Summer vacation is short this year – only eight weeks. At the end of June, I make a list of the things I want to do with my son this summer. Going on a Whale Watch is right at the top, and we get right to it, heading out of Plymouth Harbor on a Captain John Boat only two days after school ends.
I have to admit, I am nervous. I’ve been on whale watches only twice before, both in middle school. For the first one, it was really cold on the water, and I wasn’t dressed properly. The whales we saw were too far away to make an impact on my seventh-grade self. For the second one, a year later, it was dark and rainy, and my lasting memory was of getting seasick. So for this trip, I am staving off worried visions of a bored son and his woozy mother.
The forecast is not great as we head down to Plymouth – showers and a chance of thunderstorms. It’s some consolation that it’s the same forecast we often have in the summer around here, with the stormy weather only materializing about half the time. The sky is blue, and with a bag full of snacks, rain gear, and warm layers, we – my son, my mother, my uncle and I — are as ready as we can be.
We board the boat and find seats up top, for the best view. After a quick safety review, the on-board naturalist and her assistant give us an overview of the geography of Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank, as well as a primer on the types of whales we might see at this time of year.
It’s an hour’s journey out to Stellwagen Bank, which is a primary feeding ground for whales. There’s plenty to learn along the way, with landmarks such as Plymouth Rock, Bug Light, Clark’s Island and Saquish all within view. We pick up speed as we hit the open ocean. It’s exhilarating and refreshing . . . especially since we are leaving behind some oppressive humidity.
The boat slows as we approach another touring company’s vessel. Our guide advises us to look off to the right, and everyone on the top deck moves to the railing on the starboard side and peers off into the distance. And then there it is! A finback whale surfaces and dives, surfaces and dives. The guide explains that a whale will do this three or four times in a row, so we continue to watch, and there it is again, surfacing and diving one more time before it disappears into the sea.
We spend the next hour shifting, en masse, from one side of the boat to the other, following the cues of our guides. We watch one finback for a while, then give it a break, and motor off to another likely location for a sighting. Then we are treated to a similar series of appearances by another finback. The Captain John company participates in the Proud Whale Sense program, and follows the guidelines intended to prevent harassment of wildlife, so we don’t stay with any single animal for very long.
Dark clouds move in. The guide advises us to take cover, and most of the passengers go down into the enclosed lower level, where there are windows, restrooms and a snack bar. My son and I hang out down there for a little while, but he grows restless, so we go back up top. It’s raining, but not very heavily.
Soon, a minke whale makes a brief appearance . . . but then nothing more. We are now about 2.5 hours into the four-hour tour, and my seven year-old is getting antsy, so we decide it’s time to explore the boat. We find our way out onto the small observation deck at the bow, on the lower level, just in time to see the minke surface again, about ten feet away! Amazing! It was interesting to see whales from a distance, but right up close like that is something else entirely. Thrilling. We have definitely gotten our money’s worth now.
It’s still raining, and soon it is time to head back to shore. The captain puts the boat into high gear, and we enjoy watching the wake pattern as we motor back toward land. In time, the rain passes, and the sun begins to emerge from the clouds. We arrive in Plymouth Harbor refreshed — and delighted to have seen a minke whale so close to the boat.
If you’re contemplating a whale watch, you can find out about schedules and prices on Captain John’s website (http://captjohn.com/). The tours run through the end of October. For more specific information about daily sightings, check out the staff naturalists’ blog (http://captainjohnboats.blogspot.com/) where there are narratives about some of the whale watch trips, and lots of photos.
by Kezia Bacon
Kezia Bacon’s articles appear courtesy of the North and South Rivers Watershed Association, a local non-profit organization devoted to the preservation, restoration, maintenance and conservation of the North and South Rivers and their watershed. For membership information and a copy of their latest newsletter, contact NSRWA at (781) 659-8168 or visit www.nsrwa.org. To browse 15 years of Nature (Human and Otherwise) columns, visit http://keziabaconbernstein.blogspot.com