Comprehensive Guide to Whale Watching in Downeast Maine

The beautifully rugged coastline and islands of Downeast Maine are always worth a visit, but if you come here between May and October, you can engage in a spectacular and popular local pursuit: whale watching.

From barnacled humpbacks to pilots, minkes, and the epic finback whale, which can reach up to 90 feet in length and weigh up to 130 tons, there are plenty of astonishing cetaceans to spot along the Downeast Maine coast throughout the summer season.

Here we’ll provide a thorough guide to whale watching in Maine, including where to go, what to watch for, how to take great whale photographs and videos, and which tour operators to trust.

Why Choose Downeast Maine for Whale Watching?

There are several reasons to choose New England’s charming and pristine coastline. Firstly, it presents plenty of whale-watching opportunities. The Gulf of Maine is home to hundreds of whale sightings each year.

The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown spend two months at sea each year and regularly spot at least 500 individual humpback whales along the Massachusetts and Maine coasts. And that’s only one type of whale traveling to the region to feed every year.

Secondly, with its quaint lighthouses, sheltered bays, wild oceans, and historic villages, there are plenty of scenic places to stay and tour when you’re not on the water. Stephen King’s home state has plenty to offer from the endpoint of the Appalachian Trail at Mount Katahdin to Portland’s homespun charms and the rural beauty of the Acadia National Park.

In terms of activities, with kayaking, sailing, bike trails, historic buildings, and museums, and wonderful local seafood to try, there’s plenty to do in this delightful part of New England.

The whale watching activities in Downeast Maine are sustainably regulated, so you’ll know you’re not disturbing these intelligent and social animals. Research on whales began in the region in the 1970s and many NGOs now support whale research and conservation in the Gulf of Maine.

The US Government’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has created a set of guidelines for humane and sustainable whale watching, including the distance and angles from which observation vessels can approach a pod of whales or single animal. You should ensure your whale watching operator is a voluntary signatory to these guidelines.

Best Time of Year for Whale Watching in Downeast Maine

Whales tend to visit the region during the warmer months from May through to October, then head south as the cold New England winter sets in. This means that the best whale watching season coincides with the influx of summer tourists, and the region has a buzz of expectation and excitement about it.

Research on humpbacks by Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) has revealed that around 70% of calves return as adults to the Maine waters where they were raised, making this a vital habitat for whales of all ages.

Depending on when you visit, you may have a greater chance of spotting particular species. Here’s a summary of when each marine mammal most commonly visits the area:

  • Humpback Whales: breach throughout spring and summer
  • Finback Whales: most often sighted in fall
  • Minke Whales: spring and summer, closer to shore
  • Pilot Whales: spring and summer, often in pods
  • North Atlantic Right Whales: endangered, but sometimes sighted in spring and fall
  • Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins: 10-20 miles offshore, year-round

If we had to recommend one month, May provides the best overlap between the annual visits of multiple species.

Weather conditions are vital to successful whale watching too. Whales begin to visit in April but in New England the month is also known as “mud season” so if you want to avoid the rain, it may be worth waiting a few weeks.

In May the average temperatures range from around 38 to 65°F, so it’s warm although rarely balmy. The seas are calmer in spring and summer, and you’ll have a better chance of clear and rain-free days with good visibility and calm waters.

Prime Locations for Whale Watching in Downeast Maine

As you might expect, the best whale watching operations are stationed at the seaboard’s main harbors. Each has something to offer, and below we’ll present a summary of the advantages of each spot.

 
First, however, it’s important to know which parts of the coast are most often visited by each type of whale. You can then choose a tour that visits your preferred region. Northeastern Ocean Data have an interactive map of commercial whale watching areas in the Gulf of Maine which highlights the following areas:

  • The Schoodic Ridge (Jeffrey’s Bank, Skate Bank, Jones Ground and Clay Bank, among others). This is a large area commonly reached from Bar Harbor on Mount Desert Island, Lubec or Millbridge and lies around 20-50 miles offshore.
  • Murray Hole and Muscongus Bay is a compact zone close to shore (10-30 miles) that can be reached from West Boothbay Harbor.
  • Portland, Maine offers a range of tours, heading out to the West Cod Ledge and Bigelow Bight. This large and popular area is 10-20 miles offshore.
  • The central portion of Jeffreys Basin (around 20-30 miles from the shore) can also be reached from Kennebunkport.

