Oceanic Magic at Stellwagen Bank
What is Stellwagen Bank?
Stellwagen Bank is a marine sanctuary established in 1992 and located about 10 miles off Boston harbor. It is perhaps the best destination for whale watching in the northeastern United States. Home to a great variety of marine life, the most common species you'll see there are humpbacks, fin whales, minke whales, and Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Harbor porpoises and seals are also common, and northern right whales have been spotted a handful of times.
The most straightforward way to do a whale watching tour in Stellwagen Bank is with Boston Harbor Cruises. The boats are docked right next to the New England Aquarium, one of the best aquariums in the country (and worthy of a separate article). Joint tickets can be bought at a discount, but the standalone rate is $53 per adult, $33 per child, and $45 per senior. This is a lot of money for a single activity, but the cruise is typically 4 hours long, and you will definitely get a magical experience. Each tour takes 60-90 minutes to get from Boston harbor to the marine sanctuary, leaving about an hour in Stellwagen Bank surrounded by marine life of all kinds.
The tour boats are large catamarans (mine was named Cetacea), and they hold up to 400 people. Despite the large size, they can hit close to 40 miles per hour, so if you experience motion sickness you'll want to bring some Dramamine!
40 Bucks for Parking?!
Parking in Boston is always expensive, but the garage next to the aquarium is a whole other level. Anything longer than 80 minutes is a whopping $40, and if I had known that before getting there I would have gone somewhere else. That being said, both the aquarium and the whale watching booth provide parking validation, which is good for $10 off. The garage address is 70 E. India Row (my phone GPS found it without issue).
There is another garage nearby which also has a validation option, though I didn't check their current rates. The address is 30 Rowes Wharf, and it's roughly a quarter mile walk to the aquarium.
The view as you depart Boston harbor is very serene. Boston may not have the prettiest skyline, but it's certainly distinctive (and historic). You will pass a handful of small islands dotted with mansions, a lighthouse or two, and many buoys. Many species of birds can be seen flying around the shore, though most stay too far away for good pictures. After about 15 minutes slowly passing the popular boating areas, prepare for full steam ahead out to Stellwagen!
Onward, to the Whales!
The scientists aboard the Cetacea were fantastic resources for all things aquatic during the trip, and they were able to instantly identify every whale we saw. Though I took a lot of pictures, I won't attempt to accurately caption everything, because I have no hope for identifying which whales are which. What I can tell you is, the whales we got closest to on this trip were named Cardhu (with her new calf!), Doublet, and Clamp. We also saw a couple minke whales, and a very large pod of dolphins.
An interesting fact about humpbacks is the calves can't raise their tails. Even though humpback calves are born weighing 2000 pounds, their bodies are so lean that they can't counter-balance enough when diving to get that characteristic tail rising above the surface. Further, they can't dive very deep because their bodies aren't as insulated against the colder waters down below. But they have a secret for putting on that thick layer of protective blubber: humpback milk is approximately 45% fat. This makes it the consistency of cottage cheese! It takes calves 1-2 years of rapid growth before they have enough blubber to get that magical tail raise.
Disclaimer: I am NOT a professional photographer. I rented a Nikon DSLR and a lens for this trip, but I have never taken pictures of whales before, and most of this was dumb luck.
The pictures below were all taken over a roughly one hour period, and are not representative of the true magic of this experience. You can't control when and where a whale will pop up, so your eyes will see a LOT more than you can capture with a camera. Next time I go whale watching, I'm bringing some binoculars and just leaving the camera at home!
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© 2018 Ted Zinzer