Have a Whale of a Time in Provincetown!
Throughout his youth, like many others raised in Provincetown, boat captain Al Avellar was part of the fishing community. He’d gotten his start in deep-sea charter business with the catboat Blue Gull back before World War II, and “he brought the schooner Hindu to Provincetown in 1947,” remembers his cousin Mary-Jo Avellar.
But when he left the harbor on his vessel Dolphin III on April 15th, 1975, it wasn’t with a group of people looking to net a bluefish. Instead, he was taking a group of Provincetown schoolchildren out—just to look. To learn. To see. It was the first whale-watching trip on the Eastern Seaboard.
Longtime executive director of the Provincetown Chamber of Commerce, Candice Collins-Boden remembers that first trip. “Al rented a space in the Chamber building along with the Center for Coastal Studies,” she says. “I had the honor to be on the first whale watch with the children in the mid-seventies…. and many more. He was a friend and taught me a lot. And I loved his sons, who continued the Dolphin whale watch to this day.”
Avellar’s “Dolphin days,” as his cousin calls them, were suggested by son Aaron (who is still involved with the fleet today). And so it was with that the Avellar family started the whale-watching activity and went from one single recreational fishing charter boat to owning a fleet that spent summers in Ptown and winters holed up in Fairhaven across the inlet from New Bedford, a fleet designed specifically for taking visitors out to view marine wildlife.
Millions of people each year view the friendly and playful cetaceans that frequent the waters of New England between April and October. Eighty-five years after the region’s whaling industry disappeared, whale watching is a multi-million-dollar business in New England.
The whale watches may have started as a way for a charter boat captain to extend the season and attract a different crowd of tourists, but now with the popularity showing no signs of waning, they’ve spread up and down the coast, first in Boston and Cape Ann, and later up into Canada and down to Florida; they’ve become a multi-million-dollar enterprise. No visit to Ptown is complete without at least one whale watch!
Together with Allied Whale in Bar Harbor at the College of the Atlantic, the Center for Coastal Studies’ Humpback Whale Research Group runs a study of return rates of whales based on decades of sighting data. So naturalists on board can usually identify each whale that’s sighted by the boat.
The naturalists participate in a yearly training program, exploring the ever-changing marine habitat visited daily, and most have been with the company for years if not decades. And crew and naturalists alike return for an incredible experience working out of Provincetown, exploring the marine life of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Whale watch trips are typically three to four hours. The variability depends on how far we may need to travel to see whales and weather conditions; this is at the discretion of the captain. The whales are here from April until the end of October to feed, though some stay for the winter.
Remember that it’s always 10-15 degrees cooler on the water than it is onshore, so Dolphin Fleet recommends dressing in layers; even in the middle of summer you’ll probably need a light windbreaker or sweatshirt. Wear rubber-soled shoes (sneakers) or shoes with good traction, as the decks can get quite wet, and bring sunscreen and sunglasses.
Al Avellar died in 2008, but lived to see his modest school-outing activity blossom into a way of life for many. Remember to thank him when you find yourself out in the spray with a great beautiful creature surfacing right beside you!