The key harbors to visit when you’re considering which commercial tour to join include Portland, Bar Harbor, Kennebunkport, Millbridge, West Boothbay and Lubec. All those locations should be able to offer half-day or full-day tours. 

Bar Harbor and Portland have the best range of accommodation, including historic inns, boutique hotels, and bed and breakfast options. For short term leases in the Maine area, visit Rentals Maine for a selection of stunning vacation properties of all sizes.

Here are the expected drivetimes from Boston, the nearest major city in New England:

  • Kennebunkport: 90 miles (1.5 hours)
  • Portland: 115 miles (under 2 hours)
  • West Boothbay: 170 miles (3 hours)
  • Bar Harbor: 285 miles (4.5 hours)
  • Millbridge: 295 miles (4-5 hours)
  • Lubec: 350 miles (5-6 hours)

The fastest route around the Downeast Coast is Interstate 95, followed by national route 1 for locations north of Portland.

For those who love camping in nature, we’d recommend visiting Under Canvas Acadia, a glamping site open between May and October and situated in the Acadia National Park a few miles between Surry and Ellsworth off the 172 Highway.

Check out our breakdown of the best tour operators at the end of this article.

Whale Species Commonly Spotted in Downeast Maine

It’s important to know what to look for when you’re whale watching, including behavioral clues, fin and tail shapes, and marine mammal body shape and size. Here’s a brief guide to the five most sighted whales:

Humpback Whales: Humpback whales weigh about 25-30 tons and can reach up to 52 feet in length. They have distinctive long pectoral fins and knobby heads. Known for their spectacular breaching and complex songs, they are often seen in the Gulf of Maine from April to December. They are listed as least concern for conservation.

Finback Whales: The second largest species, finback whales weigh up to 70 tons and measure as long as 89 feet. They have a distinct asymmetrical coloration on their face. Fast swimmers, they are often spotted from May to November in the Gulf of Maine. Their conservation status is endangered.

Minke Whales: Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales in the region, weighing 5-10 tons and reaching 30 feet in length. They have a pointed snout and a straight mouthline. Common from May to October, their behaviors include “porpoising” when swimming quickly. They are listed as least concern.

Pilot Whales: Pilot whales, weighing up to 3 tons and stretching up to 24 feet, are recognized by their bulbous heads and deep, black bodies. Known for their strong social bonds, they form large pods. They can be seen in the Gulf of Maine year-round and are considered data deficient in terms of conservation status.

North Atlantic Right Whales: Weighing up to 70 tons and reaching 52 feet in length, these whales are identified by their calluses on their heads. Extremely rare, they feed by skimming the water surface. They are visible mostly from April to November in the Gulf of Maine. Critically endangered, they face significant threats from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements.

Other Animals to Look Out for in Downeast Maine

The following species are also indigenous to the region’s waters and coastline:

Mammals:

Moose: These large mammals are often found in the wooded areas, particularly in the northern parts of Downeast Maine.

Black Bears: Common in the forests, they are often seen during the warmer months as they forage for food.

White-tailed Deer: Frequently spotted throughout the region, especially in forested and suburban areas.

Marine Life:

Dolphins: Several species, including the Atlantic white-sided and the common dolphin, can be spotted in the waters, especially during the warmer months. They are often seen in groups, jumping, and playing in the water.

Harbor Seals: Common along the rocky coast and near islands, these seals are often seen sunning themselves or swimming near the shore.

Atlantic Puffins: Found primarily on coastal islands, these colorful birds are best viewed in the summer months when they come ashore to breed.

Birds:

Bald Eagles: A symbol of American wildlife, bald eagles are commonly seen near lakes and rivers, where they fish.

Ospreys: These large birds of prey are also frequently observed near bodies of water, diving to catch fish.

Great Blue Herons: Tall and stately, these herons are often seen in wetlands and along coastlines searching for food.

Other Notable Wildlife:

Snowshoe Hares: Adapting to the snowy environment, these hares change color from brown to white in winter.

