Whale Watching, Boston © sneakerdog (Flickr)

Visiting New England Aquarium + Hunting for Wild Whales Near Boston, Massachusetts

It might surprise you to learn that some of the best whale watching on the east coast of the United States is right in Boston, Massachusetts. The 842-square mile Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is a vast, federally protected swath of pristine ocean that stretches across the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, from Cape Ann to Cape Cod.

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Since it happened to be my birthday recently and Mrs. Vagabondish had never experienced a proper whale watch, I figured it was time to head to Boston. Flexing my Viator Ambassador clout, I booked us aboard their wordily, but aptly named Boston Super Saver: Whale-Watching Cruise plus Admission to New England Aquarium tour. For less than $64 per person, you can have yourself a full day’s circus of aquatic animals – nearly four hours on the open water and the remainder of the day at the fantastic New England Aquarium.

Hunting for Wild Whales Near Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary

Whale Watch Tour Boat in Boston, Massachusetts
© Mike Richard

From Central Wharf in downtown Boston, we boarded the whale watching ship under dark, cloudy skies that threatened rain all day. Our captain revealed that we were looking at a steady, 4-6 foot chop for the duration of our trip:

“That means those of you, especially at the bow of the ship, will be rising and falling 4-6 feet for the next 3 hours.”

Got it. It was less than ideal weather for whale watching but we were stoked nonetheless. And of course claimed the prime whale watching spot at the absolute front of the ship.

Over the next three hours, Annie, the ship’s naturalist, regaled us with countless facts about the ship, the marine sanctuary, the types of whales we could expect to see (including Fin, Right, Minke, and Humpback), their migration and feeding habits.

Whale Watching Tour of Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary near Boston, Massachusetts
It may have been a bit cold …© Mike Richard

Fortunately, the passenger ship Asteria was a catamaran style, meaning it provides a smooth, comfortable, and predictable ride, especially in choppy waters. It’s also safer for the whales since it boasts less surface area that actually touches the water and they use water jets instead of traditional propellers.

The relatively shallow Stellwagen Bank — merely 100-120 feet deep — sits at the heart of the marine sanctuary. Its sharp sides coax deep water currents and the nutrients therein to rush to the surface, creating an ideal feeding ground for wild whales.

On a good day, we could expect to see up to thirty whales (!). Although Annie assured us that, in technical marine biologist terms, that would be a “super crazy awesome trip!” Unfortunately, like with any nature watching expedition, they simply can’t guarantee you’ll see anything. But, if nature doesn’t cooperate and your expedition is sadly whale-free, the tour operator does provide a free ticket for a future trip.

Whale Watching at Stellwagen Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts
Whale Watching at Stellwagen Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts © sneakerdog

We only spotted two whales during our trip, nicknamed Pelé and Eruption. But our captain made it her personal mission to follow both whales for the duration. At one point, they dove beneath our boat in an area little more than ninety feet deep. The whales are so massive that, with their tails at the water’s surface, their heads are nearly touching the ocean bottom.

For many, whale watching is a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket list adventure. For Mrs. Vagabondish and I, we know we’ll be back.

… and a Visit to New England Aquarium

After what already felt like a full day of marine life excitement, we ducked inside the New England Aquarium. It’s long been one of our favorite day trips to the city. Although neither of us had actually visited in years and there have been some seriously awesome changes since. The most noticeable upgrade is to the Giant Ocean Tank – the massive centerpiece of the entire aquarium.

The four-story Giant Ocean Tank features a brand new coral reef, an underwater communications system, large windows and hundreds of Caribbean reef animals, including sea turtles, stingrays, eels and fish.

At its deepest point, the exhibit goes down 26 feet, it is 40 feet wide and holds 200,000 gallons of salt water. The water is heated to between 72° and 75° F, which is a perfect temperature range for this tropical exhibit. This exhibit is so big that it was built first, and then the rest of the Aquarium was built around it.

This brief timelapse video captures the months-long deconstruction and revamping process of the tank in less than a minute:

The multiple sharks, giant eels, rays, and this beautiful, 90-year old, 550-pound green sea turtle named Myrtle here are all worth a trip to the aquarium.

Spotting Marine Life at New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts
Spotting Marine Life at New England Aquarium in Boston © Mike Richard

What’s so great about New England Aquarium is that it’s not just for kids. There are so many exhibits, animals, live events, and educational shows throughout the day that it’s worth a day trip for adults as well.

Animal Exhibits at New England Aquarium in Boston, Massachusetts
Animal Exhibits at Boston’s New England Aquarium © Mike Richard

All and all, we spent a full two hours at the aquarium and could’ve easily spent two more. My suggestion: allow for at least a half day to ensure that you can experience a good number of the live animal shows on offer, in addition to the standard exhibits throughout the aquarium.

Founding Editor
  1. I love the New England Aquarium, I could watch those neurotic penguins preen their feathers all day long. I always recommend it as a “must do” when in Boston to my friends. Great post

    1. Haha yeah we spent a half-hour just watching the penguins! They have way more personality than you’d expect from a bird =P

      Thanks, Craig!

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