If you really want to have a “whale” of a good time when you visit Maine, be sure to hop aboard one of the dozens of coastal cruising vessels dedicated to tracking down these majestic creatures. Whale watching season runs from as early as mid-April to October as they spend time feeding as close as 20 miles off the Maine coast on their way to warmer climes.
The rich and productive waters of the Gulf of Maine provide an important feeding ground to whales. During the summer there are whale watching trips that head out from Kittery to Eastport and Bar Harbor, and all points in between, in search of the largest animals on earth. Common whale species that can be sighted from these trips include: Humpback, Finback, Minke, Right, Pilot and also white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoise. Most whales arrive back in Maine waters in April and May and then stay through October and November. They are here to feed on small fish, squid or animal plankton like krill and copepods. It is important for them to eat a lot, sometimes 2,000 to 4,000 pounds per day, to build up a thick layer of blubber to sustain them during the winter, when many of them migrate south and go with less or in some cases no food.
“You can look for whales, eagles, seals, porpoises, herring weirs and salmon pens,” says skipper Butch Harris of Eastport Windjammers. Harris and his family have been guiding family-friendly whale watching trips for more than 40 years. A commercial fisherman during the off-season, he also takes guests on sunset cruises, fishing expeditions and bird-watching adventures. “Bring a picnic lunch and extra clothing,” Harris advises, “because it may become cool on the open deck.” Binoculars and cameras also are a must. “The pictures you’ll take will be worth more than a thousand words.”
Humpback whales are certainly a highlight as they have many exciting behaviors including breaching, spy-hopping, lobe-tailing, and flipper flapping. On one of our trips we had a Humpback Whale named Flicker breach 56 times in a row! Many of the whales seen each year are recognize by distinctive color patterns on the underside of each tail and scaring and shape unique to each Fluke (whale’s tail). The ability to tell humpback whales apart was discovered right here in Maine by the whale research group Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic. They maintain a research station at Mount desert rock, a 3.5 acre lighthouse island twenty five miles offshore, and the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalogue. This Catalogue presently holds over 6,000 different humpback tails and 10’s of thousands of pictures.
Harris, who can take up to 88 people per trip out to sea aboard his 118-foot schooner the Ada C. Lore, says even without a whale siting his cruises are popular. “You can still see plenty of wildlife,” he notes. “There’s always something to see.” Not spotting at least one whale—and sometimes up to five—is rare, though. “We have a success rate of 95-98 percent,” says Harris, who enjoys the cruises as much as his passengers.
“I like the reactions in people who’ve never seen a whale before,” he says. “I’ve seen everything from people crying to jumping up and down on the deck.”
So don’t forget to include whale watching on your list of “things to do” while visiting Maine. This is one of the best places in the world to see a great variety of whales and to see them feeding at the surface and chasing fish out of the water.
(Article written in part by Zack Klyver, Naturalist, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.)