Raccoons and Red Foxes: Both adaptable animals are common throughout the region, often seen near human settlements.

This variety of wildlife, along with the scenic beauty of the region, makes Downeast Maine a fantastic destination for nature lovers and outdoor enthusiasts.

Responsible Whale Watching: Eight Tips

Here are some factors to bear in mind when engaging in environmentally responsible whale watching:

  • Select a tour that is a signatory to the NOAA guidelines as described above.
  • Don’t be tempted to charter a private boat with an inexpert crew.
  • Maintain a responsible distance (at least 100 yards) from a pod or single animal.
  • Operators should approach a pod side on, with minimal speed and engine noise.
  • Refrain from swimming with or attempting to feed or touch the animals.
  • Dispose of waste responsibly and leave nothing in the water but ripples.
  • Guidelines suggest each contact should last no longer than 15 to 30 minutes, to avoid spooking the whales.
  • Consider reading up on conservation issues prior to your visit, so you’ll know what to expect and what to avoid. 

Whale Watching Photography Tips

Whether you’re a keen wildlife photographer or an amateur smartphone snapper, getting a photo of a whale breaching the surface, or a pod of dolphins playing in the waves could be the highlight of your trip.

However, capturing the moment is far from easy. Here are some tips from the pros to help you capture that special moment:

  • Get a long lens. Use a zoom or telephoto lens to capture close-ups even when the boat is many hundreds of yards away. The wide lenses on your smartphone may not cut it. Fortunately, companies have made compact add-on zoom lenses for phones.
  • Use a polarizing filter to help cut down the glare of a noonday sun. At a push, a pair of sunglasses can be held in front of the lens.
  • If you have an expensive camera, and the weather is bad, consider a wet weather housing and a lens hood to prevent Maine’s drizzle from damaging it.
  • If the operator permits, consider bringing a stabilizing monopod, to help steady your camera. Holding it for long periods of time without one may prove challenging.
  • Capturing the moment a whale’s tail breaches the water can be challenging. Listen to your tour operator’s advice on where a breach is likely, and film a comparatively wide range of water. Use 4K or HD video so that you can take a freezeframe or crop a wide image on your laptop.
  • If you want to film like a real nature videographer, get a camera with a “pre-release capture” feature. This setting has the camera film constantly. It then saves a section just before and after you press the shutter release. This means you can react as soon as you see the whale breach, and record the moments before you even pressed the button! The Nikon Z-8 has this feature.
  • If you’re recording sound, get a microphone with a windjammer, to cut down unwanted wind noise. It can be very distracting!

Understanding the Marine Ecosystem

It’s good to understand something of the marine ecosystem before your whale watching trip. This gives you a greater appreciation of the whale’s position in the food chain and marine habitat.

As one article published by the University of Vermont puts it, the whale can be considered an “ecosystem engineer.” Humpbacks, for instance, “recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity in areas where they feed.” Furthermore, there are a whole range of specialized creatures that rely on whale carcasses for their main source of nutrition. Whales feed largely on phytoplankton, encouraging the regrowth of these microscopic plants which are excellent miniature machines for carbon capture.

Whales are incredibly intelligent mammals, with complex family dynamics, profound memories, long lives, and intricate systems of communication that scientists are only now beginning to understand.

One moving and detailed description of the complex social culture of a whale pod can be found in this blog post, from the warmer climes of the Dominican coast.

How to Prepare for your Whalewatching Trip

There are several things you should do and bring while planning your whale watching trip. Here’s our brief guide to how to get the most out of your excursion.

