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Close Encounters of the East Coast Whale Kind

<i> Drake is a Trevett, Me., free-lance writer. </i>

“A whale! Off the starboard bow!” called the lookout, pointing to a small plume of water breaking the surface of the sea.

All of us aboard Dolphin IV, armed not with harpoons and lances but with cameras and binoculars, raced to the starboard rail and searched. “Oooooh, wo-o-ow!!” we cried in unison as the knobby head and scarred back of a humpback whale burst into view.

“It’s Stub!” exclaimed Carole Carlson, naturalist on board, recognizing a whale that frequents Stellwagen Bank. “See the stubby damaged pectoral fin? And there’s Bino with him! Bino’s got a peculiar white spot shaped like binoculars on his fluke.”

We passengers were too busy absorbing the spectacle of two enormous humpback whales cavorting under and around our vessel to observe the markings and coloration patterns that the scientists use to distinguish one whale from another.

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Some people reached out, trying to touch the creatures that seemed to be playing for our benefit. Their long white flippers appeared light green underwater, their knobby heads very unwhalelike.

But their size and majesty inspired the awe you would expect to feel when meeting a 45-foot, 35-ton whale in the wild. I didn’t know whether to try to film each tail flip or put away my camera and just enjoy.

Similarly Overwhelmed

Others were similarly overwhelmed. “I don’t know whether to laugh, cry or cheer,” one admitted. “They are unbelievably beautiful.”

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A hundred of us were on a whale-watching trip aboard Dolphin IV out of Provincetown. The Dolphin boats make four trips daily out to nearby Stellwagen Bank, the summer feeding grounds of numerous finback, humpback and minke whales, the rare northern right whales and other marine mammals.

Whale-watching trips, said to be the fastest-growing spectator sport on the East Coast, also originate from other Massachusetts ports. All come to shallow, fertile Stellwagen Bank, an area as endangered as the whales that feed there; Stellwagen is on the Department of Interior’s list of areas to be leased for oil and gas exploration. (Some whale-watching trips also travel into the Gulf of Maine to Jeffrey’s Ledge and Mt. Desert Rock.)

Provincetown is the closest port to Stellwagen Bank, taking only an hour ride on the 100-foot Dolphin IV or V, designed and built for whale watching. Once over the bank, we headed for the spot most likely to yield whales (as determined by previous sightings or by radio reports from fishing boats).

One Boat at a Time

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We cruised, looking for whales, or hovering near those we found. In order to disturb the animals as little as possible, only one boat observes each group of whales at a time.

Commercial vessels take great care not to disturb the whales by approaching a surfaced animal slowly and by remaining dead in the water, engines idling, while the whales play nearby. But the whales seem to be attracted by the vessels, and sometimes come over to a boat, a “close boat encounter.”

The whales’ dives directly under our vessel gave all of us good views. They sometimes surfaced and seemed to look us directly in the eye, a disconcerting experience. They tantalized us by humping their backs as if to dive, then slowly slipping under the sea without giving that magnificent flip of the tail. Halos, a calf, was most playful, leaping out of the water with a spin and landing with a resounding splash that splattered some of the watchers.

Our sightings were considered good, although we did not see any spectacular leaps or breachings.

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While we passengers were oohing and aahing over a finback’s brief but distant appearance or a humpback’s antics, the scientists were busy taking videotapes and still shots, making detailed records of the location, weather, sea conditions and the identify and behavior of each whale seen. They have identified 340 humpbacks, 300 fin and 60 right whales since April 15, 1975, when Dolphin III sailed out of Provincetown on the first organized whale watch expedition from an East Coast port.

Intensive Study

One hundred trips were made that year, enabling scientists to begin an intensive study of the whales in the area, and giving ordinary citizens an extraordinary chance to view whales in their natural habitat and to gain awareness of the gentle giants. Research that year was of necessity, “skimpy,” said Charles Mayo, director of the Cetacean Research Project at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, “but it was a beginning.”

For 11 years Gloucester Fishermen’s Museum, Greenpeace, New England Whale Watch Inc., Allied Whale Watch, Web of Life, the Center for Coastal Research and others have gathered data on the whales that are shared among all.

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Scientists have learned that the humpback whale (megaptera novaengliae , or big-winged New Englanders) arrive individually in March and remain on the shallow bank, feeding on squid, zooplankton, sand lances and other small fishes. The same individuals have been sighted summer after summer on Stellwagen, so the naturalists can give detailed personal histories of most of the returning humpbacks.

