When Is the Best Time
Whale watching tours from Boston, Massachusetts, to the nearby Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary offer some of the best whale sightings in the United States. Stellwagen Bank is abundant with humpback whales, finback whales, minke whales, dolphins, and other marine life. We provide you with whale watching details for each month, so you can decide which travel time is right for you.
The Boston whale watching season runs from late March to mid-November. The best time for whale watching is between May and October. During these months, sightings are practically guaranteed.
Each summer, the whales migrate to Massachusetts and back to warmer water when the weather gets colder again in October/November.
Make sure to check our 7 Top Tips for Whale Watching from Boston at the end of this article and to book your trip with the only tour operator in Boston: Boston Whale Watching Power-Catamaran Cruise (book in advance as capacities are limited in 2021! Via GetYourGuide with comfortable mobile or printed vouchers)
Best Time of Day
In terms of sightings, there is no big difference between mornings or afternoons. Mornings are usually less crowded, though. That's why the best time of day is the first whale watching tour in the morning. From mid-June to early September, the first tour starts at 9 a.m. each weekday and on weekends. During other months it might be later, usually from 10 a.m. Click on the tour link below and check available times.
Weather and Sea
During the months of July, August, and September, the weather is generally more consistently pleasant. However, the whales even come out in the rain.
Keep in mind that it is usually 10-15°F degrees cooler out on the sea. It may also feel a little colder on board due to ocean spray from the wind and cloud cover. If seasickness is an issue, check the weather forecast first to choose a calm day for whale watching. Marine Weather Boston Harbor
Whale Watching Tour
The Boston whale tours are fantastic! The best tour operator, which everyone uses, is Boston Harbor Cruises. They are not using a sailing catamaran: You'll be watching the whales from the deck of a very comfortable high-speed power catamaran. You should (or must) book in advance as they sell out fast and capacities are limited. Naturalists from the New England Aquarium are on board to share their knowledge and answer questions. Tip: The New England Aquarium is right there as well. You shouldn't miss it. Book the 'skip the line ticket' here if you like: Boston - New England Aquarium - Skip the Line
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Stretching between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is the destination of every Boston whale watching trip. It is one of the world’s best marine wildlife viewing areas.
More than 800 square miles of open ocean make up the sanctuary, encompassing some of the most productive waters in the north-west Atlantic. The sanctuary was created in 1992 and was named after the shallow, underwater sandbar – Stellwagen Bank – that rises up from the ocean floor.
The geology of the area is what makes it so attractive to wildlife, as the contours of the sandbar encourage deep water currents to rise upwards, bringing nutrients and minerals to the surface. A diverse range of species takes advantage of these rich upwellings, with the sanctuary being home to numerous birds, fish, and invertebrates.
Marine mammals are especially common to the region, and Stellwagen Bank is renowned for being one of the best whale-watching sites around. Numerous whale species gather here every year, where they socialize and feed, providing ideal opportunities for viewing.
Monthly Whale Sightings
The Boston whale watching season starts on March 20. This month tends to be quiet in terms of whale sightings. However, it is possible to spot a few early humpback whales. Harbor porpoises and white-sided dolphins are usually common.
Weather: The average temperature high in Boston during this month is 45°F, with an average low of 31°F. The temperature out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank is 36°F on average.
March Sightings Report: An afternoon in late March began with a quick pass of two harbor porpoises on the way to Stellwagen Bank’s north-west corner. Here, a pair of slow-moving humpback whales were sighted, with one spy-hopping close to the boat.
In April, whale watching trips in Boston see the arrival of a few male and juvenile humpback whales to the waters of Stellwagen Bank. Migrating North Atlantic right whales can sometimes be seen, along with white-sided dolphins. However, sightings until mid-April can be a hit or miss.
Weather: The temperature in Boston during this month reaches an average high of 55°F and an average low of 41°F. The temperatures out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank average 43°F.
April Sightings Report: An impressive five species of whales and dolphin were observed on one particularly bright April morning. Five humpback whales were spotted close to the boat, amongst a pod of white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoises. Later in the trip, a pair of minke whales were seen cruising through the water, and there was a brief sighting of a rare North Atlantic right whale.
May on the Boston coast is a great time for whale watching as female humpbacks with calves begin to arrive at Stellwagen Bank. Fin whales and minke whales can also be seen as they migrate northwards, while white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoises are common.
Weather: The average temperature high in Boston during this month is 66°F, with a low of 50°F. The temperatures out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank average 47°F.
May Sightings Report: On a day of early morning fog, three humpback whales were seen lunge feeding on Stellwagen Bank. The individuals stayed in the area for several hours and were joined by white-sided dolphins and a rare sighting of a basking shark.
