Animal Encounters on Cape Cod

Learn where to spot whales, birds and other wildlife during your Cape Cod vacation in autumn.


Cape Cod’s miles of gorgeous beaches are a huge draw to visitors in the summer, but there is much to recommend on the peninsula during the shoulder seasons, particularly in autumn when the crowds disperse and the New England climate is brilliant. The end of swimsuit weather offers an invitation to explore one of the most fascinating ecosystems on the East Coast, as the Cape is situated at the crossroads for many migrating species, from warblers to whales. Here are a few places to get a natural education on the outer Cape:

Marsh Madness

A great first stop for any budding naturalist, the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History is set on an 80-acre plot of woodlands and salt marsh in Brewster. Visitors should check out the ongoing exhibits on local habitats and honeybees before exploring one of the two nature trails that weave through woods and tidal flats to get a closer look at shorebirds, shellfish and the occasional horseshoe crab. Guided Wednesday Walks are offered through the fall, while kids and other curious folk can grab a pail and a pair of water shoes to join the popular annual Mudflat Mania, event which just took place the weekend of Sept. 20 and 21. The museum is open 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day from June through September and noon to 4 p.m. Wed.- Sun. from October through the end of 2008, opening again in February 2009. Cape Cod Museum of Natural History, tel. 508-896-3867.

Fluke Occurrence

Located at the tip of Cape Cod, Provincetown’s proximity to the rich marine feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank (now designated a national marine sanctuary) contributed to its success as a whaling community in the 19th century and makes it an ideal launching spot for whale watchers today. At times the whales come in close enough to be seen from land at Race Point Beach, as during this spring’s unprecedented showing by endangered North Atlantic Right whales, but the best seats are on the water.

The town’s two whale watching companies merged this year under the banner of the Dolphin Fleet, which will run multiple daily cruises through Oct. 26. A three-hour tour can turn up elegant finbacks, dapper minkes, flashy humpbacks and the occasional basking shark, ocean sunfish or pod of dolphins. The Fleet’s onboard naturalists offer expert and entertaining commentary (naturalist Dennis Minsky has been known to use his mustache to demonstrate the workings of baleen) while collecting data to further the study of these mysterious animals. An extra layer and a windbreaker are essential, as is a post-cruise bowl of chowder at The Lobster Pot. Dolphin Fleet, tel. 800-826-9300.

For the Birds

Autumn on Cape Cod is a birder’s paradise: Many species crowd onto the narrow strip of land as they head south for the winter, while offshore storms can push rare seabirds close to the coast. Bring your binoculars and your life list to the Massachusetts Audubon Society’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, which boasts more than 1,000 acres of salt and freshwater terrain to explore. Nature lovers of all stripes can linger along the Sanctuary’s five trails or check out roving exhibits and a list of recent sightings at the new Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified nature center. Admission is $5, and trails are open all year from 8 a.m. to dusk. Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, tel. 508-349-2615.

Seal the Deal

Chatham’s dynamic coastline can prove a navigational challenge even for local boaters, but the area’s inlets and sand deposits are a haven for wildlife; nearby North and South Monomoy Islands are a favorite haunt of harbor seals and migratory birds. For a peek into this unique habitat, the Monomoy Island Ferry offers 90-minute seal cruises ($32 for adults, $28 for children under 16) that depart daily from the Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge Headquarters. In November 2008, the company will begin running Saturday sea duck cruises, which take in the Cape’s returning populations of eiders, buffleheads and scoters, as well as other migrants ($25 per person, $20 for children under 5). Visitors can sometimes catch a free show at the end of Chatham’s pier, where seals will congregate to snap up fresh cast-offs from fisherman. Monomoy Island Ferry, tel. 508-945-5450. 

Destinations: Cape Cod

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Bird Watching, Sightseeing, Whale Watching

User Comments

The Cape Cod Stranding Network was the first responder to the incident, with veterinarians and biologists from the New England Aquarium's Rescue and Rehabilitation Department following close behind. Veterinarians from the Aquarium performed advanced blood tests on the dolphins to make sure that they were healthy enough for transport.

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