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Archive for September, 2009

Whether you’re an aspiring biologist searching for hands-on experience or just a traveler who wants to watch a few turtles on vacation, See Turtles has an expedition for you, says Brad Nahill, marketing director and co-founder. While the See Turtle website showcases mainly the latter, a kind of turtle tourism lite for those with less time than money, the conservation group is branching out. They now connect longer term volunteers who have more time than money.

This is exactly what people are looking for in the age of the Great Recession, animal tourism and voluntourism. Recent college grads, facing 15% unemployment, are willing to take unpaid gigs in a related field. Since posting an application for volunteer opportunities in April, they’ve gotten 500 queries. Wealthier Gen Y grads latching onto the British concept of the Gap Year may be willing to pay thousands of dollars for a resume-boosting international experience. But Nahill hopes to offer the opportunity for a more reasonable fees that go directly to the community, along the lines of $20/day.

“Pretty much anyone can go down and measure a turtle and grab eggs,” says Nahill. “It’s not like darting a tiger…it’s safe.” And he should–that’s how he started out in turtle conservation after college. In many ways sea turtles–which are all either endangered or threatened–are the ideal eco-tourism target. Even the non-skilled can help–whether that’s doing research, patrolling beaches or just showing up on tours. Just the tourists presence can keep poachers away, says Nahill; even better, they supply the money for the guides and guards.

Nahill hopes to maximize the impact of See Turtle volunteers by picking only programs that that help animals “facing threats that tourism can directly reduce.” That means the programs end up helping the community by offering locals a job or financial incentive to protect the animals instead of making money off them in other ways.

Years ago, fishermen who also poached turtles in Baja, California, told the group’s other co-founder, Dr. Wallace Nichols, that they’d be willing to stop if they had another way to make a living. Many were already guides to the area’s seasonal friendly gray whales, so Nichols founded Groupo Tortuguero, which got communities working with turtles.  In one project, for example, locals help catch turtles by net each month for researchers. More commonly, they can guard beaches or guide tours. And some get paid by offering researchers, volunteers or tourists a room in their home and meals.

These days, their biggest threat is getting caught in fishing gear, Nahill says, but that’s still a significant take. And every day the mean are working on turtles, they’re not fishing. More importantly, the tour groups have already helped change attitudes: the eggs are a lot less enticing to eat if you, your uncle or your friend depends on their hatching to survive.

See if See Turtles knows of any turtle work that matches what you have to offer.

Looking for more places to see turtles? Click Here

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Lonely Planet’s new A Year of Watching Wildlife: A Guide to the World’s Best Animal Encounters is one of those books any animal tourist is going to want. Gorgeous glossy photos show you schools of stingrays swimming from underneath, howler monkeys mid-howl, puffins with icicles hanging from their bright beaks.

The conceit of the book is that it’s a calendar. Lonely Planet gives you animals to see in every week of the year and a semi-plausible reason why they picked that week. Lots of the rationales are compelling, reasons like mating or baby season. But the calendar conceit gets a bit worn for all those animals that don’t really have a peak week to watch. We’re reminded how random travel advice can be with the push “You should visit [Andean condors in Peru] in April for good weather and to avoid the tourist season.” True enough, but there are big hunks of the year that applies to. Also, the book tells you to try to see them at Machu Picchu, acknowledging that you’re far more likely to see them at a canyon hundreds of miles away, but that “pales in comparison with the experience of seeing one of these ponderous birds towering over the ancient Inca city.” Or it would if you actually saw one there.

The book is a nice t’s a nice fantasy wish list, compiled as if you’ve only got a year to live, unlimited funds and all you want to do is see animals. The book also rates the level of difficulty for each adventure, but with very little sense of the real world. Nearly everything is rated low or medium. Hyenias in Ethiopia? That’s easy. Same with Gharials in Nepal. How about diving 30 meters to see “the cave of the sleeping sharks” off Mexico? That rates a medium difficulty. Same with camping on a remote Alaska island with walruses. Even polar bears don’t rate a high difficulty. In the entire world and entire year, there’s apparently only one animal that will give you trouble: the Bactrian Camels in China–and then more for the “bureaucratic and logistical challenges.” So, it’s not exactly practical travel advice, but it’s a fun read.

