What to Do

Nantucket Seal and Whale Watching

Nantucket has been involved in eco-tourism since long before the term was invented. The island is a particularly attractive spot for visitors who want to learn more about the world they live in while enjoying more traditional vacation activities.

On the water the term best applies to the boats that operate seal and whale watches from Nantucket Harbor.

Grey Seals have made a dramatic recovery on Nantucket. from a time in the 1960s when they were virtually eliminated in New England by fishermen who thought they were hurting fishing stocks. In the 1970s there were only a handful of pups being born on Muskeget each year, that number now surpasses 50. The entire herd now numbers more than 1,000, although during the summer season the herd spreads out further to fish.

Capt. Mark Scharwenka is skipper of Nantucket Adventure, a shallow draft boat that can navigate in waters as shallow as two feet. His boat can hold as many as 12 people, but he tries to keep trips to 10 people or less. He also offers private charters and can customize a private trip to include a combination of seal watching, swimming and beach combing as the guests desire.

Capt. Scharwenka takes his role as an eco-tourism guide seriously. He says he takes care to exceed all the federal guidelines when approaching the playful marine mammals. It's also good business. If the seals are approached carefully, they are far more likely to approach the boat for even closer contact.

Over the course of a season Capt. Scharwenka says it becomes easy to recognize certain family groups and even particular individuals. Some seals are far more comfortable around visitors than others. But no matter how friendly they appear, Capt. Scharwenka warns that they are wild animals and will act in way unpredictable to those who don't understand their behaviors.

You might want to think of Capt. Blair Perkins as the last Nantucket Whaler. Capt. Perkins now chases whales on his vessel Shearwater with a crew of paying guests and the only thing shot is a digital camera.

Capt. Perkins also runs seal watching trips along with the whale wathing trips. He learned about the animals over the course of a 30 year career as a fishing boat captain, hired regularly carry some of the world's top marine scientists on their field work.

Capt. Perkins believes the interaction between humans and whales is a two way street. He likens the seals to playful dogs who interact with people on the boat. And he has witnessed many times whales rolling on their sides to see the passenger lined along his rail during whale watches.

While the seals sit close by on Musket Island only about 30 minutes west of Nantucket Harbor, the trip to the whaling grounds is 25 to 39 miles offshore and can take an hour and a half to arrive. A six hour trip means there is usually three hours to find the whales.

And he's had good success over the years. In 2006 they averaged 30 whales per trip and guarantee that whales will be found, or passengers get a second trip free. Capt. Perkins says he has learned over the years to spot whales, even recognize species, by their water spouts.

Among the whale likely to be seen are humback, minke and finback whales, and occasionally the rare right whale, hunted to near extinction by Nantucketers so many years before.


The grey seal population around Nantucket has grown dramatically in recent years and has become major focus of Nantucket eco-tours.

Inquirer and Mirror photo