In 1985 a record 23 new calves were seen, sometimes causing identity problems. “In 1980 we had to rename Long John Silver just plain Silver when she showed up with a calf in tow,” recalled Mayo.

Each November the whales leave in groups for southern waters. “Where they go, we really don’t know,” Mayo admitted. “Salt, Sinestra and a few others have been seen off Puerto Rico in winter. But the rest . . . ?”

Individuals seen on Stellwagen Bank occasionally are also seen in other summer feeding grounds such as Jeffrey’s Ledge, Mt. Desert Rock, the Bay of Fundy or off Newfoundland. Scientists tend to believe that pods of whales regularly return to specific feeding areas, although individuals may range more widely.

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Needed Research

More than 1,000 whale-watching trips will be made from just Provincetown this year, and probably 5,000 from all East Coast ports, enabling scientists to carry out research while citizens enjoy the experience.

The American Museum of Natural History, Audubon Society, University of Rhode Island and similar organizations charter a whale watch each year. Some people take an annual whale-watching vacation, and become almost as adept as the scientists at recognizing the resident humpbacks.

These voyages are a far cry from those a century ago when Yankee whalers sailed the world killing whales with hand-held harpoons from 20-foot boats. Early New England settlers depleted the easily-caught right whales by 1800, forcing whalers to sail into the Pacific, Antarctic, Arctic, Indian and South Atlantic oceans seeking other, more far-ranging whales--the gray, blue, bowhead and sperm.

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Whales were hunted almost to extinction, despite the International Whaling Commission’s attempts to preserve whale populations for a continuing hunt.

“Save the Whale” became the rallying cry of the environmental movement. Yet each year of the early ‘70s, 17,000 sperm whales were killed, four times the number taken by the old Yankee whalers in their best year. Only about 400 sperm whales remain today.

I could get hooked on whale watching. It’s exciting and awe-inspiring to watch the great animals, and somehow comforting to know that my presence is part of the effort to understand and to save these graceful creatures.

Be prepared for cold weather, especially on a morning trip. Even when it is hot on land, it can be breezy and cold on the water.

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Pictures come out best when using fast film (ASA 200 or 400) and a medium-distance telephoto lens, preset for sun conditions.

Most whale-watching boats have snack bars or refreshment stands, or you can take a picnic.

A weekday trip may be more enjoyable than a weekend one because fewer private pleasure boats will be out whale watching with you.

A selection of East Coast whale-watching boats follows. Reservations are suggested for summer weekends. All the vessels sail from popular vacation towns that have many restaurants, lodgings and other attractions. Contact the chambers of commerce for information.

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Plymouth, Mass. 02360: Capt. John Boats, 117 Standish Ave., (617) 746-2643. Weekends April to June, September and October. Daily July and August. $13.50 adult, $10 child.--Greenpeace New England, 139 Main St., Cambridge, Mass. 02142, (617) 868-8422. Weekends April-October. $20 adult, $15 child.--Web of Life, P.O. Box 530, Carver, Mass. 02330, (617) 866-5353. Weekends April, May, October, daily July-September. $15 adult, $11 child.

Provincetown, Mass. 02657: Dolphin Fleet, MacMillan Pier, (617) 487-1900. Daily April-October. $14 adult, $12 child.--Greenpeace (see under Plymouth). Weekends April 21-Oct. 5 aboard Dolphin Fleet.

Salem, Mass. 01970: Salem Whale Watch, Barnegat Transportation Co., Pickering Wharf, (617) 745-6070. Weekends June, September, Tuesday-Sunday July, August. $18 adult, $10 child.

Gloucester, Mass. 01930: Cape Ann Whale Watch, Rose’s Wharf, 415 Main St., (617) 283-5110. Daily May-October. $15-$25 adult, $10-$18 child.--Capt. Bill & Sons Whale Watch, 9 Travers St., (617) 283-6995. May-September. $15 adult, $10 child.

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Newburyport, Mass. 01950: New England Whale Watch Inc., 54R Merrimac St., (617) 465-7165. Various days May-October. $15-$20 adult, $10-$15 child.

Portsmouth, N.H. 03801: Viking of Yarmouth Cruises, Viking Dock, (603) 431-5500. Mid-June to Labor Day, $20 adult, $10 child.

Northeast Harbor, Me. 04662: Maine Whale Watch, Capt. Bob Bowman, P.O. Box 78, (207) 288-04662. Maine Whale Watch, Capt. Bob Bowman, P.O. Box 78, (207) 288-9595. Thursday-Sunday June and September, daily July and August. $25.

Rates subject to change.

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