Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Fall is a Great Time for Whale Watching

Recently observed whales on a Boston Harbor Cruise Whale Watch.
I've been on a handful of whale watches over the years, all in Massachusetts. The opportunity to be out on the water with whales and other sea life is quite extraordinary. The presence of whales is so magnificent I always find tears in my eyes and a renewed awe of the natural world. It is an opportunity that everyone should be able to have. Recently I've been inspired by Kenny Cieplik's whale watching ventures to write a post here, as well as make a date to get out on another whale watch.

Though a quick check of the Massachusetts Office on Travel and Tourism website shows that most of the dozen whale watch companies offer "handicap accessible" tours, you'll want to be sure to ask in advance what that will mean for your particular needs. Kenny for instance, uses a power wheelchair, which probably represents the ultimate challenge for accommodation. Boat designs vary and some are no doubt older, which means that passageways may be too narrow - if a power chair can make it up or down the gangway and cross over to the ship's deck in the first place. And interestingly enough, in my first round of web research, only the New England Aquarium in Boston indicated any accessibility for people with disabilities on their website.

Boarding a Boston Harbor Cruise Whale Watch vessel.
I called around to see what some of the whale watch companies from Newburyport to Provincetown had to say about accommodating people using wheelchairs. The Newburyport Whale Watch, Cape Ann Whale Watch in Gloucester, Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises and Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown were all friendly -and flat out said they could not accommodate people in power wheelchairs. The Cape Ann Whale Watch offers a manual wheelchair for people to transfer into, as well as an online video of the captain walking around the vessel so you can see in advance what the physical space is like - outdoor access all the way around the boat is shown. The Dolphin Fleet and Hyannis Whale Watchers Cruises both said they could accommodate manual wheelchair users. Weight of power chairs was cited as the primary issue, so if you use a manual wheelchair, be aware that access may mean being lifted from the dock to the boat.

Kenny and his traveling crew ready to see whales.
If you use a power wheelchair, Boston is your best bet as far as I can tell. The New England Aquarium reports that the whole first level of the boat is accessible, indoors (including restrooms) and outside all the way around the boat, with initial access via portable ramp. Boston Harbor Cruises, which Kenny used this month, communicates a similar set up (and may be serving the New England Aquarium - I couldn't quite tell on this), however the actual boat you get the day of your excursion may vary - for instance on Kenny's recent trip, the only outdoor access was at the rear of the vessel, where fuel fumes can be a problem. Other challenges to be aware of are well documented on Kenny's excursion with Captain John's Boats of Plymouth. When I called that tour company, they said they were "not easily accessible" with a 28" wide ramp and ten steps to the lower deck where protection from the elements and restrooms are located. Sounds like much hasn't changed since Kenny's visit 3 years ago, but I'm glad to see the access info being communicated well.

Chair users should definitely find out how much of the outside experience is accessible. Best experiences will allow you outdoor access all the way around the boat, as well as indoor access. It seems rare to be able to access the highest viewing deck. I recommend getting the name of the vessel that will best suit your needs and then be sure to get tickets for that boat.

Whales are in migration now, passing through Massachusetts waters as they travel south. It is a great time to go out for the numbers of whales you might get to see. Even seeing one whale is an amazing encounter. Most whale watch companies are on the water through October and feature on-board naturalists who can answer your questions. If you've never had this experience, consider it now, and if you've been out before like me, it is always worth doing again!

Thanks to Kenny and Paula Cieplik and for use of photos!


Kenny & Company said...

Hi Marcy,

Great summary of obstacles we in wheelchairs face on boats offering Whale Watching. Despite the obstacles, I highly recommend everyone who can take a Whale Watch trip to see these magnificent whales of the sea!

As you suggest, I would definitely call in advance to ask what the accessibility of the boat will mean for your particular needs. I used my Power Chair on my first whale watch trip out of Plymouth and found it caused many more challenges. Recently when I took the took the Boston Harbor Cruise Whale Watch boat, I used my manual chair and found it much easier.

I believe the New England Aquarium and the Boston Harbor Cruises use the same boat for whale watching trips.

Thanks for all your valuable research!

Kenny & Company

Marcy Marchello said...

Recieved an immediate response from Boston Harbor Cruises - love seeing this level of awareness and motivation from a tour company!

"Hi Marcy,

My name is Alison one of the owners of Boston Harbor Cruises. We were fortunate enough to take Kenny and his crew on the Whale Watch. I’m sad to hear that Kenny was unable to access the bow (forward open area) for a better viewing experience on his trip. Can you tell me was there an accessibility problem for Kenny getting out onto the bow? We have always considered that area accessible and would be interested to know if there is some obstacle we are not aware of that can be resolved. I’d also be happy to speak with you or Kenny about other ways we can make the experience better. I think your blog is great and really does a lot to highlight the unique accessibility obstacles people may face while enjoying the great outdoors. The paddling trip looks great!

All the best,


Marcy Marchello said...

I forwarded Alison's message on to Kenny & Co. for more specific response. This is a great example of constructive dialogue and we hope to hear back from BHC. It is also a good example of the level of detail that can be needed to fully comprehend accessible needs.

"Hi Alison,

My name is Paula Cieplik and I'm Kenny's mom and accompanied him on our Boston Harbor Cruise Whale Watch trip last week. Overall we found your boat much very accessible and the crew members were wonderful! Marcy asked me to respond to your question about our problem accessing the front bow area. The main problem is there is a lip at front door which is hard to wheel over. Once we lifted his chair over the lip, we found little room to turn his chair because the space directly outside the door is narrow. When we did manage to wheel out further we didn't find much space for his chair because an area with a step takes up much of the front of the bow. The two narrow areas further out in front are narrow and were crowded. Also there is no bench seating for anyone to sit and enjoy the ride and view the whales like upper deck has.

One suggestion if possible would be to remove the area with step and railings and so there would be more space for all to sit on the front bow and view the whales. I'm not sure if it is possible but just a thought I had.

The pictures we took that we placed on our review are below. Once again, we enjoyed our trip and the kindness of your crew members.

Paula Cieplik"