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We tend to think of manatees as living only in Florida and just barely hanging on there, but some exciting new research show they may be spreading to nearby Gulf states. Dr. Ruth Carmichael, senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab near Mobile, AL, just tagged Alabama’s first officicial manatee resident. You can call the half-ton female “Bama.”

The big question is whether the endangered West Indian Manatee has been here all along, unbeknownst to people, or whether they’re expanding their range. Are people seeing more manatees because they’re looking? Nobody knows..  In 2007 Carmichael started the Mobile Manatees Sighting Network, which gives people a one-stop shop to call or email anytime they see a manatee. In just the first year people reported as many sightings as they had over the previous 30 years.

Carmichael hears from two types of people who live or work near the water. One has never seen them and doesn’t believe they’re there. The other tells her, “‘yeah, my kids have been swimming with them for 30 years.'” She then tries to gently convince them not to play with the manatees. Or give them the fresh water they crave. Since the manatee’s biggest enemy is boat propellers, if you teach them that it’s fun or profitable to hang around people, they have a greater chance of getting hurt. And technically, if you change an endangered species’ behavior, it’s a federal offense. Carmichael doesn’t want to play cop, but would love it if people stayed back 100 feet. “Don’t touch them, don’t water them,” she says. “and for God’s sake, don’t feed them.”

Biologists already figured out that most of the manatees are just summering in Alabama, not moving here full-time. In 2007 they sent a clear picture of a manatee to Florida wildlife officials, who figured out from her boat scars that it was Ellie, a 30-year-old manatee who hangs around Crystal River, FL, 350 miles away and 60 miles north of Tampa. This year Carmichael managed to tag Ellie, so she’ll be able to figure out where and when she migrates.

Last winter at least three manatees tried to stay over, but the bay had an early, brutal cold snap. Two died in the cold and one survived by hanging out by the warmth of a water treatment plant. The manatees here might even be coming from Mexico, not Florida, Carmichael says. There is a handy map of where they’ve been seen around Mobile Bay and in Mississippi  if you want to help do some spotting. (Looks like the Theodore Shipping Channel near Deer River, Meaher State Park and Terry Cove near Orange Beach.)

Carmichael estimates up to 20 manatees may be spending time in the busy, industrial bay. That’s less than 1% of the U.S. population, which is thought to be about 3,000-4,000. The last time the Fish and Wildlife Service took stock of manatees in 2007, they figured the numbers were slightly up, at least in some regions. Only about 377 or 11% live in the northwest where Ellie lives, but their numbers have been growing since the 1960s; between 1986 to 2000, the population grew an estimated 4%. (The 44% of the population on the Atlantic coast grew 3.7% while the 41% in the southwest were down 1.1% just from 1995 to 2000.)

Bonus animals in the area: alligators, shorebirds and horseshoe crabs
Want to see more animals in the South?
Where are there more unusual animals like manatees?

 Photo courtesy of AngelShark 

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New Englanders want to see sharks; that much is clear from the way they’ve crowded Chatham on Cape Cod in recent weeks, hoping for a glimpse of the sharks preying on the seal colony. There were enough sharks to close some beaches, but not really enough to make shark-watching successful. Few would-be shark tourists realize that New England is starting to have a thriving shark cage-diving industry, with three tour companies, one right on Nantucket.

Bryce Rohrer led shark cave dives off South Africa, the shark cage dive Capitol of the World, then realized he could start Nantucket Shark Divers closer to home. Rohrer grew up fishing in the area, but “that slowly evolved into ditching the fishing rod for a camera.” He knew there was enough sealife tantalizingly close to shore to make a good trip. “Not many people know sharks out there,” he says. “It’s a very attractive spot for people. The bottom line is there’s a ton of wildlife around there, lots of whales, sharks, dolphins–all the things people care about.”

This year he’s lead some free-diving tours–no cage, no airtanks–just a snorkel. He’s got a few warm, relatively shallow spots 10 to 40 miles off shore. Next year, he’ll also have a shark cage, which goes in the water behind the boat. He’ll let divers venture out of the cage at their own pace once they’re comfortable. He also has options for people like me, who can’t swim and are a little chicken; you can always just stay on the boat and see sharks from there.

He mainly sees 3-10 blue sharks, which he describes as “really inquisitive, they come right up to you.” Sometimes his divers see makos, which he says have a completely different, more aggressive personality.

