Travel

Animal Cruises in New England | Where to See Loons, Bald Eagles, Moose, Sharks & More!

Grab your binoculars and climb aboard one of these top New England animal cruises for an unforgettable adventure.

By Yankee Magazine

Apr 06 2020

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A note from the editors: This story was published before travel operators began adjusting their plans in light of COVID-19. Please contact businesses directly for the most up-to-date information on offerings and schedules.
Illustration by Martin Haake

LOONS

Squam Lakes Natural Science Center / Loon Preservation Committee (Holderness, NH)

OVERVIEW: Two worthy nonprofits join forces for this pontoon boat trip on Squam Lake, where the first major efforts to protect NH loons began in the 1970s.

CAPTAIN/CREW: A Squam Lakes Natural Science Center naturalist is your pilot and guide, with help from a Loon Preservation Committee biologist.

COMMON SIGHTS: Loons, mallards, double-crested cormorants, kingfishers, great blue herons, bald eagles, hawks, hooded mergansers, common mergansers.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: Once spied on Squam: a juvenile red-throated loon, a species that spends most of its time in Arctic regions.

FUN FACT: Loons are long-lived—the oldest NH loon, which dwells on Lake Umbagog, is nearly 30 years old.

BOOKING INFO: Ninety-minute cruises offered June–August. $27/$23 kids. nhnature.org

OSPREYS

RiverQuest (Haddam, CT)

OVERVIEW: The lower Connecticut River is a hot spot for wildlife-watching, and RiverQuesthas been cruising it through all seasons in search of all kinds of critters for almost 20 years.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Married founders Mark and Mindy Yuknat: He’s a captain with more than 7,800 cruises under his belt; she’s a state-certified naturalist.

COMMON SIGHTS: Ospreys, bald eagles, hawks, ducks, and other wildlife including foxes, deer, and coyotes.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: A RiverQuest cruise once spotted a gray seal in the water near Lyme—rather unusual for this ocean swimmer.

FUN FACT: Using their rotating outer talons like opposable thumbs, ospreys position their caught fish head-forward for better aerodynamics in flight.

BOOKING INFO: Three-hour osprey cruises offered July 15 and 18. $40. (Note: RiverQuest has many other types of cruises, including osprey/eagle trips in spring.) ctriverquest.com

BALD EAGLES

Sea Venture Custom Boat Tours (Bar Harbor, ME)

OVERVIEW: Though he offers itineraries for any interest, owner Winston Shaw has special cred when it comes to spotting our national bird: He’s founder of the Coastal Maine Bald Eagle Project.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Captain Shaw is a Maine native, naturalist, and Registered Maine Guide who’s logged more than 50,000 miles by boat in the greater Mount Desert Island area alone.

COMMON SIGHTS: Bald eagles, ospreys, belted kingfishers, black guillemots, loons, blue herons, black-backed gulls, laughing gulls, and many more.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: Mola molas, aka ocean sunfish, one of the heaviest known bony fishes in the world (up to 21/2 tons).

FUN FACT: For nearly four decades Shaw has conducted an independent study of Maine’s coastal bald eagle population, encompassing 650 miles of shoreline and 150 islands.

BOOKING INFO: Custom cruises offered early June–October. Hourly fee based on number of passengers (six maximum); see website for details. svboattours.com

SEABIRDS

Maine Seabird Tours (Vinalhaven, ME)

OVERVIEW: The son of the late ecologist Bill Drury, a renowned expert on Eastern seabirds, award-winning guide John Drury has avian expertise in his blood.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Drury is a Maine seabird ecologist who became a charter captain after years spent ferrying researchers and gear to Seal Island and Matinicus Rock.

COMMON SIGHTS: Razorbills, puffins, Arctic skuas, great cormorants, black guillemots, Arctic terns, eiders, Wilson’s petrels, and many more.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: An ancient murrelet, which hails from the northern Pacific Coast; south polar skuas and long-tailed skuas.

FUN FACT: One of Drury’s biggest lures: the chance to see the famous lone red-billed tropicbird that has returned annually to Seal Island since 2005.

BOOKING INFO: Custom cruises offered May–early November. $90 per hour (six passengers maximum). maineseabirdtours.com

SEA CREATURES

Dive-In Theater with Diver Ed (Bar Harbor, ME)

OVERVIEW: There’s nothing else quite like this 20-year-old interactive cruise, during which passengers watch live onscreen as “Diver Ed” explores underwater and collects sea life to bring aboard for a closer look.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Skippering the Starfish Enterprise are Captain Evil (aka Edna Martin) and Diver Ed (aka Martin’s husband, Ed Monat, a former Bar Harbor harbormaster and Smithsonian marine ecologist).

COMMON SIGHTS: Sea stars, sea cucumbers, crabs, lobsters, sand dollars, sea snails, anemones, worms, urchins, jellyfish, sponges, barnacles, scallops, mussels, and many more.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: Rat-tailed sea cucumbers and giant sunflower sea stars (2 feet wide, with as many as 10 arms).

