Nature Column 04.09

When I was a young girl I sat glued to the television set every time Jacques Cousteau had a television special. I was totally enamored with everything under the sea, but especially whales. Their intelligence, ability to communicate by sounds that resonated like music to human ears, and their capacity to be both powerful and gentle at the same time fascinated me. I watched and read everything I could about them, never dreaming I’d someday see one up-close. Back in the ‘60s we all thought they’d soon be extinct, and if we hadn’t worked hard to make new conservation rules, they probably would be. As you no doubt know, they aren’t out of danger, by any means.

The first whale watch I went on was in the spring of 1980, when I was working for a nature education group calling themselves Web of Life based in Plymouth. One of my first assignments was to accompany a boatload of middle school students on a whale watch out of Plymouth Harbor. There was a professional marine biologist on board, so my job was basically to keep students from falling off the boat and directing them to pay attention to the young man trying to tell them some facts about whales. Unfortunately, the day was freezing cold and gray, with winds whipping up whitecaps, and most of the students were greener than the waves the boat was ploughing through.

When the captain called out that there was a whale ahead and cut the engines, I think I was more excited than any of the students. I saw the spout first, then the curve of the black, glossy back rising out of the water. The tail flipped into the air as the whale dove deep, but it wasn’t long before another whale appeared a little farther away. I think I spent a good part of that afternoon with my mouth hanging open in wonder.

Ever since, I’ve always been thrilled to be in the company of whales. I’ve seen whales from boats and whales from the beach. I’ve seen them breach, slap the water with their flippers, roll over on their backs, make bubble nets to catch fish and then come up through the bubbles to catch a huge mouthful of fish. I’ve seen rainbows in their spouts, smelled their super fishy breath and seen their huge bodies pass by silently under the waves.

Over the years I’ve learned to distinguish the spouts and surface behaviors of right versus humpback whales and learned that right whales don’t have dorsal fins. The spouts of right whales make a V, while those of humpback whales are puffy and more loosely organized. Both types of whales have identifying marks and can be tracked as individuals by scientists in the know, which I think is pretty cool.

This is a great time of year to watch whales from the beach. There are over 90 right whales in the bay right now and they are very active. Every year I take long walks on Sandy Neck, Chapin Beach, Herring Cove and Race Point. At Herring Cove you can actually sit in your car in the parking lot and see them if they are feeding close to shore. Just the other day I spent several happy hours doing just that and I wasn’t alone. There was a whole line of happy people with binoculars in their cars on a rainy, raw morning.

People tell me they go out to these spots every year and never see any whales, so here are some tips, in case you are one of these. Whale spouts can be subtle, and you will most likely want to carry your binoculars. Once you know what to look for, you can spot them with your bare eye and then watch for behaviors with the binoculars. If there are a lot of gannets in the area, large white birds with black wing tips, you might want to watch them dive for a bit to get an idea of the size and brightness of their splashes. More than a few observers have been fooled by the splashes of gannets, thinking they were whale spouts. Also, a lot of those close-up shots you see on social media are taken with huge zoom lenses. Whales are usually too far out to photograph with your phone or small camera.

Right whales feed on zooplankton, so watching for bird activity will not be overly helpful. Once the humpbacks get here, which should happen soon, bird activity may give you a clue as to where a whale or several whales may show up. Gulls and terns follow fish in the water. So do humpback whales. Often, seeing one will give you a chance to see the other as well.

Sometimes you’ll make a special trip to see whales, and everything will work out great. On a great whales-from-the-beach day you may see multiple spouts, surface feeding, breaches, fluke (tail) or flipper slapping and diving. On a good day you might see multiple spouts and maybe some surface feeding and a fluke slap.

A lot of the time, though, you might just have a great walk and picnic but no whale sightings. It’s still a day at the beach, and there are many worse things. Watching whales, whether from the beach or a boat, is never a sure thing. You may not know what you’ll see, but that’s half the fun. And when you do see them? It’s a whale of a time, one you’ll not soon forget.

Mary Richmond is an artist, writer, naturalist, and educator who grew up on the Cape and lives in Hyannis. More information at www.capecodartandnature.com.

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