Yeah,  he chums the water–throws out blue fish and oil to attract sharks. The practice has gotten many shark tour operations in trouble, especially with surfers, who fear it changes sharks’ behavior. But he says fishermen in the area do the same. And no one is swimming anywhere near 10-40 miles out in the ocean.

The dives can be expensive, but aren’t so bad if you go in a group. Nantucket Shark Divers charges $800 for cage dives and $1,000 for open water dives up to four people. If you’re not vacationing on Nantucket, there are two other shark dives in New England: Snappa Charters in Judith Point, Rhode Island and Sea Turtle Charters, which visits RI from Montauk, Long Island. Snappa offers the option of “playpen” watching: you get on a kind of safety raft for a good view, but you don’t have to go in the water (rates start at $220 for divers and $170 for non-divers). Sea Turtle visits the sand sharks off Block Island, RI, and shipwrecks ($200/person).

Bonus animals: you may see whales, dolphins, sunfish, seabirds, seals and seaturtles.

Photo courtesy of Nantucket Shark Dives

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September is a perfect time to put on a silly dog event. Now that the weather has cooled, we have two great events this weekend: a basset hound waddle in Illinois and a poodle party in New Hampshire.

In Illinois this weekend, we’ve got a nice basset hound waddle. Around the country basset breed rescue groups raise money to save dogs by having parades. Typically, a rescue group –in this case Guardian Angel Basset Rescue–gloms onto a small town parade–here it’s Dwight, IL’s Harvest Days. The bassets quickly become the star of the show–even though they are uniquely ill-suited to parading, what with their sloth, girth and enthusiasm for saying hi to everyone. You can absolutely go basset-less, have a great time and say hi to as many bassets as you want.

I’ve gone to the Dwight Waddle, riding on the basset coattails of my sister’s goofy dog Bacon. You’ll see a sea of bassets; they hope for 1,000 this year. And they have plenty of hounds up for adoption. My sister is going and I hope she falls in love with one. Next week the Calgary Basset Rescue Network (see their Facebook fan page) has its fourth annual waddle .

On the east coast, Crabapple Downs‘ 60-acre Poodle Farm has its annual Poodle Party weekend. You don’t have to have a poodle bred here, but they do want you to have a poodle. It’s their ninth year and they’ve got a dog dancing class this year. I got to stay up at Crabapple Downs this summer with our dog Jolly. Arlene Mills couldn’t have been more understanding of the needs of a senior dog. I wish I had gotten Jolly up there when he was younger and could’ve enjoyed all the trails, ponds and running with poodles.

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Yesterday we reported on how the Great White Sharks that are closing beaches on Cape Cod are also drawing shark tourists. Today another seal boat captain tells us they’re looking in the wrong spot.


Captain Keith Lincoln of Monomoy Island Ferry says that people are mistakenly hanging around Chatham Lighthouse since that’s where the shark was first sighted by kayakers a eating a seal in August. “
That is all due to the misleading information given by the media,” says Captain Keith. Massachusetts Department of Fisheries page shows all the taggings being done three miles south of the lighthouse near the area where South Beach and South Monomoy Island attached in 2006.”

Looking at the Fisheries map here, he’s totally right. Excellent tip, Captain Keith. (Though they do also show pictures of sharks offshore of the lighthouse.) He also warns that even if you’re in the right place, the odds of seeing a shark are pretty impossible. The tagging teams use spotters on planes and perches 35 feet out of the water.
Captain Keith reports he’s “calls about seeing the sharks, which is nearly impossible to guarantee.” I think the seal tourists of Cape Cod have gotten spoiled; the tour boats can guarantee sightings because they’re dealing with the east coast’s biggest colony of gray seals, which is somewhere around 10,000. Normally wildlife watching is no sure thing.

Captain Keith, a 20-year veteran of the seal tours, says the sharks (and attendant media frenzy) come every year. “I think this year is a little different in that the sharks showed up in a large number all at once.” The seal cruises have been popular since 1991 and continue to get more popular with a new tour company starting this year, amid the recession, Captain Keith says. “So that alone tells you people are interested in the seals.” He doesn’t anticipate any shark frenzy curbing enthusiasm for the seals. A bigger threat to the tours are the shifting sandbars and regulations about where they can dock, he says.

