"O Lord, how manifold thy works, in wisdom you have created them all. So is this great and wide sea... there go the ships and the Leviathan which you have created to play with"
Ever since I was a small child, I have been enchanted with whales. A childhood in which every summer was spent in coastal Massachusetts, with an additional week on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine, held the tantalizing prospect of regular whale sitings, as well as early exposure to New England's whaling past. I have watched solitary finbacks glide through the water off the rocks at sunset, and pilot whales racing alongside the mailboat from Port Clyde to Monhegan. In 1971, when I was but three years old, I vividly remember seeing a beluga whale in the Cape Cod Canal, and even at that tender age was familiar enough with the story of Moby Dick to worry about the safety of boats nearby. In 1989 while hiking through the San Juan Islands I saw a pod of 14 orca proceeding like a squadron of dreadnoughts through Puget Sound, and while in Namibia witnessed bottle nose dolphins frisking off the Swakopmund Mole in the cold Benguela current. It is absolutely astonishing to think that before the advent of screw propellers, navel sonar and associated underwater noise pollution, blue whales - the largest creatures ever to live on earth- could communicate with each other pole to pole through their vocalizations.
I never tire of them, and this past week I decided to share the experience of whales with my children. Given that I was prone to seasickness in my youth and my little folk had not yet been at sea, I opted for a longer drive and shorter sail and so we headed out the Cape to Provincetown for a midday whale watching cruise to Stellwagen Bank.
As with terrestrial habitats, the ecology of coastal marine systems is driven by climate, geology and the history of human interaction with natural resources. Migrating humpback whales and other cetaceans congregate in the Gulf of Maine and at Stellwagen Bank in particular as a result of each of these factors.
20,000 years ago, there were three great lobes of the Laurentian ice sheet extending across the present day Gulf of Maine, with terminal moraines that would one day form Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket Islands. As this image from a USGS publication on Cape Cod's glacial history illustrates, beyond the edge of ice was an outwash plain extending to the Continental shelf where the sea was much lower sea than at present day. As the climate changed and the ice began to melt, a new line of moraines formed the lower Cape and the Elizabeth Islands chain. The lobes retreated at different rates, and the central lobe exposed and outwash plain that is now Cape Cod Bay and a ridge of land that is now the submerged Stellwagen Bank. Mastodon tusks have come up in the seine nets of trawlers over the Bank, and there is evidence that a conifer forest once grew on Stellwagen's shores.
Today the Bank is a rising plateau in 70 feet of water lying north of Cape Cod Bay in the Gulf of Maine. There is much deeper water nearby and cold water upwellings in summer months support a rich web of plankton and other marine organisms that in tern sustain an abundance of marine life. The Studds/Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is an 842-square-mile Federally protected area that supports at least 17 species of marine mammals as well as many other forms of life. It is a critical area for migrating whales, particularly humpback, fin, minke and rarest of all, the North Atlantic Right Whale, of which only about 300 survive today.
Marine sanctuaries, a 20 year moratorium observed by most nations with notable exceptions on commercial whale harvests, and strongly worded regulations protecting marine mammals in United States waters have benefited some whale species significantly. Of the estimated 15,000 humpback whales left in the world's oceans, the north Atlantic group makes great use of the feeding grounds off Stellwagen Bank and a highly lucrative eco-tourism industry has emerged around whale watching here. As Emily and Elias donned their life jackets and stepped onto one of the Portuguese Princess boats at Provincetown, they quickly crowded the rail and settled in to watch the shore slip by as we rounded Race Point and headed for open water. Wilson's storm petrels flew alongside our foaming wake, and northern gannets plunged like daggers into the sea.
We were soon out of sight of land but never reached Stellwagen Bank itself, for we came upon a female humpback whale and her baby and spent over an hour watching them rolling and dipping beneath the surface. The female humpback is larger than the male and my children perched on the crows-nest of my shoulders exclaimed in delight at the antics of the calf as it waved its flukes and rolled onto its back just off the bow. Their eyes grew large with amazement at the sheer size of the whales -"bigger than our car!", said Elias. My children soaked in the smell of the sea and the sound of hot, misty breath leaving blow-holes. Best of all were the tail-slapping breaches of the female, eliciting "oohs" from the crowd as if attending a fireworks display.
A humpback whale develops distinctive and unique white and black paterns on its tail flukes at about its second year. This calf was a young one, likely born this past May, but the mother is a known individual, and when she finally sounded with upturned tail the Center for Coastal Studies naturalist on-board was able to compare her digital photographs with a database and determined that this whale was the one called Baja - her fluke pattern is 3rd from the top in the right hand column. This is only Baja's 2nd known offspring since she was first observed in 1983, and there are currently 28 humpback whales known to have babies with them in the Gulf of Maine.
It was pure magic for father and children alike. Whale watching is a bit like going to a baseball game. Each time has its own flavor and there are long periods of waiting and inactivity. This is balanced by a strong sense of anticipation, for you never know what you are going to see and the possibility exists that it will be something completely unprecedented. My six-year-old daughter Emily has decided after this first encounter with whales that after she's had 15 years or so as a movie actress, she'd like to change jobs and be the naturalist she just met on a whale watch cruise, with her little brother as her "red hand man." Of such memories are lifelong passions born and the foundations of conservation laid.