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Whale Watching on the Bay of Fundy

Updated on May 5, 2015
Dog and I watch for the tail of a whale.
Dog and I watch for the tail of a whale.

Come to the Bay of Fundy - Canada or USA - for a Whale of a Summer Cruise!

Minke whales, Finbacks, Humpbacks and even the rare endangered Right Whales come to the Bay of Fundy by the hundreds every summer. Those of us who are lucky enough to call this place home have the pleasure of seeing the whales time and again, but it's a sight that never fails to bring a sense of joy and awe.

Just about the only thing more fun than going out to watch the whales on a bright summer day is the chance to take a visitor out to experience it for themselves. Even the most cynical city-dweller is prone to point and squeal with excitement, when the whales appear!

The Best Place in the World to Watch Whales - The Bay of Fundy

Here, where the easternmost part of the United States meets up with the Maritime provinces of Canada, we're known for being a friendly bunch of music-loving storytellers, and for our laidback pace of life. Visitors "from away" who come for a relaxing vacation often think there is no excitement to be had "down east"- but life on the Bay of Fundy, with the ever-changing Atlantic Ocean at our door, offers its own kind of adventure. Come on down for a visit, and your own outdoor adventure with some of the most amazing creatures in the natural world.

Beachcombing as a child, on a rocky beach of an unihabited island in the Bay of Fundy.
Beachcombing as a child, on a rocky beach of an unihabited island in the Bay of Fundy.

The Joys of Whale Spotting

When I was growing up, there was still a lingering superstition in the Bay of Fundy fishing villages that females were bad luck on boats. And of course a working fishing boat was no place for a kid.

As a girl-child, I was allowed to putter around the inner harbour in a dinghy, or, later, to take the open motorboat down around the shore to pick berries or handline for a fish for supper, but that was about it. So, until I was in my teens and times began to change, I had to do all of my whale-watching from the land.

There was one particular spit of rock with a patch of rough grass on top, near my grandmother's house, where I often went on a summer day to draw and paint and daydream.

From early July through August and well into September, it was common to look out to the open water and catch a glimpse of several massive dark shapes gliding by, breaking the waves at times with a spout or the lift of a massive tail.

Once, as a kid, I'd gotten so absorbed in the show, the swift-rising Fundy tide caught me off guard and a cousin had to row out in the dinghy to bring me in. Okay, maybe more than once...

Whale Watching - Wonderful by Land, Better by Sea

As the years went by and attitudes changed, more and more travellers caught wind of the wonders of nature to be found in the northeast region. Eco-tourism began to build steam in this relaxed and welcoming part of North America, with travellers coming to camp and sail and beachcomb and, of course, to watch for sea birds to add to their life lists.

Before too long, a growing number of off-season fishing boats were put to service in taking our tourist visitors out to the cetacean feeding grounds and transit channels, to watch for whales. And of course we locals had to go our on the ocean tours, too, to show proper hospitality to our guests!

And so, in time, my childhood lookout rock was retired in favor of the gently bouncing deck of a whale-watching boat, with a knowledgeable and genial local captain at the helm, sharing his local knowledge of the impressive natural environment and wildlife of the Bay of Fundy.

Video: Whale Watching off Campobello Island

Watching the whales swim by is thrilling, even when you're looking down on them from a landlubber's vantage point. But there is nothing to compare with going out in a boat on the Bay of Fundy, to seek out the massive graceful animals in their own realm.

Whales of the East Coast of Canada and the United States

Discovering Whales of the East Coast
Discovering Whales of the East Coast
If you'd like to learn about the marine mammals you are going to visit, this gorgeous guide to the whales of the east coast of North America is as fact-filled and detailed as a field guide and as beautiful as a coffee table gift book.

Discovering Whales of the East Coast is filled with whale illustrations and photographs from some of the most skilled photographers of cetaceans the world has to offer. The author himself, Stephane Mullane, studied whales and other marine animals, as well as migratory birds and seabirds, for more than four years on Mount Desert Rock off the coast of Maine, USA.

What Kinds of Whales Will You See?

Finbacks or Fin Whales - Very Big, Very Fast

Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) in Bay of Fundy, Canada, by Acqumen Enterprises
Fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) in Bay of Fundy, Canada, by Acqumen Enterprises

The Fin Whale (Balaenoptera physalus), also known as the Finback, is one of the whales we see often in the Bay of Fundy early in the season.

They travel alone or small groups, usually, and I find they're surprisingly easy to miss if they don't breach (leap out of the water) or blow when you happen to be looking - they zip through the water at surprising speed, very sleek and smooth.

