11 Whale Watching Cruises to Check Out This Summer

Head out on the ocean where marine creatures of all kinds are in the States for the season, too. Here’s where you’ll find them.

July 19, 2019

Photo By: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

Photo By: Newport Whales

Photo By: Lauren Oster

Photo By: Island Adventures

Photo By: Whales Tail Charters

Photo By: Gary Gittis

Photo By: Major Marine Tours

Photo By: San Francisco Whale Tours

Photo By: 7 Seas Whale Watch

Photo By: Juneau Tours

Photo By: Barry Gutradt

Monterey Bay, California

Commercial whaling decimated the world’s population of massive cetaceans in the 19th century, and before modern regulations began to repair that damage, it seemed that many of our oceans’ most vital species might disappear forever. Whales are still in danger — humans continue to compromise their habitats, and Japan resumed whaling this July — but an ever-growing international community is ramping up efforts to protect the gentle giants and remind us just how wonderful they are. Whether you’re looking for a once-in-a-lifetime encounter or aiming to reconnect with old (barnacled) friends, these U.S.-based teams are ready to take you offshore for a meet-and-greet you’ll never forget.

"Monterey Bay is unique due to the large submarine canyon that bisects it, allowing deep water species of whales and dolphins to be found near shore and often in huge numbers," says Nancy Black, a marine biologist and owner of Monterey Bay Whale Watch on California’s central coast. The bay is a year-round destination for marine life and its human enthusiasts, and Black notes that the peak season for blue whales and humpbacks can run from April through November, since the giants follow the fish and krill they favor. Her marine-biologist-led trips to spot them run between three and four hours in the mornings and afternoons, and eight- to 12-hour trips are available on selected dates. BOOK NOW: Monterey Bay Whale Watch

Newport Beach, California

"What’s perfect about Newport Beach whale watching," says Newport Whales marine educator Wesley Turner, "is the fact that we get unique and rare sightings of pelagic creatures [that is, those that make their homes in open water] due to the continental shelf dropping off so close[.]" As in Monterey, cruises in the O.C. run year-round, but the variety of wildlife peaks in the summer, when blue whales, humpbacks, minke whales and finback whales come to visit, along with dolphins and the occasional orca. "Summer months are also a time where we see a wide assortment of other marine species like common ocean sunfish, flying fish, sharks, sea turtles and sea lions," she says. Newport Whales also offers tours on the Shearwater (above), its nimble, custom-built whale watching raft that can reach speeds of up to 30 miles an hour — which, they report, ensures a high success rate and maximum viewing time with the wildlife. BOOK NOW: Newport Whales

Long Island, New York

Whale sightings have skyrocketed around the Big Apple in the last decade: there were just five in 2010 and a whopping 272 last year, according to Gotham Whale (a local marine education group). While you might get lucky and spot a humpback breaching in front of the Empire State Building, the best way to welcome New York’s biggest visitors is to set out with the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI), a nonprofit that promotes research, education and conservation. Their Montauk-based, marine-biologist-narrated whale watching cruises in July and August — on which they’ve already seen humpbacks, minke whales and more than 70 dolphins this summer — give passengers the benefit of more than 30 years of experience. (These folks know individual whales by name.) CRESLI also offers a once-a-summer, multi-day trip to the Great South Channel, a deep-water passage between Nantucket and Georges Bank off the coast of Massachusetts where whales gather to feast (as above, where a group of humpbacks is cooperating to create bubble "nets"). BOOK NOW: CRESLI

San Juan Islands and Puget Sound, Washington

Erin Gless, lead naturalist for Island Adventures Whale Watching, notes that her group is a proud member of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, an ecotourism group that’s spearheaded guidelines for responsible wildlife viewing and whale watching since the ‘90s. They run summer tours from both Anacortes [peak season: March – October] and Port Angeles [peak season: May – October]; "[t]he populations of both humpback whales as well as mammal-eating, or Bigg's, killer whales are on the rise in this region and so we are seeing more and more of both of these types of whales from either location," Gless says. She adds that the cool waters of the Pacific Northwest are the perfect habitat for orcas, humpbacks, minke whales and gray whales all year long. (Her team’s sighting records back that up: They saw whales on 98.4% of their tours last year.) BOOK NOW: Island Adventures Whale Watching

