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Watching Whales on the Cape & Islands

Jennie Sparrow | 4/16/2018

Some of the best whale watching in the world happens here, just off the East Coast. The months of April through October are the best time to view these majestic creatures. Whales migrate to this area to feed on krill, cod, and other schools of fish that breed in our nutrient-rich waters.

A breaching humpback whale.

During the feeding season, several types of whales migrate to the Massachusetts area. The most common is the humpback whale, ranging in length from 35 to 55 feet and weighing close to 39 tons. The humpback whale requires a large amount of food — 4 to 5 thousand pounds a day!

The tail of a sperm whale.

Other whales common to these waters include the finback and pilot whales. Less common, although they have been spotted, are the sperm, beluga, and blue whales. The North Atlantic right whale is among the rarest of the baleen whale species. With less than 500 in existence, it is on the endangered species list.

The endangered North Atlantic right whale.
Photo Credit: Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GADNR), Permit 15488

Back in the early- to mid-19th century, the Cape and Islands included a number of major whaling ports, and hunting whales was a lucrative industry. Several boats would often leave daily on whale-hunting expeditions that could last from days to years. The whale’s blubber was made into oil that was used as lamp fuel as well as in soaps and paint. It was also used to create textiles and rope. Whale bone has been referred to as the plastic of the 1800’s and was used to make everything from women’s corsets to children’s toys.

By the late 1800’s, the whaling industry in New England was in decline. Many factors contributed to this decline: the drastically reduced number of whales in existence, the discovery of petroleum, and the inefficiency and high cost of the American hand whaling method. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling. Today, the Cape and Islands is home to groups that research and aid in ensuring the well-being of whales, the most notable of which is the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. They research, track, and monitor whales in the area in an effort to better understand their behaviors. They also study their migrating patterns and conduct population analysis. The PCCS is also the only group approved to disentangle whales that have been caught up in fishing gear. With ongoing research and the enactment of new laws for their protection, it is hoped that whales will once again begin to flourish.

Mother and baby pilot whales.

On your next vacation to Cape Cod, Nantucket, or Martha’s Vineyard, be sure to take advantage of this experience of a lifetime—you will surely return home with one whale of a tale!