Thursday, August 7, 2014

we started at snails and ended with whales...

Regardless of where the whale watch boat docks, the destination is Stellwagen Bank, a 126 mile  Marine Sanctuary that spans from north of Provincetown to east of Cape Ann. Due to the shallow waters here, this area hosts many species including some we have seen; like striped bass and flounder, and some we haven't; like bluefin tuna and spiny dogfish. On the surface of the Bank however there are two species that are more common to see...humans and whales.

My first what watch was in the late 70's, departing from Provincetown, amidst the cheers and boycotts of the champions of Greenpeace, who were there at the docks with their posters highlighting the horrors of whaling. With those images in my mind, I boarded the boat, unsure of what I was embarking on, only to spend an afternoon witnessing the breaching, lob-tailing, flippering and spouting of Salt, a then 35 year younger whale, and her calves. I was awestruck...but it was the 70's so there were no camera phones, no digital media...just a shoddy video on the way out, and the memories you etched into your mind. (below are photos that I tried to take in 1977 with a kodak instant camera!)

Pan forward to 2014, where digital media, a ginormous catamaran and a group of rowdy adults are about to motor out to those same banks as I did 35 years ago, and the results were the same. I still found myself standing at the bow, scanning the horizon for spouts, and rushing from side to side to witness the grace that humpback whales exhibit as we watch.

Humpback whales, one of five species spotted at the Banks, are identified by markings on their tails. The two that surfaced in our presence last Friday were North Star and Hippocampus. Although they were not breaching or showing off, they were incredibly active in their hunt for food. Diving for 3-5 minute stretches, and challenging the captain to keep them in his sights, they came up together often and separately a time or two during our time on the Bank.

Humpback whales feed on plankton, krill, and small fish, usually found close to the ocean floor. Generally when you see the fluke come out of the water, in preparation for a dive, they are heading to the floor to search for food. These whales are often found on coastlines from New England in the summer to the equator in the winter. Although they are only nursed for the first year of their lives, they do not reach full adulthood for at least 10 at which point they can grow to between 40 and 50 feet long and weigh up to 48 TONS!!

Just a quick fun fact before I leave you with a photo that I took at a whale watch the weekend prior to the one for class...whales, unlike humans, do not breathe involuntarily, it is a choice. The fact that they choose to breathe has caused speculation about how they they just choose not to breathe or do they shut off their brain???

Sources: My childhood. the lovely ladies that were our hosts on the boat, National Geographic and Animal Planet :-)

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