Depoe Bay, Oregon

Six-acre Depoe Bay is hailed as "the world’s smallest natural harbor," which means that it takes whale-watching boats departing from that harbor mere minutes to reach the open ocean. (Kit Stephenson of Whale’s Tail Charters in Depoe Bay reports that breaching humpbacks’ splashes are sometimes visible from land.) Even better: The local waters play host to 15-20 of the Central Coast’s "resident" gray whales, a group that returns year after year and remains in the area for the summer, where they can be spotted close to shore. Per Stephenson, the best months to get out to Depoe Bay are March through October, when weather and local ocean conditions are optimal for boating — and when visitors can also occasionally see blue whales and orcas. BOOK NOW: Whale’s Tail Charters

Cape Cod, Massachusetts

Cape Cod has long been associated with the American whaling industry (which is, thankfully, a thing of the past). Locals are justifiably proud of its newer association with the whale watching industry — and its modern reputation as one of the best places in the world to take a nature-minded ride. "A recent string of beautiful Cape Cod weather has brought our water temperatures up and hungry whales are on the move searching for their next meal," reports lead naturalist Jon Brink of Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises (where whales have been spotted on every trip so far this season). Humpback, finback and minke whales are all making regular appearances — and recent trip highlights have included humpback mothers and their 2019 calves, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and a basking shark. BOOK NOW: Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises

Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Much of Kenai Fjords National Park is inaccessible by land, which makes it the perfect destination for a summer cruise from nearby Seward, on Resurrection Bay (a scenic 125-mile drive from Anchorage). Its biodiversity, in turn, make it the ideal spot to appreciate both spectacular land formations and marine life. "Whale watching in Kenai Fjords National Park is like no place else," says Kirsten McNeil of Major Marine Tours. "Passengers could be watching orcas on one side of the boat, humpbacks on the other side, and a massive tidewater glacier in the backdrop." Summer cruises between the months of May and August also offer glimpses of minke and fin whales. BOOK NOW: Major Marine Tours

San Francisco, California

San Francisco Bay is, of course, a marvelous place to spend the day on the water with or without cetaceans. That said, San Francisco Whale Tours has been adding two-and-a-half-hour excursions from Pier 39 to their Golden Gate Whale Watch calendar (which runs from March to October) to make the most of recent sightings. The group also runs longer, chartered weekend trips to the Farallon Islands, a lush (and protected) marine ecosystem 27 miles west of the city that attracts blue and humpback whales (between June and November), as well as seals, dolphins and porpoises — and if you fail to see a whale, the next trip’s on them. BOOK NOW: San Francisco Whale Tours

Gloucester, Massachusetts

In partnership with Ocean Alliance, a locally-based nonprofit research and education group, 7 Seas Whale Watch whale watching cruises (which run between April and October) head to Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, an underwater plateau at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. The 7 Seas team has been introducing passengers to summer visitors like humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales — and massive ocean sunfish, blue, mako and even basking sharks — since 1983. Ocean Alliance, in turn, has recently created SnotBot, a one-of-a-kind research project that uses drones to hover over whales and collect their exhaled “blows” without disturbing them. Long story short: 7 Seas is the top-rated tour operator in Gloucester, and the naturalists on its boat are the world’s foremost snot connoisseurs. How’s that for a bucket-list trip? BOOK NOW: 7 Seas Whale Watch

Juneau, Alaska

The team at Juneau Tours and Whale Watch is committed to both the marine and human members of its community: the family-operated team donates tours to local schools and nonprofits, and they collaborate with other Alaska-owned companies. Departing from southeastern Alaska’s Auke Bay Harbor, their cruises focus on the 600 humpbacks that migrate to the area in the summer months — but orcas, bald eagles, seals, sea lions and black bear (on shore, of course) have been known to make appearances as well. The very best time to see the humpbacks, they report, is between the months of May and September. BOOK NOW: Juneau Tours and Whale Watch

Bar Harbor, Maine

If you’re all about the Gulf of Maine’s humpback, finback and minke whales, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. (the only tour operator in the bucolic village of Bar Harbor, and a team that’s welcomed more than a million visitors) will take you straight to them: on its three-and-a-half-hour, down-to-business whale watch tour (which operates between late June and late October), the catamaran makes a beeline for local cetaceans. If you’d like to leaven your sightseeing with more leisurely views of some of Maine’s showstopping lighthouses, North Atlantic Puffins, eagles, offshore birds and more, there’s a narrated tour for that, too (between late May and mid-August). BOOK NOW: Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.

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