Seeing sharks is pretty iffy, but if you go out this fall, you can see lots of shorebirds like oystercatchers and sea ducks like eiders, scoters, and buffleheads. And in June, Monomoy is the Cape’s best spot to see mating horseshoe crabs pile on the beach. Overall their populations are down about 90% on Cape Cod in the last few decades, but researchers have shown that Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge has some of the highest densities left


Meanwhile, if you really want to see a shark off Cape Cod, check out this guy at Nantucket Shark Dives, who does shark dives with chum 30 miles off Nantucket and gets to see lots of blue sharks.

Where to See Seals (and maybe sharks). The tours often require a minimum group to make it worth their while to go out as their business tapers off in the fall.
Monomoy Island Ferry
Usually runs April – December
90-minute cruise
Adults $30, Kids 15 and under $25
Look for signs for the Rip Ryder
Monomoy Island Ferry and USFWS Headquarters.

Beachcomber
Chatham’s Municipal Fish Pier on Shore Rd.
(508) 945-5265
Adults $27, Seniors $25, Kids 3 -15 $23, Kids under 3 are free.

Blue Claw Boat Tours
Orleans
Adults $25, Kids 12 and under $20
(508) 240-5783

From Nantucket (year-round)
Shearwater Excursions
(508) 228-7037
2.5 hours to Muskeget Island
Town Pier in downtown Nantucket.
$90 Adults, $70 Children under 12

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When news got out that Chatham, MA’s, gray seal colony–the biggest on the east coast–was drawing sharks that closed beaches, a funny thing happened. Or didn’t happen. Instead of running away scared, more tourists came to this little town on Cape Cod’s elbow to see some sharks, hoping for a picture, or at least a glimpse.

“It’s a big draw,” says Lisa Franz, executive director of the Chatham Chamber of Commerce. “We have traffic jams… People are still walking in today and saying ‘Where can we see them?'”

Tony LaCasse, a former veteran Boston TV newsman, says years ago local TV news would’ve been filled with scared would-be swimmers. But that was before years of education that drilled home how very unlikely it is to be bitten, let alone eaten, by a great white shark in New England. (Last fatal attack: 1936) Now we get shark tourists. “It’s a long way from Jaws,” says LaCasse, where the premise was they couldn’t possibly close the beach on the Fourth of July.

The sharks are coming because the water is (briefly) warm and because the seal population has grown unchecked–well, that is, until the sharks showed up. Seal populations were kept artificially low for decades–maybe centuries. Until the 1960s, Massachusetts even paid a bounty for each seal (“a nickel a nose” in the early 1900s). Now seals are making a comeback. Cape has the biggest population on the American east coast, with roughly 10,000 (no one’s done a formal count since 1999, when it was 5,600), according to the National Marine Fisheries Service 2008 report on gray seals. A few hundred live on the islands off Maine. but the U.S. population of gray seals is dwarfed by the Canadian one: More than 200,000 on Sable Island, Nova Scotia and 20,000 on the St. Lawrence.

In August kayakers spotted a great white shark munching on a seal near Chatham Lighthouse. Five sharks were seen close enough to the shore that cautious to the shore and surfers to close beaches over Labor Day. Mind you, beaches closed two weekends earlier for strong waves and that didn’t make the evening news.

So far, however, the sharks are hard to see off Cape Cod. (Though plenty of places elsewhere cater to shark tourists.) Paula St. Pierre, who has run the Beachcomber tours out of Chatham for 11 years, says she hasn’t seen any of the characteristic dorsal fins herself. “I don’t want to see any,” she says, at least not chasing the seals. “I saw one seal out there yesterday that had a big chunk taken out and shortly afterwards expired.”

If you’re looking for sharks, go to their meal, the seals. Some people go to the beach by Chatham Lighthouse (where seals hang out) to try to see some fins in the water, but the best bet for seeing the most seals or maybe even a dorsal fin are the seal boats.

Even if you don’t get to see a great white, you’ll get surprisingly close to the seals, which often approach the tour boats, St. Pierre says. “Seals come right up to the boat,” she says. “They’re as curious about us as we are about them. Not only can you see them, you can smell them.” When sharks appeared in the past, the seals have even turned to the seal tourists for help. “In years past seals have tried to climb in the boat,” when they’ve been afraid of sharks in the water, St. Pierre says. She had to fight the urge to help them up like a dog.

