Whale Watching on the Atlantic Coast of the United States: A Comprehensive Guide

There are an enormous number of whale watching cruises along the East Coast of the United States, but they aren’t distributed evenly. Some places are basically meccas of whale watching, whereas others are surprisingly void of any whale watching opportunities. Over the course of a couple of months, we tried to dig up every whale watching cruise company on the Atlantic Coast. We wrote articles on a state-wide level, but as the whale watching opportunities increased as we headed north, we started writing about not only states, but individual cities and towns. It’s impossible to say if we included every single company that offers whale watching cruises on the East Coast – almost certainly not, as it is likely that at least some outfits remained hidden from our searches – but what follows is pretty close to a comprehensive guide.

We’ll begin on the southern end of the coast, where there isn’t much whale watching, and then work our way up north, where there is a ton of whale watching. In Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina – the states on the southern end of the East Coast – there don’t appear to be whale watching cruises per se. However, the right whale migration runs right past these states, and right whales give birth off the coast of Georgia and Florida, so it is possible to see whales from all of these states, on shore or in a boat. However, right whales are extremely rare, so it is hard to spot them, and there aren’t enough to support any sort a business for whale watching cruises. As an alternative, you might consider other eco-tours in these states (e.g., the swamp cruises of Florida), as some of them are a bit like whale watching cruises, in that you sail around on a boat looking for animals.

Once you reach Virginia, or more precisely Virginia Beach, there are whale watching cruises, but they are fairly limited, and are only offered during a brief window the year, from about December through March. In Maryland, we weren’t able to find any whale watching cruises, and in Delaware there appears to be only one company in the entire state. When you get as far north as Cape May, New Jersey, though, it becomes easier to find whale watching cruises. Whales like humpbacks stay in the cool waters of the northeast for the summer to feed, so there are relatively stable whale populations off the coasts of the northern states during the summer. However, in New Jersey and slightly further north in New York and Connecticut, there aren’t many options to choose from. We actually couldn’t find any whale watching cruises that depart from Connecticut, and there are only a few between New Jersey and New York.

Now, though, we arrive in Rhode Island, where the serious whale watching begins, and there are several companies that operate out of this small state. Moving slightly further north you find yourself in Massachusetts, which is essentially the center of whale watching on the East Coast. There are numerous whale watching cruises in Boston, Gloucester, Newburyport, Hyannis, Plymouth, Provincetown, and Nantucket Island. We call Massachusetts the center of whale watching on the East Coast, but only because of the sheer number of opportunities. The quality of whale watching is just as good in New Hampshire, where there are cruises that depart from Rye Harbor, Hampton Beach, and Seabrook Beach, and in Maine, where cruises depart from Bar Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, Portland, and Kennebunk. The whale watching from Rhode Island up to Maine is world class.

Clearly, there is a lot of whale watching on the Atlantic Coast, but it is heavily concentrated in the north. There are whales all along the coast, but they are much easier to see in the northern states because there are a lot of them, and they are there for an entire season. However, there are a few scattered whale watching cruises offered below the hub of Massachusetts, and even in the southern states, where there are no whale watching cruises to speak of, it is still possible to take tours that focus on marine wildlife, and you can also see whales from the coast on rare occasions. If you are on the opposite side the country, check out our complementary guide to whale watching on the Pacific Coast.

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