How To Find A Whale

I suppose a more fitting title would be “How NOT to Find a Whale.” In case you hadn’t figured out that I was on the east coast yet, I spent 8 weeks in Boston this summer doing vetly things, and the very first thing I did once I got there was sign up for a whale watch with a friend.

We planned it for a slightly overcast day with mildly choppy seas. The New England Aquarium keeps a whale log so people can see what’s been sighted recently; in our case, multiple whale species (including some with calves!) had been sighted all week. So we had decent weather, decent temperatures, not too much wind, and a history of recent whale sightings. Sounds like a perfect recipe for whales, right?

What we got was 4-foot swells every 8 seconds (and some that I swear were more like 6 feet!), a strong encouragement from the crew to take our refunds and skedaddle, and a sneaking suspicion that there wouldn’t be any whales.

The trip out was like a mixture of riding a galloping camel, a roller coaster, and the front of a small speedboat. Very jumpy, very rollicky, and totally fun! I was like a kid in a candy store on that boat. I was going to see whales, I was on the ocean again, and with the wind whistling through my hair (and my windbreaker), I was prepared to see some whales.

Unfortunately, the captain decided to take it slow so we didn’t fly out of the boat, so it took us an hour and a half to get to Stellwagen Banks, the whale feeding grounds. Because our trip was only scheduled for 3 hours, we had 10 minutes to try to find some whales. Apparently, however, the whales heard me coming and themselves skedaddled, so instead we got a rain check to try again the next weekend.

The next weekend, we saddled up and what did we find but…

A fishing boat! There were about 5 of them trolling around near us. Fishing boats, however, mean plenty of fish, and everyone knows what plenty of fish bring:

Whales! We saw two finback whales, one of which decided to dive around the boat after the delicious fish hiding in the area.It came up right next to the boat a few times before we left, too!

The boat unanimously decided to continue on to try to find the whale watching mainstay: humpbacks. Everyone wants to see them because they do exciting things while they’re eating. Luckily, we came up on a big female (apparently named Hancock) near Gloucester. They could tell who it was because of the markings on her fluke. Supposedly, if you turn your imaginator up really high, her right fluke looks like it has a large signature on it.

A better name for her would have been Honey Badger, because she just did not care that we were watching her. She kept coming up less than 6 feet off the side of the boat and then just hanging out on the surface for several moments before diving back down.

She was using a technique called ‘bubble net’ feeding, where the whale blows a spiral of bubbles around some hapless fish, which disorients and corrals them.

Then, the whale jumps up really quick through the fish with an open mouth to get as many as possible. Then it closes its mouth and lets the baleen filter out all the water, leaving only tasty, tasty fish.

After all this, the whale will take a breath before diving again. They are obligate blowhole breathers, so they don’t ever actually breathe through their mouths, which is why we didn’t ever see the finback’s head earlier. Also, using the words ‘obligate blowhole breather’ is bound to make any conversation a lot more interesting.

I was so stoked about seeing whales that after we docked, we went to Quincy Market for celebratory ice cream. You can’t get more excited than that…


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