Want a whale of a tale to tell? For nature lovers, very little compares to the thrill of coming up close to these gentle giants of the sea. Thankfully, you needn't venture to the other side of the planet to ensure an exhilarating encounter, with the coastal waters of New England and Atlantic Canada teeming with humpbacks, pilots, finbacks, minkes, and many more of these beautiful behemoths. Here, we've rounded up five of the very best regional destinations within these fertile Atlantic coast breeding and feeding grounds, where you're sure to be filled with wonder as you spot these incredible creatures.
Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick & Nova Scotia
When to Go: June–October; August is peak season.
Wedged between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, this marine paradise features a safe harbor nursery, and nutrient-rich, tide-fed feeding grounds for as many as a dozen species of whales. Whale-watching excursions depart from both bay-fronted Canadian provinces, including St. Andrews, Deer Island, Grand Manan Island, and Campobello Island in New Brunswick, or Digby Neck or Long and Brier islands in Nova Scotia. Choose from tours operated via catamarans, fishing boats, motor/sailing vessels, and even tall ships, but our very favorite outing is aboard a Zodiac, like those run by Fundy Tide Runners, which afford unforgettable eye-level encounters on the water. Once on the bay, humpback, minke, and finback whales are especially commonplace, not to mention dolphins, porpoises, seals, and seabirds. The waters also serve as a nursery for the endangered North Atlantic right whale, while less commonly seen species to look out for include sei, pilot, blue, sperm, killer, and beluga whales.
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, Massachusetts
When to Go: Mid-April–October; come in October for a chance at leaf-peeping, too.
Ranked among the best whale-watching sites in the world by the World Wildlife Fund, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a protected marine area situated off the coast of Massachusetts at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, attracts some 1.5 million whale watchers annually. More than a dozen Massachusetts–based boat companies run whale-watching excursions to the region, with the majority departing from Cape Cod (from former nineteenth-century whaling town Provincetown, especially), thanks to its close proximity to the bank. However, it's possible to set out right from the midst of Boston Harbor, or from further up the mainland's North Shore in Gloucester. Many vessels supply expert naturalists on board who can help point out the humpbacks, pilots, minkes, and finbacks that frequent these waters, along with the endangered North Atlantic right whales, for which Cape Cod Bay provides an important breeding ground. Sightings are so frequent, that many operators even guarantee them. For a special bonus, come later in the season, to pair the tail end of whale-watching season with the onset of fall foliage.
Newfoundland, Newfoundland and Labrador
When to Go: May–September; June and July offer the best chance to see icebergs, too.
The island of Newfoundland (in the Canadian province of Newfoundland and Labrador) offers optimum whale-watching conditions that attract a staggering twenty-two species of whales. In fact, the world' s largest population of humpbacks (more than 10,000 annually) congregate here, drawn by a bountiful feast of krill, capelin, and squid. Minke, sperm, orca, fin, and pilot whales are also regulars, as are blue whales, the largest animals on the planet, growing to lengths of up to 100 feet. Time your visit right, ideally in June or July, for the unique opportunity to pair whale-watching with the spectacle of drifting icebergs, as they float down “Iceberg Alley” on their southerly migration from Greenland. Key regional whale-watching launch points are clustered around Newfoundland's northern and eastern coasts, at Twillingate/Fogo Island, Bonavista/Trinity, St. Anthony, St. John's, Witless Bay/Bay Bulls, and the area around St. Vincent’s Beach, where whale-watching and icebergs can be viewed via options like motorized boats, sea kayaks, or even while hiking from a seaside trail.
Bar Harbor, Maine
When to Go: May–October; combine peak viewing with Atlantic puffin spotting from mid-June through August.
Not far from Acadia National Park, launching from the pleasant waterfront resort town of Bar Harbor, the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company brings whale-watchers out about twenty miles offshore into the Gulf of Maine. What sets the company apart is that it's not only the biggest boating company in Maine, but that it offers the largest whale-watching vessel in North America, a jet-powered catamaran called the Atlanticat that can carry up to 400 passengers. Sign up for several themed tours, including classic whale-watching outings, sunset excursions, and combined puffin- and whale-watching trips (Atlantic puffins can be found here from late May–August). Most commonly views species are humpback, finback and minke whales, though Atlantic white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoises, seals, sharks, and ocean sunfish are commonplace, too. Sightings of pilot, right, sei, and sperm whales aren't unheard of, either.
Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia
When to Go: May–mid-October; August is the best month for snorkeling with whales.
Follow Cape Breton Island's scenic Cabot Trail roadway north to Pleasant Bay, where several whale-watching boats operate (many touting sighting guarantees) and the Whale Interpretive Centre is based. Pop into the interpretive center to take in multimedia exhibits illustrating the 16 species of whales that frequent the offshore waters (including a life-size model of a pilot whale). Pods of Atlantic pilot whales are predominant here, and you can also count on porpoises, seals, and seabirds amid the maritime mix. Excursion options include traditional sightseeing vessels, as well as more adventurous Zodiac boats, but nothing beats the new-for-2015 offering for snorkeling with whales on the western coast of Cape Breton, out of the town of Chéticamp (just south of Pleasant Bay). Sign up with Captain Zodiac Whale Cruise to partake in this incredible Zodiac-run experience, wherein snorkeling encounters may be had with finbacks, humpbacks, pilots, minkes, and dolphins and porpoises, too (available from July–mid-October).