From spring through early fall, large populations of migratory whales traverse the cold waters of the Gulf of Maine, which stretches from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Massachusetts' Cape Cod. These giants of the sea are a sight to behold in their natural habitat, and whale watching cruises that depart from Maine ports will take you up close to these amazing mammals for photo ops and a learning opportunity unlike anything you can experience on dry land. Plan your Maine whale watching excursion with this guide to the best tour providers, what you'll see and how to best prepare for your voyage.
When is the Best Time to See Whales in Maine?
Maine's whale watching season kicks off in mid-April, as ravenous whales arrive to feed just about 20 miles off the Maine coast. Their feeding area is an underground plateau known as Jeffreys Ledge, which lies just about 150 to 200 feet beneath the surface of the water. The ledge provides a rich food source for whales, which feast primarily on herring. Whales can reliably be spotted through late October, when they begin to head south to warmer waters.
The Gulf of Maine is notoriously foggy, and the fog is at its worst when the difference between the water and air temperature is greatest. For the best visibility, book a whale watching tour for a summer day when clear skies are forecast. You may want to check the Northeast Offshore Waters Forecast before you make a reservation.
The Best Maine Whale Watching Tours
From south to north, whale watching tours depart from Kennebunkport, Portland, Boothbay Harbor, Bar Harbor, Milbridge and Lubec, Maine. These tour boats are tops if you're hoping to see whales on your Maine vacation:
- Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.: With more than 25 years of experience and more than a million passengers served, this Bar Harbor-based tour company is your best bet if you want to whale-watch on your trip to Acadia National Park. You'll have the option to combine whale and puffin watching on an extended trip: It's tough to resist the chance to spy on these clown-faced birds. If you don't spot whales, you'll receive a voucher to use on a future trip.
- First Chance Whale Watch: Cruise out of Kennebunkport on one of Maine's newest whale watching boats. "Nick's Chance," a modern, 87-foot vessel launched in 2006, has two decks and a spacious bow area that provide excellent viewing opportunities. Your expert captain doesn't just know where to find the whales: He'll point out seals, dolphins, birds and other creatures you encounter on your cruise.
- Cap'n Fish's Whale Watch: If you're eco-minded and impatient, you'll be drawn to Maine's most environmentally friendly whale watching boat. Not only does this company's vessel exceed emissions regulations, it's fast. And that means less time waiting patiently to see whales. Round trips are just three hours, and they depart from Boothbay Harbor once or twice daily from May into October.
- Odyssey Whale Watch: "Odyssey," a 65-foot fiberglass boat with upper and lower decks, does four-hour whale watches out of Portland Harbor. Whale sightings are guaranteed, or your next trip is free (must be redeemed within three years).
Types of Whales You Can See
Hundreds of humpback whales, popular among whale watching enthusiasts for their friendliness and spectacular breaching, flipper-slapping and lobtailing, populate the area off the coast of Maine. Minke, finback and a few North Atlantic right whales also spend their summers and falls in the Gulf of Maine. Before the whaling days of the early 1900s, there were 10,000 right whales. Only just over 400 are believed to exist today, and scientists fear they're headed toward extinction.
Most species of whales have marks that can be used to tell individuals apart. Humpback whales' unique markings on the underside of their tails make them one of the easiest to identify. A distinctive pattern of black and white, different on every animal, can range from all-white to all-black, and everything in between.
What to Expect on a Maine Whale Watching Trip
Once you're aboard your chosen whale watching boat, expect to spend an hour or more cruising out to where the whales frolic and feed. Passengers typically sit out on decks in the sun or duck into an enclosed cabin to enjoy a snack and take a break from the wind. Be sure to wear sunscreen.
If you're lucky, you might see a school of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the water as you head out to your destination. When you reach Jeffreys Ledge, your tour boat will circle as you scour the horizon for the telltale columns of white created when a whale expounds air through its blowhole. These columns, sometimes as high as 20 feet, can be spotted as far as two miles away. Listen intently, too, for the rushing sound.
Once there's a shout like "Starboard! Three o'clock!" or "Port! Nine o'clock!" you'll know a whale has been spotted. Everyone aboard rushes to that side of the boat, binoculars raised and cameras pointed. Wear rubber-soled, sturdy shoes. You might glimpse a humpback whale breaching 100 feet away. Or see a pair of minke whales slicing through the water, repeatedly breaking the surface. Typically, you'll get to watch whales putting on a show for an hour or so, sending you rushing from one side of the boat to the other as your captain or an onboard naturalist shares knowledge of whales including some of the specific individual creatures you'll see.
Whenever one of the giant mammals lobtails (breaches enough to show his tail), a collective gasp escapes from the whale watchers. It is a magnificent sight you won't ever forget.
Back ashore, you'll be tired, windblown and possibly mildly queasy if the Gulf of Maine is choppy, but you'll also feel a sense of exhilaration after seeing one of Earth's most fascinating creatures up close.