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Whale & Dolphin Watching

In southern New Jersey, you can observe several sea mammal species next to the shore

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Last updated: by Olha Savych
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New Jersey may not be as famous for its whale watching as northern states along the New England coast, but it does offer a decent chance to spot many cetaceans off its coast. Whales start to arrive in New Jersey waters in large numbers in the fall as they migrate from Canada to warmer waters near Florida and the Caribbean. In the spring, you can see them when they head back. Humpback, fin, and minke whales are seen most often. In recent years, many juvenile whales have been spotted along the Jersey Shore over the summer. There's a theory that young whales prefer to stay in New Jersey waters rich with nutrients rather than head north where they have to compete for food resources with older whales. Jersey Shore is also known as a hotspot for dolphins. Bottlenose dolphins are the most common here during the summer. White-sided, striped, and short-beaked dolphins are also abundant.

Best places for whale watching

Dolphin and whale watching tours depart from Atlantic City, Cape May, Avalon, Belmar and Wildwoods. Dolphin voyages are usually closer to the shore, while to spot whales you have to go as far as 40 km (25 mi) into the ocean. Delaware Bay is especially rich with plankton and krill so many whales flock there to feed on it.

Whale Watching Tours

Whale-watching tours in South Jersey have a success rate of 90%. Many operators offer a free pass on another cruise within a year if there are no whale sightings on your cruise. Some of the largest cruise operators are located in Cape May, like Cape May Whale Watcher. It operates large vessels, able to carry over 200 people, with restrooms, a galley, undercover outdoor seating for over 150 passengers as well as an enclosed climate-controlled cabin. Jersey Shore Whale Watch also operates 120-ft boats from Belmar Marina throughout summer and fall. Tours last for about 3.5 hours along the shore line of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Dolphin cruises are popular in Atlantic City with Atlantic City Cruises, while The Starlight Fleet operates in Wildwood. Dolphin sightings are guaranteed, and on-board naturalists help identify marine creatures and birds like northern fulmer and long-tailed jaeger. Most tours last from two to three and a half hours and offer information about marine life in South Jersey. Many boats serve food and beverages on-board. Ticket prices vary between $40-$50 for an adult.

Whale-watching season

The truth is that New Jersey waters are a home for some number of humpback whales year-round since it doesn't get too cold here. So whales can be spotted in New Jersey at any time. However, due to the arrival of migrational whales and dolphins, the chances to spot cetaceans grow significantly larger during the spring and fall months. Generally, whale and dolphin watching season in New Jersey runs from March to December, and the peak time to go on a sea excursion is from June to September. The high season starts with the arrival of beach-goers to the Jersey Shore as well as due to warmer temperatures that make sea excursions more pleasant.

Humpback whales

Humpbacks are spotted most often along the Jersey Shore. These whales are known for their playful behavior. Even though whale-watching cruises are banned from getting to a whale closer than 100 ft (30 m), when the boats shut down their engines and stop, humpbacks often get close and put on a show demonstrating some flips and dives. This behavior is called breaching. Many humpback whales just pass New Jersey waters on their way to summer feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine, however, a large population of juvenile humpbacks has been staying off the New Jersey coast throughout summer and fall as well. Humpback whales that can reach 55 ft (16 m) in length are recognized due to a black and white pattern on their belly. Humpbacks are famous for their "songs" that can last for up to 20 minutes in length.

Fin whales

Fin whales are the second largest whale species and can be recognized by a strange asymmetrical coloring, especially on their head. Their right lower jaw seems white, while the left lower jaw is dark grey. With a length of 85 ft (25 m) they prefer deeper waters. Fin whales can live up to 90 years. They are often spotted along the Jersey Shore in groups of two or more, sometimes together with dolphins.

Minke whales

Minke whales are the smallest whale species seen along the Jersey Shore. Minke has a sleek body reaching 30 ft (9 m) in length and a pointed head. It can be seen not just in the open ocean but also in bays and harbors. Minke moves very fast, which makes it harder to spot. They are not very social but sometimes can be spotted in groups of two. Minke whales live for about 40 years. They have earned a nickname “Stinky Minkes” because of the bad odor of their spouting.

Right whales

North Atlantic right whales are among the world's most endangered sea mammals. Their population is just about 300 individuals. These whales live up to 70 years and reach 52 ft (16 m) in length. They have no dorsal fin, their bodies are black with white patches on the head. Right whales migrate along the Jersey Shore during spring and fall but are spotted rather rarely.

Whale-watching tips

Weather conditions or time of the day has little importance during whale watching since these sea mammals come to the surface to breathe at any time. However, you can better spot whales on a clear day when the sea is calm. In the mornings, there are usually fewer waves. But most whale-watching cruises depart in midday when the weather is warmer. Some of the best pictures can be taken during the magic hour right before and after the sunset.

What to wear

Even though it might be beach weather on the Jersey Shore, keep in mind that it could be 10 degrees colder out in the ocean so make sure to bring a warm sweater or a jacket. It's best to wear long pants and closed-toed shoes on rubber soles.

What to take with you

Water and food are usually served on vessels so there is no need to pack a lot of snacks. However, make sure to take a sunhat, sunscreen and sunglasses. If you have binoculars, they will surely help as well. If you suffer from motion sickness, make sure to take your medicine before the cruise.

Where to stay

The Jersey Shore boasts dozens of excellent beachfront hotels for any budget. If you are looking for entertainment and bustling nightlife, choose Ocean City or Atlantic City. If you prefer a quieter place, Cape May offers many Victorian-era inns that boast unique architecture and atmosphere.

Practical info

When can you see whales in New Jersey?

Most whale watching cruises operate from March through December

Where is the best place to whale watch in New Jersey?

In New Jersey, Cape May is the best place for whale watching

How expensive is whale watching?

Tickets on whale-watching cruises cost $40-50 for an adult

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