The area is a shallow underwater plateau that was exposed in the last Ice Age, and thanks to cold and warm water currents mixing, has an environment that’s basically a smorgasbord for marine mammals. “Everyone’s there because the restaurant is open,” explains Tony LaCasse, the spokesperson for the aquarium. From April to October, it runs tours of the sanctuary, which is considered one of the top whale-watching sites in the world.
As many as 17 different types of marine mammals pass through the area, including the endangered northern right whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbour seals. After an invigorating boat ride for more than an hour, my tour group makes it to the feeding ground.
Haley LaMonica, the aquarium’s research and educational intern, explains that the humpback whales stick around Stellwagen and further north in the Atlantic Ocean to the waters around New Brunswick from March to October. They winter in the Dominican Republic, but they don’t eat there.
It takes them a couple months to travel to Boston and when they finally arrive in Beantown, they’re hungry for the sand lance, herring and mackerel that are plentiful in the area. On any given day, “they eat the equivalent of 16 Oreos a minute for 24 hours,” LaMonica says. “It’s a lot. You’d explode.”
Granted, they’re also much larger than the average person. Humpbacks are about 15 metres long (picture an extra-long yellow school bus in length) and weigh about 36,000 kilograms. As mammals, they need to come to the surface of the ocean to breath. They typically dive underwater for four to six minutes, surface briefly and then fling their flukes (tails) in the air as they go underwater again.
The flukes are like fingerprints and the unique black and white markings on them enable LaMonica, her colleagues and marine biologists to identify them. Their findings are then sent to the Centre for Coastal Studies.
We follow two humpback whales during our cruise and see them surface several times — much to the excitement of the 300 people on board, who run from one side of the boat to the other. As we return to the city the sun is setting and the lights of the city are just coming on.
There’s plenty to do and see in Boston, beyond whales, of course. The Faneuil Hall Marketplace, built in 1742 is known as the Cradle of Liberty because it’s where Samuel Adams rallied people to support independence from Britain and where George Washington toasted the country on its first birthday.
The Skywalk Observatory perched on the 50th floor of the Prudential building downtown, offers a 360-degree view of the cityscape and surrounding area. The Observatory also features the informative and creative Dreams of Freedom exhibit, which explains how much of the city was built by immigrants.
But if marine life is your main interest, the Aquarium has an impressive four-storey high tank featuring a recreated Caribbean reef with about 150 species of fish, a shark and ray touch tank and in total about 37,000 animals. Luckily, they also have a number of biologists and experts around who are happy to answer questions.
“We want to raise awareness about the need to protect the oceans,” LaCasse says. “We have a huge concentration of marine biology institutions and hope we are at the front edge of protecting whales and all the other creatures in the ocean.”
This wasn’t always the case. In the mid-1800s New Bedford, about 95 kilometres south of Boston, was known as the whaling capital of the world.
Today the city of 95,000 has a historic centre made up of quaint, old buildings and the impressive Whaling Museum, which is well worth exploring.
The whaling business took off long before oil was discovered in the ground. From the 16th century through the 19th century, the mammals were sought for their oil, which was used in oil lamps and to help run machines during the Industrial Revolution.
In the late 18th and early 19th century, the American whaling business was based out of Nantucket, but it subsequently moved to New Bedford as bigger ships, which required a deep-water port, were used.
Lucy Bly, an animated ranger with the New Bedford Whaling Natural Historic Park, showed me around the town and brought its history to life. She explained that her hometown was largely built by Quakers, whose beliefs and tolerant labour practices made it a centre for change.
She also told me about the whaling magnate William Rotch, who, for decades, was the wealthiest man in the city and a staunch abolitionist. I visited the charming Rotch-Jones-Duff House and Garden Museum, which is a wood-framed clapboard home, built in the Greek Revival tradition, and still decorated with original items.
Bly also explained how the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass (whose bicentennial is being marked this year) made his way to New Bedford and arrived as a freed slave between 1838 and 1841.
Perhaps one of the most famous people to have lived there was Herman Melville, who spent a brief period in the city before setting off on the whale ship Acushnet in 1841. His experiences would later become fodder for his classic novel, Moby Dick.
Bedford is home to the Seaman’s Bethel, which has a replica of the bow-shaped pulpit Melville referred to in the book. You can also visit the more modern Moby-Dick Brewery.
To get a sense of those early whaling days, I took the two-hour Seastreak ferry to Nantucket. As soon as the boat passes the classic Brant Point Lighthouse the seaside town – where the likes of Barack Obama, Bill Gates and Meryl Streep escape to in the summer – comes into view. Most of the buildings there are made of Shaker cedar shingle, and a strict building code means the town has preserved 17th-century architecture and an ambiance of earlier days without feeling like a fossilized place.
The overall vibe was comfortably laid-back. Most of the shops were independent (as opposed to chains). Locals can be seen wearing Nantucket reds (clothing in a softly faded red shade from Murray’s) and driving jeeps (for ease on the cobblestone roads). Nearly half of the crescent shaped island, which is only about 23 kilometres long, is conservation land and it’s fun to rent a bike and see the sandy beaches, beautiful homes and seemingly timeless views.
But here too, there’s more than meets the eye. Nantucket, which means faraway island in the Algonquin language, was settled by about nine English settlers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire who wanted to develop a community outside the boundaries of Puritan control.
These early families advanced some of the most progressive social causes of the 19th century — including the abolition of slavery, the suffrage movement and public education.
And much of the drive for these socially progressive ideals came from the women (the men were often away at sea for years at a time whaling), who became known as the Petticoat Aristocracy. Among others, Nantucket produced Maria Mitchell, the first American female professional astronomer, Lydia Folger Fowler, the first American female with a medical degree, and Lucretia Mott, who helped launch the suffragette movement in the U.S.
You can visit some of the original homes, the interesting and informative Whaling Museum and just enjoy the pace of life on the island. But be forewarned, chances are you’ll want to stay a little longer.
Unfortunately, I had one more stop to make on my Whale Trail, so I took a one-hour Hy-Line Ferry to Hyannis in Cape Cod. Once there, I set off on another whale watching tour – this time I went with Cape Rib Tour, which operates a small, inflatable speed boat. About eight people were on this tour, which went to Stellwagen National Marine Sanctuary.
The boat was agile and being closer to the water offered a good vantage point from which to see the whales.The only caveats were that you need to be tall enough to sit on the seats and have your feet touch the deck, and unlike bigger ships, there’s no snack bar and not as many naturalists on board to help look for whales — so everyone really has to help the captain find them.
But when you do, the behemoths are captivating. So strap on your GoPro and enjoy nature’s show in Stellwagen.
The writer was a guest of the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism. The organization did not review this article.