  1. Research your chosen areas and tour providers. You’ll want to choose a reputable and responsible operator with a good record of success in spotting whales within the Downeast Maine region. See our detailed guide for how to choose one below.
  2. Check the weather and pack accordingly. The Maine climate and weather can be unpredictable, so you’ll probably have to pack for every eventuality. Hats, sunglasses, and sunscreen are a must in summer, and thermal rainwear is wise all year round. Waterproof trousers are recommended. Rubber-soled comfortable shoes are advisable to prevent slipping on a wet deck.
  3. Do remember to charge your phone or camera and pack any SD cards you may need to store photos and video files. You’ll almost certainly take more photos than you planned to, especially if your whale watching expedition is successful. Bring a waterproof or Zip-lock bag to keep easily damaged items in.
  4. Remember your phone accessories as described above and consider bringing a whale-spotting guidebook or pamphlet to help you distinguish between the different fins, tails, and types of behavior. A pair of compact binoculars is a must.
  5. Whale-spotting expeditions can be long and hunger-inducing trips, so do pack a lunch and plenty of water. Bring refuse bags to take your trash home again.
  6. If you are prone to seasickness and it’s a choppy day, either consider postponing, or bring an anti-sickness remedy like hyoscine or antihistamines. For mild nausea, sucking a lozenge can help reduce motion sickness.
  7. Do eat something before you embark on your trip, but avoid spicy or greasy food since these are more likely to trigger seasickness sufferers.

How to Choose a Whale Watching tour in Maine

Before selecting an operator to commit to, here are some key questions to ask:

  1. What sort of whales might be seen in the region the operator covers, and at the time of your visit?
  2. How long are the trips they offer? Whale watching trips in Maine range from around 2 to 5 hours, depending on how far offshore you’ll be travelling.
  3. Has the operator signed up to the NOAA responsible whale-watching guidelines?
  4. How far will it take to drive from your accommodation to and from the harbor where the ship docks?
  5. Does the trip include food and drink, is there rain cover, and is there an accessible toilet facility onboard?
  6. What level of expertise does the operator have? Some trips are led by marine biologists or cetacean experts. These may be a little more in-depth (and pricey).
  7. Here’s the most important question to ask: to what extent does your operator offer a guaranteed sighting? Some even offer a money-back offer if you are disappointed.
  8. Not all tours will be accessible to wheelchair users, or those with mobility issues, so do check in advance.

Top 6 Whale Watching Trips in Maine

Below we present our pick of the most popular and successful whale watching tours in Downeast Maine:

Bay Harbor Whale Watch Company, Bay Harbor

  • Duration: 3 to 5.5 hours
  • Price: Adults from $75; kids from $27
  • Operating: May to October once or twice daily

This tour heads through Frenchman Bay into the Gulf of Maine, and the guides are said to be approachable and knowledgeable. They also offer lighthouse and puffin tours.

Cap’n Fish’s Cruises – Whale Watch & Puffin Combo, Boothbay Harbor

  • Duration: 4 hours
  • Price: Adults from $96; kids from $20
  • Operating: Late May to mid-August, three to six times weekly

If you’re as enthusiastic about the colorful local birdlife as the marine mammals, consider this twofer. The Harbor princess heads to Eastern Egg Rock for the puffins, then sails out into the deeper ocean to whale watch.

First Chance Whale Watch, Kennebunkport

  • Duration: 4.5 hours
  • Price: Adults from $59; kids from $39
  • Operating: Late May to mid-October, once daily

Aboard the boat Nick’s Chance, you’ll head through the dense southern feeding grounds of many whales (perhaps even the immense Blues). They offer a free pass for a second visit if your first attempt proves uneventful.

Downeast Charter Boat Tours, Lubec

  • Duration: 2.5 hours
  • Price: Adults from $75; kids from $55
  • Operating: June to October, daily

Captain Ralph takes you out into the Bay of Fundy and past East Quaddy Head Lighthouse sharing seafaring stories and cetacean lore. He also runs a tour of the weird local phenomenon, the Old Sow Whirlpool.

Eastport Windjammers, Eastport

  • Duration: 2-2.5 hours
  • Price: Adults from $60; kids from $25
  • Operating: June to October, daily

Following a similar route to the Downeast operator, this boat doubles as a fishing skiff, and you’ll get to see the experienced crew haul lobsters, starfish, crabs, and sea urchins aboard, as well as learning about the local whales.

Acadian Boat Tours, Bar Harbor

  • Duration: 1.5-2 hours
  • Price: Adults from $42; kids from $15
  • Operating: May to Early November, twice daily

Their sightseeing and nature cruise tours Frenchman Bay and offers great views of the Acadian National Park, as well as a chance to spot marine mammals and birds. It’s a shorter trip closer to shore than some of the more epic Maine excursions.

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