The New England Coast, particularly Maine, has a well-deserved reputation for its abundance of marine life. Maine's waters serve as a summer playground for whales that come to feed on plankton and small fish. During whale-watching trips, you can see humpback, fin, and minke whales most frequently. Also, there have been sightings of pilot, orca, and sperm whales.
Best places for whale watching
Giant ocean creatures can be found 20 mi (30 km) off the coast of Southern Maine, which is famous for its top-rated whale-watching cruises and tours. Bar Harbor is a premier whale-watching location in the state. The Gulf of Maine boasts a range of whale species, and also seals, porpoises, and puffins. Near Portland, you can spot whales in Casco Bay, approximately 20 mi (30 km) off the coast. These are mostly humpbacks and minkes. Kennebunkport runs many whale-watching cruises with plenty of humpbacks, minkes, and other species. Whale-watching is also possible in Millbridge, Lubec, Ogunquit, and York.
In the Gulf of Maine, the success rate of seeing whales during a sea cruise is 90-95%. The tours accompanied by a professional guide usually last for 3-5 hours, and the ticket prices vary around $50-60 for an adult. Bar Harbor offers cruises on high-speed catamarans that provide a very comfortable ride and various amenities: restrooms, a galley, indoor and outdoor seating. The vessels pass Frenchman Bay, Acadia, islands, lighthouses, the Downeast coast. Whale-watching tours in Casco Bay near Portland use two-decked fiberglass boats. Kennebunkport whale-watching tours run for a 3.5-4-hours on 87-ft (26 m) 16-passenger boats with two decks. In addition to whales, you will see porpoise, seals, and seabirds. Some tour operators offer a combination of whales with puffins, dolphins, and various marine life. Many whale-watching tour operators in Maine provide an opportunity to turn your reservation into a voucher that is valid for 3 years in case whales are not seen on your cruise. In Maine, there are no locations where you can expect to see a whale from a kayak. Some kayakers encounter whales, but it usually happens by chance, since whales can usually be seen no closer than 20 mi (30 km) from the shore.
Whale-watching tours start in Maine in mid-April and last through October. Summer months June, July and August, are the best time to spot whales in Maine waters.
Humpback whales (spring, summer)
North Atlantic population of humpback whales is constantly recovering, so in 2016 humpbacks of the Gulf of Maine were removed from the Endangered Species List. These whales are known for their amicable and playful behavior. They often swim along a boat, demonstrating amazing flips and dives. These whales communicate through melodious calls that can be called "songs." Humpbacks belong to the larger whale species and can reach 55 ft (16 m) in length. They are recognized due to a black and white pattern on their belly. Humpback whales are spotted from spring through summer in the Gulf of Maine, and along Georges Bank plateau.
Minke whales (spring, summer)
Minke whales are often seen during whale-watching excursions in Maine as they are very common in Jeffrey’s Ledge fishing area where they feed on herring, mackerel, and krill. Minke belongs to smaller whale species, reaching 30 ft (9 m) in length. They usually avoid people and can demonstrate really good speed avoiding contact with a boat.
Fin whales (fall)
The second largest of all whale species, fin whales have dark grey, bodies, light grey head, white belly, and curved dorsal fin. With a length of 85 ft (25 m) fin whales like deeper waters. But they can be spotted in a shallow Jeffrey’s Ledge area. The best time to look for these gentle giants is fall, as they prefer cooler water temperatures. Fin whales can live up to 90 years. With their large mouths, they consume huge amounts of water containing krill and small fish and then eject the water, swallowing the prey.
North Atlantic right whales (spring, summer, fall)
Right whales are quite rare as they are one of the world's most endangered sea mammals. North Atlantic right whale population has just 300 individuals. They live up to 70 years and reach 52 ft (16 m) in length. They can be recognized by the absence of dorsal fin, black body, and white patches on the head. These whales were spotted in Cape Cod Bay & Great South Channel in the spring and in the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin later in the season. In the winter they migrate to the coast of Georgia and Florida.
Pilot whales (spring, summer)
Pilot whales that belong to the dolphin family reach 22 ft (6.7 m) in length and can be easily identified by a round head and a light spot on their bellies that reminds of an anchor or a heart. They have strong social bonds and often travel in pods, diving as deep as 1,967 ft (600 m). They are also attracted by fish schools at Jeffrey's Ledge over the summer.
The Gulf of Maine is notoriously foggy. Even though boats have capacity to navigate in foggy conditions, spotting whales in one of the foggiest locations on the planet can be tricky. It's best to book your trip when the weather forecast is sunny and clear.
What to wear
Even though summer temperatures in Maine are quite mellow, being on the water for several hours can be rather chilly. Make sure to pack a waterproof and windproof jacket, waterproof shoes with closed toes and some extra layers for warmth. You can take water and some snacks with you on the trip, however, this is not necessary since most boats are equipped with a snack and beverage bar. Binoculars will undoubtedly increase your chances to see whales as well as a camera with a powerful zoom lense.
Where to stay
New England is famous for its cozy small inns with their unique atmosphere and architecture. Your stay can be even better if a room has a harbor view. If you decide to spend some time in Bar Harbor, you can stay right next to the coastal Acadia National Park. Another great idea is to stay in a lighthouse. You can stay at The Little River Lighthouse sits overlooking the Bay of Fundy or Goose Rocks Lighthouse in North Haven.
What time of year is best for whale watching in Maine?
Mid-April through October is the best time for whale-watching in Maine
How much does it cost to go whale watching in Maine?
Prices vary around $50-$60 depending on dates and locations
Can you see whales from Acadia National Park?
It's best to take a whale-watching tour from Bar Harbor or another location on Mount Desert Island. Watching whales from shore can happen, but the chance is rather small