Seal-watching has become its own mini-industry on the Cape, with Beachcombers taking out 200 people a day at the peak of summer. About a half dozen seal tour operators line the coast.

No one is sure what will happen if the seals continue to draw such large numbers of sharks. Will there be a movement to get the seals to leave? (Tricky, because of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and certainly controversial.) Will Chatham have to install shark nets like they have in Australia? Or will shark tours move in to boost the economy?

“Summer would be a whole different story,” says Franz. “September, it’s like whoohoo, we’ve got a good shoulder season.” Meanwhile, seal and shark watchers can get shoulder season rates now. And come winter, when the seal population peaks with migrants from Canada, you can get an even better deal to see a huge seal colony.

Where to See Seals (and maybe sharks). The tours often require a minimum group to make it worth their while to go out as their business tapers off in the fall.

Beachcomber
Chatham’s Municipal Fish Pier on Shore Rd.
(508) 945-5265
Adults $27, Seniors $25, Kids 3 -15 $23, Kids under 3 are free.

Monomoy Island Ferry
90-minute cruise
Adults $30, Kids 15 and under $25
Look for signs for the Rip Ryder Monomoy Island Ferry and USFWS Headquarters.

Blue Claw Boat Tours
Orleans
Adults $25, Kids 12 and under $20
(508) 240-5783

From Nantucket (year-round)
Shearwater Excursions
(508) 228-7037
2.5 hours to Muskeget Island
Town Pier in downtown Nantucket.
$90 Adults, $70 Children under 12

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Picking out a whale-friendly East Coast whale watch just got a little easier. NOAA and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society just started Whale Sense, a voluntary program to ensure tours from Virginia to Maine don’t bother whales.

The rules are complicated–more than just stay back 100 feet, though that is the basic distance. (If the whale approaches you, stay put. If it’s a right whale, back off 1,500 feet.) What I found more amusing were the rules against advertising showing whale watchers touching, swimming with or even chasing the whales. Is Jerry Bruckheimer running a watch somewhere?

So far the group has signed up five companies, mainly in Massachusetts. I count at least 30 tour companies from Virginia to Maine, with 18 going to Stellwagen Bank–not included the odd charters that line the whole coast. So what about the ones not on the list?

Even Frank Kelley, operations manager for Mass Bay Lines (listed) says that right now the program is so new that you can’t judge an operation for not participating. Lots of the tours work with other whale groups. For example, Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company is tied to Allied Whale. The New England Aquarium’s whale watch, which I just went on, isn’t part of the program yet (they’re still examining the details), says spokesman Tony LaCasse. But since they already do most of it and they helped push voluntary standards decades ago, they’ll probably be part of it.

When you’re out on Stellwagen it’s not the commercial whale watching boats you see encroaching on whales, but the tiny recreational fishing boats. Kelley says many tour operators worry that the small boats don’t understand the protocols (which is elaborate when it comes to many boats wanting to see the same whales). NEAQ’s LaCasses says that personally he’d like to see an enforcement presence on the water–like the Coast Guard is for boating regulations.

When I talked with marine mammal expert Toni Frohoff (she’s a behavioral biologist and research director at TerraMar Research) she mentioned that generally it’s better to have one big boat in the water around a whale instead of a bunch of little ones. At first that seems counterintuitive; we normally don’t think of going out in a big, hulking, Hummer of a boat as being eco-friendly. But that’s what it is, at least to the whales.

The tricky thing for whale watchers is picking tours that won’t annoy–or hit–the whales. In Puget Sound tour boats are known to crowd the orcas, which could interfere with their eating or mating. I haven’t seen that on the vast waters East Coast boats troll.

Consumers can’t easily tell from an ad or website that attitude of operation. (Well, ok, I am a little skeptical when I read “Imagine the sight of dolphins dancing and frolicking right alongside The Silver Bullet. See whales surfacing and breaching…[from a] shiny, brand new 70 ft. long ocean going projectile.” But most whale watches at least claim to be whale-friendly. But is that like a processed cereal labeled as organic? I hope the Whale Sense program grows and offers up an easy way for wildlife watchers to pick the responsible tours.