During June, conditions around Boston are excellent for humpback whale watching, with a high density of this species in the region. Minke whales and harbor porpoises can often be spotted, with occasional sightings of fin whales.
Weather: The temperature in Boston during this month reaches an average high of 73°F and an average low of 57°F. The temperature out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank is 58°F on average.
June Sightings Report: A group of four humpback whales, including a calf, were observed in the southern portion of Stellwagen Bank on one early June morning. The same trip also encountered a second group of humpback whales, made up of five individuals. These whales were seen surface feeding close to the boat before eventually diving out of sight.
In July, whale watching trips around Boston see a great number of humpback whales, with it being one of the best months to see this species. Harbor porpoises are common sights, while minke whales can also be seen.
Weather: The average temperature high in Boston during this month is 82°F, with a low of 67°F. The temperatures out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank average 67°F.
July Sightings Report: A warm afternoon in July saw the appearance of a pair of female humpback whales in the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Both individuals surfaced frequently and provided excellent views. The trip was capped with several minke whale sightings and a quick glimpse of a large male humpback.
August on the Boston coast is an excellent whale-watching month. It is generally the first month in which pilot whales begin to appear around Stellwagen Bank’s waters. Humpbacks are still frequently sighted, along with harbor porpoises and the occasional fin whale.
Weather: The temperature in Boston during this month reaches an average high of 80°F and an average low of 65°F. The temperature out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank averages 68°F.
August Sightings Report: On smooth waters, a total of eight humpback whales were sighted on a single trip across Stellwagen Bank. Some were traveling individually, while others were present in small groups of three. The highlight was the appearance of a young calf and its mother, who mingled near the boat for some time, making for a joyful experience.
During September, conditions around Boston are still good for humpback whale watching. There are also chances to see pilot whales and white-sided dolphins, while fin whales might be moving past the coast on their southwards migrations.
Weather: The average temperature high in Boston during this month is 73°F, with an average low of 59°F. The temperature out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank is 65°F on average.
September Sightings Report: A September trip to Jeffrey’s Ledge in Stellwagen Bank began with the sightings of a few pods of harbor porpoises, before approximately fifteen humpback whales were spotted traveling in small groups. There were distant views of the whales breaching and tail slapping, before the trip was concluded with a visit from a pod of white-sided dolphins.
In October, the humpback whales begin to leave Boston, but it can still be a good time for whale watching. Other species also begin to migrate, and there are often chances to see minke whales, fin whales, and even the occasional North Atlantic right whale.
Weather: The temperature in Boston during this month reaches an average high of 62°F and an average low of 48°F. The temperature out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank averages 57°F.
October Sightings Report: On choppy Atlantic seas, an afternoon trip to Stellwagen Bank in October was lucky enough to be graced with the presence of an ocean sunfish. This rare sight was added to with the arrival of a group of six humpback whales, who frolicked near the boat for a short time. Just before returning to Boston, the trip was capped with a sighting of a lone fin whale.
November is the last month for whale watching on the Boston coast, with many of the whales already having moved southwards. Tours run until mid-November. A few late humpbacks remain, and there are always chances to see harbor porpoises.
Weather: The average temperature high in Boston during this month is 53°F, with an average low of 38°F. The temperature out on the waters of Stellwagen Bank is 50°F on average.
November Sightings Report: A cold November trip to the western edge of Stellwagen Bank was rewarded with fantastic views of a pair of long-diving humpback whales. Their company was much enjoyed, before the return journey caught sightings of several harbor porpoises and even a few leaping tuna.
Boston Whale Watching Must-Know Facts
Whale Species Near Boston Coast
Sighting Chance: Humpback whales are the most commonly sighted whale species at Stellwagen Bank near Boston. They are seen on around 85% of boat trips. Sightings are almost guaranteed during late summer.
Appearance: As one of the largest baleen whales, the humpback can grow to a truly impressive size. Adults generally range from 12 – 16 meters in length, weighing in at over 30 tons. The species is named after the distinctive shape of its back, which arches out of the water as it prepares to dive, appearing humped. Humpback whales have a dark dorsal coloration, but are white underneath, with black and white markings on the underside of their tails. They have the longest pectoral fins of any whale species – a characteristic that gives them better maneuverability.
Fascinating Facts: An individual humpback whale can consume nearly 3,000 pounds of fish in just one day. The markings on their tails are unique to each animal, meaning individual whales can easily be identified. The oldest humpbacks can reach almost 100 years of age.
Behavior: Humpback whales travel both alone and in small groups, although large numbers may accumulate in areas with particularly rich feeding opportunities. While in the North Atlantic region, they spend the majority of their time feeding, sometimes for as many as eighteen hours a day. They do this in order to build up their blubber reserves to fuel their winter trips to tropical waters. Warm regions such as the Caribbean are perfect birthing grounds, though the whales rarely feed while in these waters, making them especially hungry by the time they return to Stellwagen Bank.
