One of the most memorable and incredible things I have ever experienced on my travels around America is whale watching. On a road trip around New York, New England and South-eastern Canada back in the summer of 2001, we encountered whales just off-shore and even heard whale song from a cliff top. Then, when we arrived in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we went on a whale watching trip where we saw two dozen humpback whales, including some breaching, and minke whales. It was simply spectacular. I was, therefore, keen for my children and parents to experience something similar and as such we had booked to go on a whale watching trip with Captain John’s tours out of Plymouth Harbour.
The area we headed out to is called Stellwagen Bank, a National Marine Sanctuary. It is a plateau at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay that forms a rich and biodiverse ecosystem. Due to the wealth of food in the area, Stellwagen Bank attracts marine mammals, including whales, and that is what makes whale sightings so likely. Everyone was excited and buzzing with the frisson of expectation as the boat left Plymouth behind and forged out to sea. We passed Duxbury Point lighthouse, which used to be manned but is now automated through solar power. It stands near the point where the naturally occuring deep water ends and that means that it is very probably the place where ‘The Mayflower’ anchored for the pilgrims to decant from the ship into the shallop in order to make landfall. We also passed Plymouth Lighthouse, which stands on a peninsula known as the Gurnet, and was the first to ever have a female lighthouse keeper, a lady named Hannah Thomas who took over duties when her husband went off to fight in the Revolutionary War. Legend has it that it was the only lighthouse to ever be hit by canon during the War of Independence.
Our guides for the day were two naturalists who explained what we were seeing and experiencing over a tannoy. There was an intern named Sam and an experienced naturalist named Krill. Krill was her nickname, of course, but I am not sure it is a good omen to be out at sea with someone named for whale food. Furthermore, there was a chap on board wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the words “Call me Ishmael”. All we needed was an Ahab, Jonah and Gipetto on board and we would surely all be destined for Davy Jones’ locker. The naturalists were very knowledgeable and described the differences between the different whale species we might see on our trip and indeed the fundamental differences between tooth whales and baleen whales. The kids even got to touch some baleen and a tooth, which they all loved. It didn’t take too long, however, before Krill pointed out a pair of Finback whales in the distance. Finbacks are the second largest creature to ever live on the planet, the biggest obviously being the blue whale. I had never seen a Finback whale and didn’t get to see one on our trip either as they were too far away for me to spot by the time I got to the correct side of the boat. Never mind. That was a mere aperitif for what was to come.
Our first close encounter was with three Humpbacks – two adults and a calf – who were logging not far from the boat. Logging is like napping while part of your brain is still active. Oh how I wish I could do logging! I could achieve so much and still feel rested. Why have humans never thought to evolve this ability? We were obviously hesitant to stay around the resting trio for too long so the boat scooted off a little further and that was when we encountered our first active whale, a Humpback named Dyad. We saw her surfacing, her thick, dark back and fin slick and glistening with water, and then dive, including some deep dives which resulted in her presenting her fluke (tail). All the passengers rushed from one side of the boat to the other in order to spot Dyad, scanning the surface for the green bubbly water or a dark shape breaking from the water. Back and forth we rushed, as if intent on recreating ‘The Poseidon Adventure’. We all gasped and oohed in unison each time Dyad appeared. She never came too close to the boat but was close enough for us to observe her behaviour and see the detail in her fluke, marks as unique as a fingerprint which assist the naturalists in identifying individual whales. We all thought this was as good as it was going to get and were pretty pleased with the experience.
And then Samara appeared.
When Samara first joined Dyad, we were able to hear some trumpeting sounds. Apparently this indicates excitement but I don’t think the whales could be anywhere near as excited as we were. Samara proved to be a very inquisitive, sociable and perhaps somewhat reckless and impulsive Humpback. For quite some time, she swam around the boat, coming so close that my Mum and seven year old got sprayed by the air emerging from her blowhole. She swam under the boat and we all ran from port to starboard and back several times trying to be the first to glimpse her as she reappeared, looking for that bubble-filled green water or a flash of white fin. It was an experience beyond our most hopeful and optimistic expectations to see a whale so close. Samara’s proximity also served to emphasise the whale’s vast scale and yet she was graceful and gentle despite being so massive and powerful. Breath-taking. Krill explained that Samara is just six years old and that, through their observations, they believe that Humpbacks live to be anywhere between 60 and 80 years of age so perhaps Samara was just a playful child and that was one of the reasons she was delighting in playing around the boat. Krill also told us that the most famous whale in this region is named Salt. She was first observed in 1975 and is probably in her mid-40s. Salt is the mother of 13 calves since whales typically produce offspring every two to three years, losing 40% of their body fat through nursing each baby, hence the need for recovery gaps.
It was an utterly incredible experience. We were all awe-struck. We may not have witnessed the spectacular breaching displays that Mr Pict and I had seen back in 2001 but back then only one whale ever came close to the boat, albeit so close that an extra foot on my arms would have allowed me to stroke its head. This time, however, we got to see more whales closer to the boat and to see Samara so close and for such an extended period was so utterly exciting. I guess we got very lucky on both our whale watching trips. My parents, who had expected to just see a few whales bobbing on the horizon, were gob-smacked and my animal-daft 7 year old was so over-excited his voice was a high-speed helium squeak. Indeed, it made such an impression on him that he has been setting up his cuddly toys to go on whale watching tours ever since.
If, dear reader, you have never been on a whale watching tour I urge you to consider doing so. I am sure you will not regret it. I know I am just hoping that I don’t have to wait another 13 years before my next expedition.
PS If you want to read the blog entry about our particular trip, written by the on-board naturalist, you can do so here.