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Tour Review: Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch, Cape Cod

Wild marine mammal tourism has experienced a boom in popularity over the past few decades.  In fact, the United States has the largest whale watching industry in the world! With New England being considered one of its most popular regions to view whales. Naturally, I had whale watching on my mind when we began planning a trip to Provincetown, Massachusetts. To guide my search in finding a tour company, I followed my own top tips for ethical whale watching. My priorities were to identify a company that respects wildlife, follows strict viewing guidelines, has an onboard naturalist, and supports the protection of whales through research. Following those tips led me to discover a company that fit all those requirements – Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch – which also happens to be the most popular option for whale watching from Provincetown.

humpback whale coming up for breath with their blowhole
Humpback whale blowhole.

Finding an Ethical Whale Tour

In my search for ethical whale watching, I used the Whale SENSE guidelines to help me identify the best tour company. Whale SENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program that was developed in 2009 and is sponsored by NOAA Fisheries and Whale and Dolphin Conservation. In fact, the very first company to commit to the Whale SENSE practices was Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown. Today, over a decade later, the Whale SENSE community includes over 40 participating companies throughout the north Atlantic and Alaskan waters. In order to be an active participant in the Whale SENSE program each of the whale watching operators must meet set criteria, including these examples:

  • Share an educational briefing on Whale SENSE at the beginning of each tour
  • Teach guests about whale protection laws, guidelines, threats, and conservation
  • Report sightings of entangled, injured, or stranded marine mammals
  • Have all staff complete annual trainings and evaluations
  • Complete an annual stewardship project

Whale SENSE companies all promote responsible whale watching practices that respect whales by providing them space and allow them to behave naturally without interference. Their work to increase awareness of following guidelines and viewing whales responsibly has led the ecotourism industry.

Collaborating with the Dolphin Fleet

Before departing for our trip, I reached out to the team at Dolphin Fleet and proposed a content collaboration between their company and Milo’s Wildlife (now Laro Travels). As one of the east coast’s original whale watching companies, in operation since 1975, Dolphin Fleet was the perfect company to partner with. We seamlessly reached an agreement where they would provide two complimentary adult tickets, valued at $65 each, and in return, I would provide my honest review of their whale watching practices. The goal of this collaboration was to connect a wider audience with ethical wildlife tours like Dolphin Fleet, encouraging more tourists to support ecotourism practices.

swimming humpback whale in Cape Cod
Freckles the humpback whale.

The Whale Watching Experience

The Dolphin Fleet manages multiple large vessels, all that include a sundeck viewing platform, an air-conditioned and heated cabin, multiple restrooms, refreshment options, and plenty of seating options on the upper and lower decks. For our excursions on August 1, 2021, we ventured out on the Dolphin IX with captain Dennis and naturalist Mark. Typically, Dolphin Fleet trips are about 3 hours long, but can sometimes extend to 4 hours. The variability depends on how far the vessels may have to travel to see whales. During our Sunday morning journey, our captain cruised for over 25 miles into the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary before spotting our first whale.

ethical whale watching tour in Cape Cod
Guests scanning for whales from the Dolphin Fleet, Dolphin IX vessel in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

All the naturalists in the area know each other well and communicate with each other to coordinate whale watching tours. During our voyage, our onboard naturalist, Mark, was a wealth of information. He has lived on Cape Cod since 1982 and has been an integral part of the whale research and interpretation community. Mark eagerly narrated our journey via a microphone so that all passengers on board could hear. His interpretive messages were centered around whale watching guidelines and Whale SENSE, while also educating folks on the marine sanctuary and whale biology.  With his trained eye, we were able to spot two whales during our tour. Our first sighting within the marine sanctuary was a female humpback whale, which Mark quickly identified as Freckles. This adult female is over 30 years old and is frequently seen within the area and has been for decades. She has even successfully raised numerous calves over the years, always returning to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary! Everyone on the Dolphin IX was treated to a wonderful view of Freckles as she surfaced multiple times before deep diving for food beneath the surface. While the entire vessel was glued to her every movement, a solo minke whale even passed near the boat giving us a brief sighting.

Both whales were a delight to see and a true testament to the success of ethical whale watching practices. Venturing out with Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch was a perfect reminder of how ethical wildlife travels are a great way to not only respect wildlife and support conservation but to transform guests into responsible stewards for the environment!

whale tail disappearing in the surf
The last view before another deep dive to feed in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

How Ethical Whale Watching Helps Protect Whales

Everyone loves observing wild whales, but ethical whale watching goes much further than a simple tour. On each of the Dolphin Fleet trips, their naturalists collect data and photographs of the whales sighted. By collecting this data and sharing it with researchers, they are able to “track” whales over time by photo-identification. Just like Mark was able to quickly identify Freckles the whale, each marine mammal has a unique appearance. Humpback whales for example have a unique underside of their tail. They can vary from all black to all white, with many patterns in-between. By using these unique tail patterns, naturalists can identify individuals and upload notes on their behaviors and movements to shared databases. This photo-identification has allowed researchers to:

  • Track the age of individual whales, gaining insight on their lifespans
  • Understand material care and calving intervals
  • Discover migration routes and seasonal patterns
  • Better evaluate the population density
  • Gain an understanding on whale culture and family ties

The Dolphin Fleet proudly shares their data with the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog. This database is then shared between scientists, researchers, and conservation organizations to help protect whales.

While ethical whale watching travels might appear to be solely focused on the guest viewing experience, they dive much deeper and directly contribute to whale conservation. I highly recommend an adventure with the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch of Provincetown, MA. Not only do they host a wonderful guest experience aboard their vessels, but they prioritize the most important part of this ecotourism equation – the WHALES!

Additional Whale Watching Resources:
view of a humpback whale tail flukes
The famous whale watching view of Freckles’ flukes.

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