Best time to travel to New Hampshire

Whale Watching

A great sea adventure along New England's shore

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Last updated: by Olha Savych
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Every spring, dozens of whales flock to their feeding grounds in New England waters. Some of the most treasured marine sanctuaries in the North Atlantic, Jeffrey Ledge and Stellwagen Bank, are located in proximity to the New Hampshire coast. Therefore, the Granite State offers good chances to spot gorgeous sea mammals during the warmer time of the year. Humpbacks, fin, and minke whales, as well as Atlantic white-sided dolphins, are usually spotted during whale-watching excursions. Less common are harbor porpoise, sei whales, pilot whales, endangered blue and right whales.

Best places for whale watching

Whale-watching boats go as far into the ocean as 12-30 mi (20-40 km) from Rye and Hampton Harbors. They head either to Jeffreys Ledge area or south, to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Massachusetts, the top locations to spot giant sea mammals. These sea plateaus boast a great abundance of plankton and krill that become the favorite feeding and nursing areas for several whale species, including the rare North Atlantic right whales.

Whale-watching tours

New Hampshire whale watch tours have a whale sightings success rate of 80-99%. The city of Rye has a few whale-watching tour operators. The largest of them is Granite State Whale Watch that offers tours, guided by a naturalist affiliated with the Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, from late May through early October. During a high season from mid-June to September boats depart twice a day. Tours head to either Jeffreys Ledge or the northern part of the Stellwagen Bank. If you do not see any whales or dolphins, you get a free pass good for one year to do the tour one more time. In Hampton, Al Gauron whale-watching cruises operate daily from June into September. New Hampshire whale-watching tours last for about 4 hours. Tickets are about $40 for an adult. Boats have restrooms, galleys, and other amenities. Private charters are available as well.

Whale-watching season

Whales start to arrive to New England waters as early as March and leave as late as November, however, whale-watching tours are usually running only from late May through the end of September. It's not easy to predict whales' behavior so there is no particular month with a higher chance to spot them. July and August are the most popular months for whale watching due to nicer weather.

Humpback whales

North Atlantic humpback whales are the most abundant along the New England coast. They are also great to watch due to their playfulness and amicable behavior. They are not shy to swim along with a boat or appear out of nowhere before the crowd with a sudden air flip. Each humpback's fluke has a unique pattern so it's quite easy for scientists to identify and trace them. These whales communicate through melodious calls or "songs." Whale calves also "whisper" to their mothers. From spring through summer, there are dozens of humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine. These species live up to 80 years.

Fin whales

Fin or finback whales are larger than humpbacks. They are actually the second largest of all whale species, with a length of 85 ft (25 m). Fins have dark grey bodies, light grey heads, white bellies, and curved dorsal fins. They can be usually spotted at the Jeffreys Ledge area during cooler early fall months. With their extra large mouths, they consume water containing krill and small fish and then get rid of excess water, swallowing the prey.

Minke whales

Minke are considered small in a whale world. They reach just 30 ft (9 m) in length. During spring and summer, minke are abundant in the Gulf of Maine where they feed on herring, mackerel, and krill. They are filter eaters, like their larger relatives. However, they are not as easy to spot since they usually avoid people. They can also stay submerged for over 15 minutes before returning to the surface to breathe. Minke whales were named after a Norwegian whale spotter Meincke, who actually mistakenly identified minke as a blue whale.

Pilot whales

Pilot whales are known as very social cetaceans that are often seen in large pods. These pods that sometimes consist of hundreds of whales have a matriarchal hierarchy. Pilot whales reach 22 ft (6.7 m) in length and can be easily identified by a light spot on their bellies that reminds of an anchor or a heart. They can dive as deep as 1,967 ft (600 m). Pilots are also attracted by fish schools at Jeffreys Ledge, but their favorite food is squid. Pilot whales reproduce very slowly since they can only have a calf once every three to five years.

Whale watching tips

Weather is not a big factor when it concerns whale watching. Rain or shine, whales need to come to the surface to breathe. However, whale watching tours do get canceled in case of foggy conditions or rough seas. And, it's also true that whales are much easier to spot when the weather is clear and the seas are calm.

What to bring

Binoculars or a camera with a telephoto lens can come in handy during whale watching. If the weather is sunny, don't forget to bring a sunscreen, a sun hat and sunglasses. Water and snacks are optional since boats usually offer some food and beverages. If you suffer from sea sickness, bring some medicine or better take it before the start.

What to wear

Keep in mind that it may be 10-15 degrees colder out in the ocean than on land. Make sure to put on some warm layers, a jacket, or a sweater to feel comfortable during your trip. Long pants are preferred. Shoes have to have rubber soles and closed toes.

Where to stay

Rye and Hampton boast many beach-front hotels that are also quite affordable. Small traditional inns are definitely part of New England's charm. If you prefer a larger hotel chain, there are many options in Portsmouth.

Practical info

When can you see whales in New England?

Whales arrive in March and leave in November, however, whale watching tours run from late May through October

How long is whale watching in New Hampshire?

About four hours

Where is the best place to whale watch?

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the New England coast

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