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The whales are back – here’s where to get a peep at the pods

A humpback whale breaches on Stellwagen Bank about 25 miles east of Boston, Monday, Aug. 22, 2005. The area around Stellwagen Bank is designated as a national marine sanctuary. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
A humpback whale breaches on Stellwagen Bank about 25 miles east of Boston, Monday, Aug. 22, 2005. The area around Stellwagen Bank is designated as a national marine sanctuary. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
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Your favorite snowbird friends are either on their way back to Massachusetts or already here, and they want you to visit.

We’re talking about whales. Big, beautiful, majestic, playful whales are already returning to the waters off the Bay State. Back from a long winter journey to the Caribbean (in most cases), they’re back in their spring, summer and fall homes.

That’s why it’s a great idea to bundle up, book a spot and spend an April or May day out on the sea, watching  and learning all about them. While you may usually think of this as a summer activity (and it is), the whale season kicks of strong right about now here.

Regional whale watch companies know that. Most begin cruises around April 17.

On the North Shore, Capt. Jim Douglass and his family have been operating Cape Ann Whale Watch (415 Main St.; seethewhales.com) in Gloucester for 43 years, and still, he says, these first weeks out whale watching are a thrill not just to their guests, but to him, his naturalists and the rest of his team.

“We like to check on our ‘regulars,’” he said. “We like to get out early to see which of them returned from the Caribbean first.”

That’s right: They know many of these whales by name and history. And each year, they love to see who’s back, who’s new and then share that with the guests on board.

“It’s exciting for our naturalists too,” he said. “Seeing which moms come back with a calf; seeing who became a grandmom; it’s all just great.”

Douglass said they begin cruises April 17, and expect to find lots of marine life out there right away.

He also points out that this time of year, while cooler, is more peaceful on the sea, since there are fewer pleasure boats and less tuna fishing.

And yes, it is often cooler. But, he said, that’s what warm clothes are for.

“My mom always said it’s easier to remove a layer than try to add one once you are cold,” he said. “We suggest guests dress almost like it’s a winter day.” It tends to be at least 10 degrees cooler out at sea.

Whale watchers board the Hurricane II whale watching boat on May 10, 2018 in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Photo by DON EMMERT/AFP via Getty Images)

Bring gloves, a warm hat, wear layers and still: Remember your sunscreen and sunglasses.

Douglass said the water takes on a unique hue this time of year, a deeper blue from the sun still not being straight up in the sky yet (photographers know this slanted light to be a prime time to capture great shots, so bring your camera).

Douglass said his team is champing at the bit to get out there.

One of his best days in his many seasons of whale watching, he said, took place during this season.

“We were out there and we spotted this small pod of kettle whales, a rare sight,” he said. “It was spectacular.”

On the South Shore, Capt. Bob Avila has been treating guests to up close whale experiences with the Captain John Boats (10 Town Wharf, Plymouth; captjohn.com) for decades. Like Douglass, his excitement has not waned.

“Even though I’ve been doing this for 30 years, I’m still always excited to see my first whales each season,” he said.

Captain John Boats operate out of Plymouth Harbor and head usually toward Stellwagen Bank where they not only see plenty of right and finback whales, but they encounter many they know by name.

The “matriarch” as they like to call her, is Salt, a long-time regular to the waters off Massachusetts.

Salt is easily spotted thanks to her rare all-white dorsal fin. And she’s often, he said, one of the first back each season.

  • APRIL 11, 2021 – Visitors take photos of a pod of whales during a whale watching tour from Captain John Boats out of Plymouth. Photo courtesy

  • APRIL 11, 2021 – Salt the whale greets visitors on a whale watch cruise from Captain John Boats out of Plymouth Harbor. Photo courtesy

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Captain John Boats also begin cruising April 17. The early weeks will be peaceful, Avila said. Since the right whales are still in the waters off Plymouth, there’s a speed restriction, which means a nice four-hour cruise with few roaring engines going by and plenty of moments to see the whales.

Avila said dressing warm is smart, and points out they have a galley on board with warm drinks to fuel you for your day of watching.

Like Douglass, Avila can point to one of his most wonderful whale watching moments happening this time of year.

“It was May 2, 1993,” he said. “I saw a blue whale. In 30 years of doing this, I’ve only seen one.”

While he cannot promise a blue whale spotting, he can promise that deep blue spring ocean, crisp air and a chance to get to know the whales.

Come warmer weather, you can revisit and see how they’re doing.

“It’s easy to get attached to them,” he said.

All boats for both groups have masking requirements and limited space (so book early, they advise).