By Mary Ruoff
A slight haze blanketed the sky as my son and I cruised Canadian waters on a whale watch trip in early July. No passport was needed: we were aboard the Ada C. Lore, a 1923 three-masted schooner that departs from Eastport at the upper end of the Maine coast.
Though we didn’t spot a whale until well into the three-hour trip – Hurricane Arthur had churned up the seas a few days before, keeping these migratory mammals out in the open ocean – the mood was downright sunny aboard Eastport Windjammers’ 118-foot sailing vessel.
Traversing several miles through island passages before journeying a bit into the open waters of the Bay of Fundy, we passed small isles too numerous to count; gawked at a cliff-top island home (nice but not palatial) recently featured on HGTV; giddily pointed our cameras at harbor seals, their brown, gray and tawny coats shimmering in the glinting sun as they crowded a ledge some 50 feet from our white oak-hulled vessel; and passed lighthouse after lighthouse – six in all (on a clear day passengers may see two more in the distance).
Fishing weirs, used to catch herring and once numerous along the Downeast coast, dotted the waters off the two large islands, Deer and Campobello, that framed our western and eastern views for much of the trip.
“I much prefer to be on a vintage schooner than a modern ship,” said Randi Olsen of Brooksville, Fla., who was traveling to Bar Harbor after vacationing in the Maritimes with her husband, Keith, and their 6-year-old son, Peder, who quickly befriended my 10-year-old, Dima Hodsdon, sharing cornbread and jovially jockeying for turns at the wheel (sometimes they shared that, too). “This whole experience is so neat – though I’d really like to see a whale.”
She got her chance, as did the 20 or so other passengers taking Eastport native Capt. Butch Harris’ afternoon trip (40 is the average passenger load at summer’s peak; he also runs sunset cruises and charters). I have to thank my son for not missing the brief yet thrilling encounter. As a minke’s deep gray fin arced above the water, Dima darted to the opposite rail. Though probably calling “Don’t Run!,” I followed fast, the decking’s black-hued patina seeming to blend with the dark seawater as all eyes focused out and down instead of out and about at the stunning scenery.
If a smaller, more unique whale watch excursion also floats your boat, Washington County beckons. Eastport Windjammers is just one of several tour operators offering whale watch trips along Maine’s most remote and largely undeveloped swath of coastline – providing Down East visitors an alternative to Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co.’s large high-speed boats (up to 350 or 450 passengers). Six-person lobster boat whale watches depart from both Milbridge in southern Washington County and further Down East in Lubec. This town – just a few miles south of Eastport by water – is also home port for a whale watch touring boat.
(Lubec is linked by bridge to Campobello, where two more whale watching companies are based, Capt. Riddle’s Whale Watch Cruises and Island Cruises Whale Watch. Please note: U.S. citizens and residents traveling to Canada need a U.S. Passport or other federal government-approved ID.)
Whales make their home in Maine and nearby Canadian waters from about May through October. This year, like the spring blooms, they arrived from warmer southern seas a few weeks later than usual. Then the hurricane did its thing. But sightings were back to normal levels Downeast as the summer tourist season heated up in mid-July.
During the warmer months, it’s not unusual to see whales off the breakwater in downtown Eastport, where the deep local waters have lots of small fish like herring and krill – favorite foods of baleen whales. Several species of these toothless creatures, which essentially strain food through the fibrous baleen, are the most common whales in the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy.
On whale watch trips off the Downeast coast, passengers typically see small minkes (about 30 feet in length), playful humpbacks (they love to breach and stick their snouts above the water to look about), rare North Atlantic rights (no dorsal fin) and large finbacks (up to 82 feet long). Though the right whales are endangered, the Bay of Fundy has the Atlantic’s largest summer population. In late summer, they’re likely to show up on the Lubec and Eastport whale watch trips.
Washington County’s whale watch tours run into the fall, though departures are less frequent as tourism slows. Boats often run two trips a day during the peak of summer, which conveniently is when whale sightings increase – August is usually the best month.Prices range from $45 to $59 per adult for the Eastport and Lubec boats. Milbridge’s Robertson Sea Tours & Adventures charges more ($95 for adults) with good reason.
Not only are these trips longer (4 to 5 hours), the boats go further and faster than those on more scenery-oriented trips further up the coast. Seated in heavily padded white deck chairs, passengers travel 20 or so miles from Milbridge, heading out Narraguagus Bay and across open ocean to the same large offshore feeding grounds visited by the Bar Harbor whale watch boats.
Robertson Sea Tours also offers scenic nature cruises, lobster bake excursions and puffin watching trips, the latter to Petit Manan Lighthouse off Steuben, which its whale watches often pass en route to the feeding grounds. Most of the trips are on the 33-foot Elisabeth Rose with Capt. Jim Parker, but company owner Capt. Jamie Robertson does some with his boat, the 28-foot boat Kandi Leigh.
Sarah and Darrin Talley of Vienna, Va., who have a summer home in Milbridge, always send their guests on a Robertson Sea Tours whale watch. They took one a few years ago with their children, now 13 and 10. “It’s incredible,” said Sarah, excitedly recalling the site of breaching whales.
Once the season is in full swing, about a dozen whales are spotted on a typical trip – 25 or so on a great day (about double the figures for the Ada C. Lore). Ocean sunfish, sharks and white-sided dolphins often swim within sight.
Capt. Robertson, who grew up and lives in nearby Harrington and fishes come winter, said it’s not unusual for him to have passengers who are staying in Bar Harbor, a little over an hour away. He’s even gotten a referral or two from the big Bar Harbor boats, which swap whale sighting info with their tiny “competitor” while out at sea.
Boats from Eastport, Lubec, Campobello and St. Andrews, New Brunswick, do likewise. An unexpected highlight of our trip was seeing three vessels of differing size and style circle the waters in friendly pursuit. Indeed, many of the whales are old friends of the captains, who often recognize them by their tails, or the markings and shapes of their dorsal fins.
Like the Ada C. Lore, Lubec’s boats cruise the island-strewn protected Canadian waters of Passamaquoddy Bay in search of whales. Downeast Charter Boat Tours’ 25-foot “lobster yacht” Lorna Doone touts its trips as “more than a whale watch.” Excursions are timed to pass the Old Sow whirlpool off Eastport – one of the largest in the world – when it’s at full churn.
The boat also travels Maine’s Johnson and Cobscook bays, since as a charter its route varies with passengers’ wishes and whims.
Lubec’s Tarquin has inside and outside seating and carries up to 20-some passengers. The boat, which also does sunset cruises and charters, is operated by the Inn at the Wharf. Lodging guests get a discount on whale watch trips.
Mary Ruoff is a freelance writer in Belfast. She wrote the “Way Down East” chapter of Fodor’s “Maine Coast” travel guide and has contributed Maine content to other Fodor’s guidebooks.