There be whales here!
A rambling by Tom Knapp,
June 2002

I'm not sure why I've never done it before.

My travels have taken me along the coast of New England many times, but it was only during this last trip, a week bookended by Irish music festivals in Massachusetts and Connecticut, that I decided to set foot on deck, put film in camera, and head out to see the whales.

I've been passionate about whales for some years now, triggered perhaps in my youth by my oldest brother, Bill, whose support of Greenpeace efforts to preserve whales from slaughter caught my interest. My fascination was initially superficial -- I think I had a poster of a whale's tail hanging from a wall for some time -- but it was actually the songs of humpbacks that really hooked me.

My first recording of whales featured some of the larger species, and I remember the track of blue whales was barely audible to my ears, but made my floor rumble. Roger Payne, one of the world's most renowned cetacean experts, had also released recordings of humpbacks, and their songs -- expressing some meaning still beyond our ken -- were among the most gorgeous sounds I'd ever heard. Paul Winter's 1987 recording Whales Alive -- a cooperative effort between Winter, Payne, organist Paul Halley and actor Leonard Nimoy, all brought together while laying the groundwork for the 1986 movie Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home -- was one of my favorite relaxation tools in college, when I would sometimes lie in the dark and let the sounds of soprano saxophone, organ and whale wash over me, accompanied at times by Nimoy's poetic narration.

So here I was, setting sail on Yankee Spirit from the harbor at Gloucester, Mass., home port of the Andrea Gail in the recent film The Perfect Storm. The whales are active, we're told, but they're further from the coast than their usual feeding grounds at Stellwagen Bank; our destination is about 28 miles from shore.

A lot of folks pass their time moving about the boat, snacking in the cabin or sitting at the inside tables nursing bouts of seasickness. I kept to the rail, watching the birds and other vessels we passed, keeping my eyes peeled for whales. I wish I could say I was the first to spot a revealing blast of moist breath ("Thar she blows!") or a shiny black hump in the water, but the naturalist narrating our journey from the captain's cabin had that honor. But it wasn't long 'til I saw it, too -- a brief flash of blackness, like a large rubber tire floating low in the water, accompanied by a white spray of hot air. It was one -- no, two humpbacks, a mother and calf, feeding and playing in the sea.

It's hard to describe that first glimpse of majesty, the beautiful sight of whales in the wild. While protocols prevented the boat from approaching too closely to the whales, the whales don't adhere to the same marine guidelines, and they often popped up just a short span from port or starboard, occasionally sounding and swimming beneath us to reappear on the other side.

Yankee Spirit played tag with these two for several minutes before moving off in search of more. And more we found, logging nearly 30 humpbacks before heading back to shore. Some were distant, others were close. One surfaced with its back tight against the side of our boat. Some crashed through the water in circles of bubbles, mouths wide to capture the tiny fish "netted" in their midst. (The bubbles are released in a controlled spiral as the whales rise.) Others came up for air, arching their backs and blowing their steamy breath before sinking below the water with a flourish of their distinctive tails.

The tails, we learned, are like human fingerprints, each bearing a design unique to the whale. Our naturalist was photographing the whales as they sounded, recording those tail patterns for identification purposes later. In this way, scientists can track individuals and learn more about their migration, feeding and mating over the years.

But we saw more than just backs and tails. With mouths agape, the whales showed us balleen, the hairlike substance that filters tiny fish from the water for their food. We saw the knotty bumps on their faces, the pink palates on the roofs of their mouths. We saw the blowholes, two to a whale (not one, a trait common to the larger, toothed whales). We saw whales that seemed curious about us, and whales that seemed content to eat with an audience, not bothered by our presence in the least.

All too soon, it was time to head home. As if to herald our departure, a trio of white-sided dolphins jumped at our bow and, as the captain slowed so we could get a better look, another dolphin and one last whale crashed to the surface directly off the port side.

It was a magical afternoon, so much so that I found myself, just a few days later, setting out again. This time I left from Provincetown, the tip of Cape Cod, and sailed with the Dolphin Fleet. The experience was about the same, although skies were greyer and seas were rougher -- the trip out was choppy, to say the least, and most of the passengers huddled for warmth in the cabin. I and one or two others kept our places at the bowsprit, enjoying the chilly air and the spray of the sea as we churned through wicked waves. But, once again, the whales were waiting for us at journey's end, and another delightful day passed too quickly.

Some areas aren't so bountiful when it comes to whale-watching. My brother, for instance, has sailed out from Cape May, N.J., where whale sightings are rare. And, obviously, you won't find many whale-watching trips offered in South Dakota. But if your travels take you to any coast where whales are known to migrate, do yourself a favor and see these wondeful, majestic creatures in their natural environment. It will change your perspective forever.

[ by Tom Knapp ]
Rambles: 6 July 2002