With that distinctively elegant fin breaking the surface of the water at intervals, they look almost like a dark shadow of a wave among other waves sometimes. At 75 to 85 feet in length and up to 80 tons, however, you're definitely going to pay attention if a finback swims close to your boat and rolls over to take a look at you.

Humpback Whales - Watch for the Breach!

Humpback Whale jumping, NOAA photo
Humpback Whale jumping, NOAA photo

The Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) run about 40-50 feet in length, and they're the whales you're likely to see most often on a cruise around the Bay of Fundy in summertime.

It's almost as if Humpbacks seek out the attention of people in boats - certainly, they seem to be playful and curious by nature, lacking some of the mysterious menace of the sleek and much larger finback.

Kids like the Humpback because they're quite easy to identify as a species, for the lumpy fin that shows clearly when they roll forward in a dive.

The coolest thing about the Humpback, though, is that every one of them has a different set of markings on the tail flukes. This means it is actually possible for us (or for scientists who pay attention to whales, anyway) to tell one Humpback Whale from any other individual - hundreds of these big guys have been identified and given names.

Minke Whales - My Favourite Cetacean

Minke Whale, by Cephas
Minke Whale, by Cephas

Sometimes you'll hear people say they went out whale watching and "only" saw Minke Whales, which is too bad. I think they say "only" because the Minke (Balaenoptera acutorostrata) is one of the smaller whales, coming in at a maximum length of 30 feet.

The Minke (pronounced "mink-ee") remind me at times of over-sized porpoises, the way they like to come in close to shore and will often circle your boat to see what you're up to. They're not as much of an acrobatic show-off as the playful Humpback so you won't get a show of breaching and tail slaps, but they are even more curious.

Minke Whales are best viewed at a near distance so you can admire the white markings on the pectoral fins (flippers) and enjoy the sight of the full length of their graceful bodies when they surface.

When they submerge, though, don't hold your breath waiting for them to show up again soon, as a Minke can stay underwater for up to twenty minutes.

North Atlantic Right Whale - Rare and Endangered

Right whale skim feeding with NOAA ship Delaware II in the background.
Right whale skim feeding with NOAA ship Delaware II in the background.

The North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is one of the most endangered mammals in the world - hunted almost to extinction for its blubber before it was protected, and still all too frequently it's the victim of collisions with ships and entanglement in fishing gear.

Scientists figure there are an estimated 400 to 450 of these northern right whales left in the world, so it's a very lucky whale watcher who will get to see one - except, perhaps, in the summer time in the Bay of Fundy.

In fact, the Bay of Fundy is a nice protected feeding ground for the Right Whale, and the waters between the province of New Brunswick and the state of Maine are quite possibly one of the best places in the world to see them. Between 100 and 140 right whales come to the Bay of Fundy each summer.

The surest sign that you've spotted a North Atlantic Right Whale is when you see it spout - its exhalation of air and water is a very distinctive V-shape rather than the plume or fan shape you'll see when other species of whales blow. That, and if you're out on a whale watching tour, your captain will be sure to let you know exactly what special whale it is that you're seeing!

Best Bay of Fundy Whale Watching Tours

Bay of Fundy eco-tourism operators are committed to help protect and conserve marine wildlife, following a voluntary Whale Watching Code of Ethics ( Code of Conduct), as well as all applicable fisheries, transportation, safety and environmental regulations.

The vessels and home ports are varied, but whichever of these whale-watching tours you choose, you'll find experienced and knowledgeable captains and guides who take pride in showing visitors the natural wonders of our region.

The Jolly Breeze tall ship takes us to the Bay of Fundy, by Mark Blevis
The Jolly Breeze tall ship takes us to the Bay of Fundy, by Mark Blevis

Right Whale Watching from a Tall Ship

Imagine sailing out on a tall ship and suddenly encountering a pod of North Atlantic Right Whales, frolicking in a "surface action group" (the whale-style of socializing, often a prelude to mating). The water of the Bay of Fundy begins to churn all around your historic wooden vessel as the giant creatures turn and splash and roll and dive only to surface once more...

This the whale watcher's dream - and it is as close as we'll ever get, in this century, to sharing the experiences of our ancestors in the days of the sailing ships.

Whale Watching Tour Operators in Nova Scotia & New Brunswick, Canada, and Maine, USA

If you'd love to come out for a whale-watching tour of the Bay,

here are a few of the best:


Photo credits: Fin whale, Acqumen Enterprises [CC-BY-SA-3.0]; Humpback whale, NOAA [public domain]; Minke whale, Cephas [CC-BY-SA-3.0]; Right whale, NOAA/NEFSC [public domain]; The Jolly Breeze takes us to the Bay of Fundy, Mark Blevis [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0]. All other photographs are by the author, from my personal collection, all rights reserved.


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