North Atlantic right whales, Eubalaena glacialis, remain endangered, primarily due to excessive anthropogenic mortality. Current management protocols in US waters are triggered by identifying the presence of at least one right whale in a management area. We assessed whether acoustic detection of right whale contact calls can work as an alternative to visual aerial surveys for establishing their presence. Aerial survey and acoustic monitoring were conducted in Cape Cod Bay, Massachusetts, in 2001–2005 and used to evaluate and compare right whale detections. Over the 58 d with simultaneous aerial and acoustic coverage, aerial surveys saw whales on approximately two-thirds of the days during which acoustic monitoring heard whales. There was no strong relationship between numbers of whales seen during aerial surveys and numbers of contact calls detected on survey days. Results indicate acoustic monitoring is a more reliable mechanism than aerial survey for detecting right whales. Because simple detection is sufficient to trigger current management protocols, continuous, autonomous acoustic monitoring provides information of immediate management utility more reliably than aerial surveillance. Aerial surveys are still required to provide data for estimating population parameters and for visually assessing the frequency and severity of injuries from shipping and fishing and detecting injured and entangled right whales.