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Whale Watching and Birding
What Can You Expect

Thanks to the whale watching industry in New England, there are boats going to Stellwagen Bank and Jeffreys Ledge for purposes of nature watching every day from early April until late October. This makes this area one of the most accessible pelagic birding areas in the world. Some bird clubs sponsor trips on the whale watching boats or you can take your own trip. Please read this page so you know what to expect and how to share the experience with the other tourists.
Humpback Whale Feeding Whales Attract Birds
Baleen whales feed by filling their mouths with water and fish and closing their jaws straining the water through their baleen plates. Some small fish escape the strainer and the birds are ready.
Enhancing The Birding Presence
In recent years, birders have discovered the whale watching boats and the numbers of birders on trips has increased. You can contribute to the awareness of the naturalists and boat owners of the birding presence by wearing your binoculars as you board and by mentioning to the naturalist that you are interested in birds.

The naturalist always has the best view and most will make an effort to announce birds as they spot them. This is a great help to the birders aboard even if the naturalist misidentifies the bird. You know where it is and you have a better chance of seeing it. Be sure to thank the naturalist for the trip and especially for any birds they point out.

Getting Stuck On A Whale
The purpose of these trips is whale watching and you take your chances on seeing birds at the same time. Fortunately the whales and the birds are after the same food. It does happen that the boat comes upon a whale or group of whales lolling on the surface with no birds in sight. You cannot expect and certainly not demand that the boat move on.

You are "stuck" on a whale and it can be very frustrating. Try to enjoy the whales and take another trip. Even a trip on the same day on the same boat can produce totally different results.

The Naturalist Needs To Look Good.
The naturalists aboard the boat are usually very knowledgeable about marine mammals and some are very good birders. Loudly correcting a bird identification doesn't make them look good to the tourists.

Your fellow passengers are interested in big animals. Some will extend their interest to birds especially if you help them by pointing out something interesting like a jaeger trying to steal from a tern. Without binoculars they don't care about the difference between a Manx Shearwater and a Herring Gull.

Your binoculars make you look official and  tourists may look to you for information. I remember a trip when a guy came up to me some 15 minutes from the dock and asked if they would ever see a whale and that was in a very good whale year.

 For some reason, tourists always want assurance that their experience has been one of the best. If another passenger tries to get me to compare the current trip with past trips, I try to make their trip look good even if it wasn't the most exciting. Try to help them have a good time.

Tourists Vote - Making Their Vote Green
The whale watching industry is worth $23 million in annual revenues to the area economy. The contribution to the protection of Stellwagen Bank cannot be overestimated. Every summer more than a million people participate. For many people it is not only their "life whale", but their first non-televised wildlife experience. Tourists VOTE. If they enjoy this trip that vote may be greener. We need all the help we can get.

Captains - Born To Fish
In a few instances the captain at the urging of the naturalist has moved the boat to accommodate birders. Please try to understand that there are good reasons why the captain cannot always do this. Since Stellwagen Bank is a marine sanctuary there are rules regarding the approach of boats to marine animals. The number of boats that can approach a whale is limited and once a boat has gotten close to a whale they cannot engage the prop until the captain is sure of the location of all the whales in the vicinity. This means the boat cannot roar off just because there are birds around another group of whales. If a boat is stationary and a whale moves up next to the boat it is legal, but a boat cannot power up closer than 250 yards from a whale. The Coast Guard is occasionally watching.

The boat captain is under pressure to get the boat back to the dock for the next trip. These large boats are expensive to buy and operate and the season in New England is short. It's a business with a good deal of competition.

And finally remember that many of the people working on the boats are descendants of traditional fishing families who have seen their way of life disappear in their generation. Born to fish, they are now expected to understand and appreciate birding!

Webmaster Note:  During the twenty or so years I have been birding on the whale watch boats, I have experienced a change in the attitude of the captains and crew.  In the beginning some were downright hostile to birders.  Now they are anxious for our business and happy to see us.  I think this is because more birders are taking advantage of the whale watch boats and because birders are more sensitive to the impression they leave with other participants.


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