Humpback whales feed mainly on small fish such as mackerel and herring, which they catch using a range of feeding strategies such as lunge feeding or bubble net feeding. The latter involves a group of whales who swim in a circle while blowing bubbles beneath a school of fish. This creates a bubble ring, which traps the fish and makes them easier to catch.
Boat Interaction: Being one of the more curious whale species, humpbacks will sometimes venture close to boats of their own accord. While most of their time is spent feeding, they also like to investigate boats and the people on them, which can be an exhilarating experience for all onboard.
Sighting Chance: Minke whales are common around the waters of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts. They are sighted on around 75% of boat trips and are likely to be the most abundant whales around Boston.
Appearance: 7 – 8 meters is a typical length for a minke whale, making it one of the smallest baleen whales. They are black or grey in color, with pale undersides and white bands on each flipper. Much of the back, including the blowhole and dorsal fin, becomes visible when a minke whale surfaces to breathe, making this a good way to distinguish it from other species.
Fascinating Facts: Minke whales generally live for 30 – 50 years, although the oldest individuals can reach 60. The species is the only remaining baleen whale that is still commercially hunted on a large scale. Minke whales are fast swimmers, able to travel at upwards of 24 mph.
Behavior: A migratory species, the minke whale, travels to Boston’s waters during the spring, arriving from more southerly climes in order to feed. A range of different prey are consumed, although krill and herring tend to be eaten most often. Despite being one of the most abundant whales in the world, little is known about minke whale ecology due to their secretive nature. Females are thought to give birth to young every two years, usually in December.
Boat Interaction: Minke whales have a rather shy nature, meaning they tend to keep their distance from boats where possible. Despite this, they are known to investigate boats occasionally. Their fast swimming speeds give them the ability to disappear rapidly, making them tricky to observe for long periods.
Sighting Chance: There is generally a good chance of seeing fin whales on the Boston coast, with approximately 70% of boat trips encountering these ocean giants.
Appearance: The fin whale – also known as the finback whale – is the second-largest creature on Earth, surpassed only by the blue whale. Growing to a maximum length of 26 metres, fin whales can weigh in excess of 80 tons and are majestic animals to see. Aside from their great size, they can be identified by their long backs and prominent dorsal fins – the characteristic which gives them their name. Fin whales are generally light grey, with a large white patch on their right jaws.
Fascinating Facts: The fin whale is one of the fastest cetaceans, able to travel at 30 mph in short bursts. It dives to depths of over 1,500 feet in order to feed. Despite being commonly sighted around Stellwagen Bank, the species is classified as endangered.
Behavior: Fin whales feed mainly on schooling fish such as herring and mackerel, which they engulf in short lunges. They are known to circle schools of fish at high speed, a strategy that frightens the fish into a tight ball and makes them easier to catch. Tending to be more social than other whales, fin whales will often travel in groups of up to 10 individuals, although their numbers can increase greatly around prime feeding locations. Calves are generally born in warm, temperate waters and remain with their mothers for over a year.
Boat Interaction: A shy species, the fin whale, is reluctant to come close to boats and will usually stay well clear. It can be difficult to get close views of the species for this reason, especially as its speed makes it difficult to catch up to.
North Atlantic Right Whale
Sighting Chance: An incredibly rare species, the North Atlantic right whale is an uncommon sighting at Stellwagen Bank, seen on less than 5% of boat trips.
Appearance: The North Atlantic right whale can be distinguished from other species by the absence of a dorsal fin and a long mouth that arches up towards the eye. Adults usually measure between 13 and 16 metres long, with females being slightly larger than males. The large heads of North Atlantic right whales are often covered in patches of hard, white skin known as callosities. The patterns of these callosities are unique to each whale, meaning researchers can identify them individually.
Fascinating Facts: There are thought to be less than 300 North Atlantic right whales left in the wild. Up to 45% of a right whale’s body is made up of blubber, which is used as an insulator and fat reserve.
Behavior: North Atlantic right whales are prolific predators of copepods and other marine invertebrates such as krill. They generally feed by skimming the ocean surface with mouths wide open, although they can find food at any level within the water column. Despite usually being seen alone, right whales come together in groups to socialize and breed – a behavior known as ‘surface active groups’. They make a range of vocalizations to communicate with one another, including low-frequency moans, groans, and pulses.
Boat Interaction: Boats are not permitted to come within 500 yards of North Atlantic right whales, in order to avoid disturbing or injuring them. It’s therefore not possible to get close up views, but these whales can still be fantastic to see from a distance.
Long-Finned Pilot Whale
Sighting Chance: Long-finned pilot whales are uncommon sightings around Boston, although they are seen on boat trips every year. Your chances of seeing this species are less than 5%.
