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A Prime P-town Pastime

In 1975, 4 years after the U.S. government -- fearing the species' extinction -- called an official halt to whaling, fisherman Al Avellar noticed that they seemed to be making a comeback in the Stellwagen Bank feeding area, 8 miles off Provincetown. Together with marine biologist Charles "Stormy" Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies, he came up with the notion of a new kind of hunt, spearheaded by tourists bearing cameras. An immediate success, the Dolphin Fleet/Portuguese Princess, which works with the Center for Coastal Studies and uses its naturalists on the trips, on MacMillan Wharf (tel. 800/826-9300 or 508/240-3636; www.whalewatch.com), was widely copied up and down the coast. These are still the prime feeding grounds, however, which is why all the whale-watching fleets can confidently "guarantee" sightings -- they offer a rain check should the cetaceans fail to surface. Prices for whale-watching trips are $39 for adults, $36 for seniors, $29 for children 5 to 12, and free for children 4 and under. Discounts of $3 off are available for AAA memberships and by using coupons available at the chamber of commerce.

Another good Cape Cod whale-watch organization is Capt. John Boats, which operates 4-hour trips daily in season out of Plymouth Harbor in Plymouth, about 20 miles north of the Sagamore Bridge (tel. 800/242-2469 or 508/746-2643; www.captjohn.com). Prices are $43 for adults, $36 for seniors 62 and over, and $29 for children 12 and under.

On most cruises, running commentary is provided by naturalists with various qualifications. The naturalists aboard the Portuguese Princess are Center for Coastal Studies scientists who do research crucial to the whales' survival. Part of the Princess' tourist proceeds go to the center's efforts. Serious whale aficionados can take a daylong trip to the Great South Channel, where humpbacks and finbacks are likely to be found by the dozen.

Some tips for first-timers: Dress very warmly, in layers (it's cold out on the water), and definitely take along a windbreaker, waterproof if possible. The weather is capricious, and if you stand in the bow of the boat, the best viewing point, you can count on getting drenched. Veteran whale-watchers know to bring a spare set of dry clothes, as well as binoculars -- although if the whales seem to be feeling friendly and frisky, as they often are, they'll play practically within reach of the boat. And last but not least, if you're prone to seasickness, bring along some motion-sickness pills: It can get pretty rough out there.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.