Thursday, August 7, 2008

Whale Watch

Wow. Today we embarked on a whale watch aboard the New England Aquarium vessel, The Voyager II. The sky was overcast and a steady breeze blew in off the water. I was somewhat concerned it would be too dark or foggy to see overly much once we travelled an hour and a half out to sea. The possibility of good waves kept me at least tentatively optimistic that I would get some enjoyment, even if the wrong sort, from the experience. In spite of the weather, a fellow selling tickets nearby promised that the three-deck catamaran would provide a unique once-in-a-life-time glimpse at the whales of Stellwagen Bank. Typically, I disregard anything I hear from someone attempting to sell me something (Wowzer, folks! It cuts pennies! Chocolate stains disappear in one spritz! The weeds will never come back!) but for once, there was truth to what we were told.

I rushed to claim a seat on the highest tier of the boat to enjoy a broader (and wavier) view of the surrounding ocean. About 45 minutes out of Boston, we made our first sighting, still far from Stellwagen Bank. A young girl spotted the whale off our stern. I turned in time to catch it roll and wave a pectoral fin in our general direction (a behavior I did not see repeated later on). It was too far away for me to really make a guess at what sort of whale it was. Perhaps it was letting us know what a treat we were in for, or waving its friends over to us.

When we arrived at the bank, we were almost immediately greated by 4-5 Humpback Whales. I've been on whale watches before, and seen maybe 3 whales total, at a distance from the boat, and a good bit of water between them. This time, our class saw what our guide called an "association," a nonperminant grouping of whales who eat/fish together. Seeing so many at one time was just ridiculous in and of itself; having them swim so close that I could have bonked them if I were given a long enough stick (not that I would want to bonk a whale...) was completely insane. In a good way.

Initially we met Cajun, and Crown and their calves, as identified by our guide who examined their flukes to make this assessment, but several unidentified whales joined the group after a time. The whales were leathery, smoothy, and shiny. On top, they were almost black, with white lining their pectoral fins and patterened on their flukes. We only ever got a good look at the top of them, but I am not going to complain! As is typical of Humpback Whales, they had two blowholes situated close together on their heads. To me, it looked a bit pig-snout shaped (but cooler. beacuse they are whales.). From these blowholes, the whales frequently launched water+air close to the height of the boat. Kindly recall, that is pretty darn high! At one point, I was concerned they would actually hit me. Above the blowhole on their heads were several lump-like callouses. Similar lumps also appeared on their pectoral fins, but it was difficult to get a good look at these because they were always below the water, and the water was dark with nutrients.
The dorsal fin on these whales was small, knobby, and located far back toward the tail. It looks nothing like the large and pointy dorsal fin that folks (ie: me as a little kid) tend to imagine whales with.

As the whales surfaced around us, they seemed unpreturbed by the perssence of the boat and were quite happy to swim all around us. They would rise, blow water/air out of their blowholes with a rather dramatic sound, and remain with us on the surface for upwards of a few minutes. After a time they would flex their back and sort of roll under the surface.
Like so:
If we were lucky, then after the third "step" in the diagram, we would catch a clear glimpse of the whale's fluke! Each fluke is unique and is used to identify individual whales. Following the whale dive sequence, here is what it looked like when we got lucky:

After 5-7 minutes the whales would resurface and repeat the process again. Unbelievable! I could have stayed out there all day, but unfortunately after a time we had to return to Boston. I hope you guys all had as much fun as I did!

I will leave you all with one more natural whale mannerism. I was disappointed to see nobody got a picture of it!

Good night, everyone-- Cya tomorrow!

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