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Boston loves to show off its sweet, staring role in Make Way for Ducklings, the children’s book that culminates in cops helping ducks across the street. They’ve got duckling statues, duckling contests and it is seemingly mandatory to display the book in stores. Yet the city isn’t helping its non-fiction waterfowl. For nearly three decades a flock of white and gray geese have lived on the Charles River near Boston University, but their advocates say a renovation plan is pushing them out.

“They insist they have this beautiful park but they have no use for free animals,” says Robert J. La Trémouille, a blogger who is one of the Friends of the White Geese, which is kind of the like the geese’s political lobbying arm. This flock of 60-80 White China, Emden, and Toulouse geese have lots of friends and fans. La Trémouille says Bostonians have visited geese–a rare survivor on the polluted Charles–since at least 1981, when a plant got “guard geese.” But some say the geese go back 60 years.

Another group, the Charles River Urban Wilds Initiative, concern themselves with the geese’s day-t0-day care. Many, like Boston University writing lecturer Allison Blyer, take it on themselves to deliver healthy food (veggies, duck food) and occasional medical care. They notice individual characters and quirks. The current leader, Buddy, is about 20 years old. Pinky, pictured above, is known as a real character, sayd Blyer: “He is very bonded to us and likes to peck cameras. He also loves tomatoes, parsley, apples, saltines, and his mate, Blue.” Many more casually stop by with kids–especially in gosling season–and offer leftovers.

But meanwhile, Trémouille says, those who want to keep the river area sterile put oil on the geese’s eggs. (Though some say they are only target the more invasive Canada goose.) The state’s Dept. of Conservation and Recreation has dug up their nesting area, put a plastic barrier by Magazine Beach and redid the area with athletic fields that rely heavily on pesticides instead of the natural landscaping the geese provide, La Trémouille says.

Nearby overly landscaped ballfields have lead to algae blooms, he says. Indeed the EPA notes the river is polluted, mainly from sewers. Some worry about the waste the geese leave behind, but that’s nothing compared to the dead zone that will be produced when a power plant starts discharging hot water into the river. The state produced a master plan for the river, including Magazine Beach, which it hopes “to discourage the growth of a flock of feral geese.” They want to put up signs discouraging feeding–like the alarmist warnings in Boston Common that conflate feeding birds with a human health crisis.

La Trémouille says he doesn’t want to stop the renovation, just let the geese who have lived and delighted people on the Charles for generations be part of it. He hopes people will tell Gov. Deval Patrick, the DCR and local pols to let the geese stay. Doesn’t seem that enjoying a flock of unusual geese should be that antithetical to enjoying a park and river.

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This weekend we got to see a pod of humpback whales bubble cloud feeding–that is cooperatively blowing bubbles to herd tiny fish into a concentration near the surface, then gobbling them up. The New England Aquarium’s‘s tour brought us close enough to the whales that we could actually see, understand and anticipate what they were doing.

You first know you’re going to see this specialized hunting technique when a huge patch of light turquoise water appears. Bubbles surface, then enormous black snouts covered with bumps (technically, tubercules or hair follicles). There’s lots of jostling and swirling, then fins and finally a “whale footprint” or eerily smooth patch of sea that, we learned, whalers first thought was leaked whale oil.

I found some discussion online that humpbacks only bubble net feed off Alaska, Antarctica and west of South America. I’m not a whale expert, so I’m not sure if this is any different from what we all saw. But we clearly got to see it a few times. We had at least three whales at it, Echo, a mother; her calf, who stuck close to her; and another whale named Zooney.

The New England Aquarium has the system down to bring whales to the masses: a huge, fast catamaran whisks you an hour off-shore into Stellwagen Bank, a shallow feeding ground and sanctuary. Right from the center of Boston you can spend three hours and $40 and see one of the most active whale-watching sights in the world. Whale-watching tours from Cape Cod, Plymouth, Cape Ann, New Hampshire and Maine all head to Stellwagen. The boat’s stable, so only a few get sick. You spend an hour speeding out to sea, an hour watching and an hour coming back. They sometimes see minke or fin whales, dolphins and basking sharks. A guy filming the trip for NOAA said it was the best he’d been on.

Not in Boston? Here are a ton of great places to see whales.

More places to see animals in the Northeast.

Got suggestions for animal watching places? Tell us.

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