FUN FACT: Monat has been dive-bombed underwater by a white shark look-alike known as a porbeagle shark, and a monkfish once swallowed his arm (no harm done).

BOOKING INFO: Schedule and prices for 2020 were still TBA at press time, but typically the two-hour cruises are offered Memorial Day–Labor Day; see website for latest info. divered.com

WHITE SHARKS

Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC)/Captain John Boats (Cape Cod, MA)

OVERVIEW: Though AWSC has long offered elite charters ($2,500 for up to five people), this year it’s debuting an affordable alternative that’s more like a whale-watching cruise—sign us up!

CAPTAIN/CREW: Captain Russ Burgis is a Plymouth native who’s been running whale-watching trips at Captain John Boats for 20-plus years.

COMMON SIGHTS: Seals, sea turtles, and various whale and bird species—and with luck, white sharks (though sightings are not guaranteed).

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: Right whales, basking sharks, and mola molas. Last year a white shark was seen feeding on a whale carcass in Cape Cod Bay.

FUN FACT: Sharks have multiple rows of teeth that continuously replace one another—making their mouth something like a fearsome conveyor belt!

BOOKING INFO: Four-hour Saturday cruises offered mid-July–late September. $95. (Note: Departs from Provincetown.) Advance purchase strongly recommended. atlanticwhiteshark.org

MOOSE

Maine Quest Adventures (Medway, ME)

OVERVIEW: Born and raised with Baxter State Park in his backyard, Millinocket native Bryant Davis has decades of experience finding the local four-legged celebrities.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Co-owners and Registered Maine Guides Bryant and wife Sherry run moose-spotting pontoon boat cruises on Millinocket Lake (they also offer canoe, kayak, and van options).

COMMON SIGHTS: Moose, bald eagles, deer, otters, rabbits, loons, ducks, foxes, and many more.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: The Canada lynx, common in its namesake nation but a rare threatened species in the U.S.

FUN FACT: Cruises may include a stop at the c. 1907 Ambajejus Boom House, the only such structure that survives from Maine’s great logging era.

BOOKING INFO: Two- or three-hour cruises offered July–August. $49/$29 kids; reservations required one to two weeks in advance. mainequestadventures.com

WILDLIFE GRAB BAG

ELC Outdoors (Errol, NH)

OVERVIEW: This cruise on Lake Umbagog is right in the middle of a wildlife refuge that straddles two kinds of forest habitats, so you can see species native to either.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Trips are led by various ELC staffers, including river manager Eric Souther, who first got the Umbagog pontoon boat tours started back in 2011.

COMMON SIGHTS: Any of the 200-plus bird species that live in the refuge (including loons and bald eagles), plus beavers, moose, deer, and other wildlife.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: Black bears and bobcats.

FUN FACT: At the northern end of Lake Umbagog is a massive swath of floating peat (750 acres) that has been designated a National Natural Landmark.

BOOKING INFO: Three-hour cruises offered early June–late September. $60/$45 kids. 603-215-0002; elcoutdoors.com

WHALES! WHALES! WHALES!

Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown (Provincetown, MA)

New England Aquarium/Boston Harbor Cruises (Boston, MA)

New England Eco Adventures (Kennebunk, ME, & Hampton Beach, NH)

OVERVIEW: Since New England has no shortage of worthy whale-watching cruises, these are a mere sampling: Dolphin Fleet, the oldest on the East Coast, has 45 years’ experience; NEAQ/BHC has four catamarans that are among the biggest and fastest in the country; New England Eco Adventures uses rigid inflatable boats (RIBs) to help reduce the carbon footprint of whale-watching.

CAPTAIN/CREW: Dolphin Fleet and NEAQ/BHC both have captains and crew with decades of experience in whale-watching, as well as New England–trained naturalists who help narrate the adventure and collect scientific data. New England Eco Adventures, founded in 2018, taps into the experience of Captain Gary Grenier, a veteran of Maine whale-watching for 15-plus years.

COMMON SIGHTS: Humpbacks, finbacks, minke whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, blue whales, pilot whales, harbor porpoises, and many more.

UNCOMMON SIGHTS: North Atlantic right whales, white sharks, beluga whales, sei whales, sperm whales—even manatees.

FUN FACT: One of the NEAQ staff’s favorite bits of trivia to share: Whale poop is a key ocean fertilizer, and thanks to their deep dives, whales disperse those nutrients throughout the water column, from the ocean floor to the surface.

BOOKING INFO: • Dolphin Fleet: Approx. four-hour cruises offered mid-April–October. $53/$35 kids. whalewatch.com• NEAQ/BHC: Approx. four-hour cruises offered March–November. $53/$35 kids. bostonharborcruises.com• NE Eco Adventures: Three-hour cruises offered late May–mid-October. $99. newenglandecoadventures.com

Get our full list of 25 inspired ways to see New England from the water” in “Float Your Boat,” our guide to top New England windjammer cruises, scenic ferry rides, puffin tours, and more.