Thursday, September 27, 2012

Thirty Years of Whale Watching

Exactly 30 years ago today, I went on my first whale watch – and whale watching remains my favorite sport. My most recent trip was Sunday, Aug. 12, when I made the daylong trip to the Farallon Islands on the Salty Lady with the Oceanic Society. We saw dozens of humpback whales, Dall’s porpoises and seven Risso’s dolphins.

In celebration of this special anniversary, I’m sharing here the introduction to my book “The Whale Watcher’s Guide.” I am dedicating this blog post to the whale scientists I have interviewed and the vessel owners and captains who over the past three decades have made it possible for me to sit in small boats next to large whales. This is my story -- enjoy.

Whales! The greatest show on earth is in the water, and anyone willing to go where whales are will see it. Whales -- swimming, all sea-shiny and slick; diving, flashing enormous fan-shaped tails; spouting, baptizing one and all with a hearty expulsion of air and water as the mighty mammals breathe; whales with vast open mouths feeding on microscopic shrimp; whales hurtling their fifty-ton bodies up, up, and completely out of the water, then falling back with a thunderous crash.

Blue whales, fin whales, rare right whales, humpbacks, gray whales, killer whales, minke whales and beluga whales -- I've seen them all, in the Atlantic Ocean off Cape Cod, in Hawaiian waters, off Trinity in Newfoundland, in Alaska's Prince William Sound, off the coast of British Columbia, in Canada's St. Lawrence Seaway, near Peninsula Valdes in Argentine waters, in the lagoons off Baja California, off the coast of San Diego, and just yards from the Oregon shore.

The first whale I ever met was a finback, a creature just slightly smaller than the 80-foot, seventy-six-ton boat on which I was a passenger. The whale came toward us, dived, swam under the boat, and was gone before we could comprehend what we had seen. Finback whales are the second largest creatures ever to live on earth, surpassed in size only by the mighty blue whales, and finbacks are among the fastest swimmers in the sea, reaching speeds of thirty miles per hour.

That trip was Sept. 27, 1982, out of Barnstable Harbor, off Cape Cod. We spent much of the day watching humpback whales feeding, their huge mouths open as the whales rose up through the columns of bubbles they had blown under water to trap krill and tiny fish. The humpbacks also waved their tails ("threw their flukes") over and over, and two swam and dived together in unison, as though their dance had been choreographed. It was a magic day.

Once I had seen whales, I wanted to see more, to experience again the awe and exhilaration, the sense of deep privilege I felt when I was among them. Seeing whales became a priority, and I began to seek out opportunities to go where whales were whenever possible.

In 1984, during a three-day business trip to Maui, I boldly abandoned my traveling companions and headed for Lahaina, where I signed on for back-to-back whale-watch trips, a day's worth of expeditions. The morning trip reaped only a few far-distant flukes, and the afternoon threatened to be even less satisfying. But just as the captain started the boat's engine to head back to shore, a humpback whale in the distance breached -- hurled itself completely out of the water -- seven times.

One look at that was simply not enough. Two years later, in May of 1986, I was on a ferryboat trip across Prince William Sound in Alaska when a humpback whale approached the boat and stayed nearby for forty-five minutes. Right in front of us, only yards from the boat, the whale breached over and over, slapped its 15-foot flippers on the water, waved its tail each time it dived, and smacked its tail repeatedly at the water's surface. Just before the graceful behemoth swam away, it appeared to wave "goodbye" with one long flipper.

The captain said that in his seventeen years of crossing the sound, he hadn't ever seen such a breathtaking spectacle. The thirty passengers, most of us strangers when we had boarded, were all hugging one another and laughing and crying. The captain joined in the celebration by declaring a round of drinks on the house, and we all offered up toasts to "our" whale.

In 1987, I returned to Cape Cod with my then-twelve-year-old son in tow. We took whale-watch trips on four consecutive days, and we saw whales every day. One afternoon, a humpback that had been lolling around several hundred yards away suddenly surfaced alongside the boat, so we had an unusual up-close look at the whale's impressive 40-foot length. We also saw five fin whales and at least thirty Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

From the back decks of cruise ships, I've seen orcas (killer whales), gray whales, common dolphins, and blue whales. Surely, sighting blue whales is one of the rare privileges in life. In June of 1987, I was on the St. Lawrence River, aboard the S.S. Bermuda Star. The ship's pilot from Quebec had warned me that it was too early in the season to see any whales, yet four blue whales showed up on my thirty-ninth birthday, and I also saw a dozen or so belugas arching their backs out of the sun-sparkled water at the mouth of the Saguenay River.

Whale watching became up close and personal one day in Trinity Bay, off the north coast of Newfoundland, when a frisky adolescent humpback whale, measuring about 35 feet long and weighing about a ton per foot, draped its 10-foot-wide scalloped tail across the bow of our little rubber boat and gave us a hearty shove.

Late in the summer of 1991, off Bar Harbor, Maine, I saw fish flying above the ocean's surface and then saw the cause of their distress -- a 70-foot-long finback whale that lunged halfway out of the water, mouth agape and ventral pleats bulging, enjoying a good meal. "Hope you got a good look," said the naturalist. "They usually only do that once." Suddenly, the finback hurled itself right out of the water a second time.

In San Ignacio Lagoon, off Baja California, Mexico, I watched a gray whale roll its big blue eye and watch me as I stroked her massive head. The moment was intensely moving, and I started to cry. Another day out in the lagoon that February of 1992, I found myself with a ringside seat at an orgy, watching white water roil up in a flurry of fins and flukes as three gray whales courted.

In 1993, I spent a week on a sailboat in the Bahamas, in the company of spotted dolphins, and another week cruising among feeding humpbacks on Stellwagen Bank, off the Massachusetts coast.

How did a nice Midwestern woman living on the banks of the Mississippi River become entranced with these magnificent marine mammals?

In July of 1982, I read an article in the New York Times travel section about a whale-watch trip off Cape Cod. A photograph of a whale leaping out of the water accompanied the article. After reading just a few paragraphs, I became obsessed with the idea of meeting a whale. The first opportunity was a weeklong business trip to Washington, D.C., that autumn. I made arrangements to add a two-day visit to Cape Cod to the end of the trip. Then I headed for the library for books on whales, so that I would know what I was looking at in case I saw one.

I did see a whale, and it changed my life.

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