I am not often asked for tips about what to do or see when visiting Cape Cod. It’s not like it never comes up, I’m known to non-Cape Cod people as a guy from Cape Cod, so there would be opportunities, but it never really happens. Perhaps it’s due to the fact that the people I hang out around aren’t the type to visit Cape Cod. Maybe I just have one of those faces. Maybe a trip to Cape Cod is one of those things that you want to plan out yourself. Who knows? If I am asked, however, I will always recommend one activity before all others: whale watching. 

Look, I know it doesn’t sound very exciting. The words conjure the idea of spending an afternoon on a crowded and uncomfortable boat pretending to be interested in the occasional bubble or splash which the “scientist” over the loudspeaker assures you is a sign of whales under the water. And are whales even that interesting to look at anyways? They’re big long bluish blob things with a hole on the top, you get the gist. 

I’m not gonna lie to you, that does happen. There are boring days sometimes. It’s not a circus. The animals don’t work for the whale watching company, so a perfect day won’t always happen. But most of the time you’ll see something. And almost all of the time it’ll be worth it. 

A Whale. They look cooler in person I promise

So, elephant in the room, Cape Cod does not have a good history with whales. Nantucket in particular was once well known as a hub of whaling the world around. Being a whale watcher on Cape Cod is kind of like being a democrat in the south. Holding the best intentions but carrying a long and terrible history with you. 

Even outside of the long dead (at least on Cape Cod anyway) practice of whaling, whale watching can be harmful as well. A large and powerful boat moving in close to a pod of whales can change currents, temperatures, and sometimes even presents a risk of colliding with a whale, which does not bode well for either party especially when a ship’s 3000 horsepower propeller is spinning underneath them. Irresponsible whale watching can have drastic negative effects.

Thankfully, the top three whale watching companies on Cape Cod (Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises, Dolphin Fleet, and Sea Salt Charters) are all members of Whale SENSE, a conservation program sponsored by NOAA and WDC (Whale and Dolphin Conservation) and are thereby committed to responsible whale watching practices. Here is an excerpt from their website:

Whale SENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program offered to commercial whale watching companies in the U.S. Atlantic and Alaska Regions. The program is sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. Developed in collaboration with the whale watching industry, Whale SENSE recognizes whale watching companies committed to responsible practices.

whalesense.org
Whale SENSE’s tips for whale watching

I would strongly advise anyone considering a whale watch to make sure that they use a company that knows how to do so responsibly and sustainably. The whales don’t like engine noise so you’re going to have a better time that way anyways.

But why whale watching? I really couldn’t tell you what makes the experience so special, but I can tell you that it’s more than just the whales. Something about getting on the boat, smelling the salt water, and seeing the land behind you just feels exciting. The way that the boat begins to move and you suddenly understand what the phrase “sea legs” means. Any description I would give won’t do it justice. And when you finally get far enough away from the land and the captain turns off the engine. And you finally begin to see them. There’s just no feeling like it.

Whales are a lot smaller in person than you expect them to be. You hear stories about how the biggest animal on earth is a whale and how they’re bigger than school buses and weigh more than a hundred elephants and you imagine a creature as big as a skyscraper. Well, they’re not that big. It’s actually hard to tell exactly how big they are in person. The water gives a sort of optical illusion where you can’t tell how far away they are. And you don’t always see their whole bodies. Sometimes it’s just the tail or the blowhole. Even though they’re not actually as big as you expect, however, they are so much more than you knew.

Another whale. These things are really wild.

The noises that they make. The spouts of water that they shoot upwards. The way that they’re able to throw themselves into the air. It’s a thing that you feel blessed to be able to see. It’s like seeing Jurassic Park for the first time as a kid. Something that provides a moment of introspection and understanding that you didn’t think was possible. A shift in your world view to account for something that previously wouldn’t have fit. It’s a feeling that can’t be described, it just has to be lived. 

I’m tellin’ ya you gotta see these whales

So that’s my tourist recommendation. If you’re not into that sort of thing, Yarmouth has some pretty good mini golf courses. 

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