Saturday, August 20, 2011

Wonderful Whale Watching

A humpback whale shows off his pectoral fin between two whale watching boats.

Gloucester, MA, is like our second home. In summers and winters we go up there for many years to stay with our friends. I assume that I might know some nooks and crannies on Cape Ann a lot of locals don't. Nevertheless there is always something else to explore, and sometimes it is hidden in plain sight. It was so obvious and ten thousands of people do it every year - but we never ever went out on a whale watching cruise. This summer it was time.

Two puffs, one smell: Beware of the stinky whale breath!

And we got quite something to see. About half a dozen humpback whales were showing off between five party boats and a little pleasure boat on Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay (map here). How to get there? Several operators offer their services from Gloucester alone. We decided to go out on the "Hurricane II", a party boat which travels a an average speed of 15 kts to the whaling grounds. It is operated by Cape Ann Whale Watch, conveniently located on Rogers Street, nestled in Glousta's waterfront on Rose Wharf. But along the area are plenty to choose from. Please check the NOAA list.

Breathing out, a humpback whale comes up for fresh air.

We arrived after a ride of two hours at the scene, at the southernmost tip of Stellwagen Bank, just north of Provincetown on Cape Cod. Stellwagen Bank is an area east of Boston, located central in Massachussetts Bay and enclosed in the south by Provincetown and in the north by Gloucester. The NOAA subwebsite about the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary offers precise and comprehensive information including photos and maps - for adults and children alike.

When we stopped our engines, there was already a small pleasure boat sitting around, with an ginourmos humpback whale dancing around it. The whale was showing off its huge fluke going down right next to the tiny vessel, carrying four people armed with fishing rods and cameras.

One humpback whale was literally dancing around this tiny vessel.

Finally we had half a dozen boats trolling around in circles, stopping all machines as soon as one of the about half dozen whales showed up. What a spectacle: As soon as everybody was gathered, the whales started breaching, meaning they shot straight up out of the water and landed with a big splash on their backs. It is not known what that behavior is good for, it could be communication between adult and young whales, it could be a communication with the boats, but it seems to be quite playful and doesn't feel dangerous or threatening at all. Courtesy to the best of all wives I proudly present a little video here.

A humpback whale breaching twice along two whale watching boats. © 2011, Kate Puls.

The whales were literally playing with the boats, going between them, showing off their dorsal fins, their flukes, but especially the pectoral fins, standing out over the water line like a sail. It just looks like a gay, pure expression of happiness.

Our one hour idle time around the whales felt much too short, and we had to return home, filled with nice pictures (and not so nices smells) to remember. Nevertheless, I could not suppress the thought of a historical layer, when people set out on ships to kill these animals for profit. And they still do. Arriving at the gathering place, we saw this little pleasure boat with fishing rods sticking up - which reminded me of the dories, set out from the bigger ship, armed with harpoons. As much as I admire the courage of the old whalers and understand their basic need for lamp oil, fish bones for corsets and such, so much I detest the hunting of whales in these days. It is just not necessary anymore. See how they say: "Good bye, come back, see you soon!"

See you around next time!

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