Appearance: Being more closely related to dolphins than whales, pilot whales measure between 5 and 7 metres in length. They are dark grey or black in colour, sometimes with pale patches under the chin. A thick dorsal fin lies about a third of the body length behind the head, which is large and bulbous.
Fascinating Facts: Pilot whales are one of the few mammal species along with humans that undergo menopause. Some pods have been observed containing more than 1,000 individuals. Pilot whales are well-known for stranding on beaches, although it is still not fully understood why they do this.
Behavior: As a very social species, pilot whales are often found in groups of up to 20 individuals. These pods are very tightly knit and are usually maternally based, with calves remaining with their mothers for life. Pilot whales feed on a range of foods, although cephalopods such as squid are their favorite. Feeding often occurs at night, in deep water, with echolocation being the primary means of prey detection.
Boat Interaction: Pilot whales are playful, curious animals and will sometimes come close to boats to investigate them or play in their bow waves. You may even see them spy-hopping or breaching.
Additional Whale Sightings
Aside from the more common species, several other whales can be found on the Boston coast. Blue whales, sei whales, and sperm whales are all possible sightings, although each of them is a rare encounter. If you’re lucky, you may also see beluga whales, common dolphins or bottlenose dolphins, which all venture into Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary on occasion.
Boston Harbour Cruises offer whale watching trips via high-speed catamaran, one of the best ways to get up close and personal with Boston’s ocean giants. Unlike traditional sailing catamarans, these boats are specifically designed for whale watching and are some of the fastest boats in the country, making it easier to get close to whales once they have been located. The catamarans feature warm, pleasant interior cabins, as well as three outside viewing decks, ensuring you are kept comfortable while also getting the best possible views.
Boston Harbor Hotel Tips
To get the best seats on the boat, you have to arrive 1 - 1.5 hours prior to the departure time. The easiest way to make it, is staying at a nearby hotel. These 3 hotels are within 5-7 minutes walking distance (Google Maps Location Boston Harbor Cruises):
- Bricco Suites - Excellent 'budget tip'
- Harborside Inn - 281 m from the Harbor
- Boston Harbor Hotel - Outstanding 5 stars
Otherwise you may also the official hotel list by booking.com: Hotels in Boston (bookmark the link to save time and money later!)
3 Must-Do Activities in Boston | Besides Whale Watching
Whale Watching Calendar
Where and Tips
Massachusetts is popular for for sightings of humpback whales, finback whales, sometimes minke whales and dolphins. That's why most tour operators offer a guarantee. If no whales are being spotted, you usually get a compensation.
Special New England Guide Tip: From Boston, it's easy to visit the southern coastal area of Maine via day trips. For whale watching tips in Maine and our complete coastal guide, check out our brand new article Maine: Best Time - Season Guide - 10 Coastal Town Tips.
The humpback whales return every summer for feeding the calves and teaching them. The whole region is protected by Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Typically, one whale watching tour lasts 3 to 4 hours, depending on different factors. Often you'll spend about one hour close the whales out there. Sea sickness is possible particularly when the sea is rough. Most visitors don't get sick because of their huge vessel.
7 Top Tips for Whale Watching from Boston
- Reservations: Booking in advance is highly recommended, as trips sell out quite often. This happens not only during peak season or on weekends. You have to book a Boston Harbor Cruises tour, which is the only operator for whale watching there.
- Best Seats: While the official recommendation is to arrive 30 minutes prior to departure, we strongly suggest at least 1 - 1.5 hours. That way you can get the best seats on the top deck. Arriving too late means you might end up standing as they sell more tickets than seats available. Staying at a nearby hotel helps (see our accommodation tips above).
- Food & Drinks: Bring your own food and beverages with you, as it’s a lot cheaper. While there is a bar selling snacks, sandwiches, juices, and more, they’re awfully expensive. There is also a very long waiting line quite often.
- Clothing & Gear: Even in the summer, bring a light jacket! It's 10-15°F colder out on the sea. Sunscreen and sunglasses are also important. It’s also a good idea to bring a hat. Never forget your camera of course. Bring cash, in case you want to buy something on the boat.
- Motion Sickness: While the boat is quite large and stable you’ll still feel the motion and in same cases may experience motion sickness. Take Dramamine one hour in advance if you had an issue before. But still, this boat is more stable than many others! Also, staying in the front area of the boat also helps (get there early to get the seats of your choice - see our tips above). Don't be afraid of motion sickness!
- How Long: The average whale watching trip usually takes between 3.5 and 4 hours.
- Best Time: The best time for whale watching is between May and October. Please read our 'best time' tips at the beginning of this article. As sightings are fully guaranteed, you'll receive a free ticket in the unlikely case of no whale sightings.