The New England Aquarium Whale Watch season ended with a giant humpback feast!

This past Sunday before Thanksgiving, the last New England Aquarium Whale Watch trip of the season witnessed a colossal feast among an extraordinary number of 40 to 50 humpbacks at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

For the hardy souls aboard the Boston Harbor Cruises vessel who braved 36-degree temperatures while traveling about 25 miles east of Boston, they witnessed a whale-sized Thanksgiving dinner. The meal was not turkey but most likely sand lance, a small schooling fish that can sometimes be found in abundance just north of the tip of Cape Cod and, ironically, a short swim—for a whale—from Plymouth, MA.

passengers looking at whales
Whale watchers get up-close looks at the feasting!

Seeing three or four of these giant marine mammals makes for a good whale watch trip at any time of the year. Sighting 40 to 50 humpbacks on a single three-hour trip is not unheard of, but still remarkable, particularly in the fall. As autumn progresses, food becomes more scarce. Whales disperse more widely in search of food, and some have already begun the southward migration. But just like people at Thanksgiving, a robust dinner bell can bring in all of the distant relatives.

Laura Howes, Director of Research and Education, described the feeding bedlam. “It was an exhilarating afternoon of watching numerous groups of three to five individuals each hastily working together to feed beneath the surface. We witnessed many groups quickly dive and turn in many directions, working fast to corral fish and often charging at the surface while trumpeting loudly. On a few of the surfacings, we saw two to three groups seeming to narrow in on the same prey …”

We could only imagine the crazy coordinated ballet-of-a-circus happening under the water each time they dove.
- Laura Howes, Director of Research and Education, Boston Harbor Cruises
diving humpback whales
So many whales!

Humpback whales are a protected species, but face considerable human-caused threats. Researchers at the New England Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life are working on developing more whale-friendly fishing rope and exploring other technical fixes that could reduce entanglement. Biologists and veterinarians with the Aquarium’s Marine Animal Rescue team have conducted many necropsies on dead humpback whales to learn what might be causing an unusual die-off of humpbacks along the U.S. East Coast. Lastly, naturalists on board whale watches contribute enormous amounts of scientific data on humpback whale sightings while also reporting entanglements and inspiring hundreds of thousands of visitors with explanations of the behavior of these magnificent creatures.

More Pictures

Check out some more images of the whales, birds, and seals that made the last trip of the season a special pre-Thanksgiving spectacle.