Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010

Atop Hawk Mountain, Pa., 2010
Photo by R.E. Berg-Andersson

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Not-So-Lonely Ocean

One of the nice things about environmental preservation is that after being hunted nearly to extinction in American waters, whales are coming back in numbers and are an important source of tourist income in such former fishing locales as Gloucester, Boston and Cape Cod in Massachusetts and various coastal towns throughout New England and elsewhere.

Wilson's storm petrel (Margo D. Beller)
When my husband (MH) and I went on vacation to Massachusetts and New Hampshire this year, a whale watch was not uppermost in my mind for the itinerary. I did want to go to Gloucester again because since the last time many years ago I had read Mark Kurlansky's book about the town and another book about Clarence Birdseye, who lived in Gloucester for a time.

I had been looking at the Massachusetts bird report to see if anything would be at Great Meadows refuge near Concord, Mass., when I mentioned all the birds seen off Cape Cod and reported to the list. It was MH who then suggested the whale watch.

When we had last gone on a whale watch, out of Provincetown at the very end of Cape Cod, we never got out of the bay because there were so many whales - mainly humpbacks - hanging around, going after the fish they have to eat in bulk to survive. I, who had wanted to go far offshore to see the pelagic birds one doesn't see even off the coast, enjoyed the whales but was disappointed nonetheless. (Didn't help the so-called naturalist wouldn't confirm the kittiwakes I know I saw.)

Humpback whale and storm petrel (RE Berg-Andersson)
This time, however, we got 25 miles away from the coast to an area that was once a prime habitat for cod - the subject of another Kurlansky book I've read - called Stellwagen Bank. When overfishing threatened, the fishermen were over-regulated as to what to take, how much and how often. The fish population has been slowly coming back and, in the process, so have the bigger underwater predators such as whales.

2 sooty shearwaters with greater shearwaters (Margo D. Beller)

On a hot day in Gloucester we were soon refreshed by cold, damp breezes in the hour it took us to get out to the area where whales had been seen. I was not surprised to see double-crested cormorants off shore but I was surprised to see greater black-backed gulls much farther out into the open waters of the Gulf of Maine. About halfway out to Stellwagen, a minke whale - looking like a larger, black dolphin - came up and then swam back down. The captain said we don't follow these because they are easily spooked. Our time was limited.

As we continued on I scanned the waters and soon saw what looked like a black swallow with a white tail band. When I got a closer look it was what the naturalist later said was the most prolific bird in the world, the Wilson's storm petrel. This was a new bird for me. One of the crew had told the captain about my interest in birds and he was nice enough to confirm it, and also call out the assorted shearwaters - very large birds that look like duller-colored gulls but with larger, hooked bills - we saw: greaters, Cory's and, in lesser numbers, sootys.
Greater shearwater (RE Berg-Anderson)
These birds feed and rest on the open waters, rarely coming to land except for a very short period of mating, nesting and brooding young. Then it's back to the distant waters.

There are many other types of pelagic birds out there, but aside from a northern gannett and a pomarine jaeger called out by the captain (another new bird for me), the shearwaters and storm petrels dominated.

Until we got to the whales.

We found two humpbacked whales, the second largest in the world (after the blue), just lying there, a process known as "logging" (as in, lying there like a bump on a log). Humpbacks are naturally buoyant so when they want to dive, they pick up their heads, give themselves a push down and up come the tails - to the oohs and ahs of those watching.

Whale sighting boats (RE Berg-Andersson)
At this point there was a boat from another Gloucester company in radio contact with our captain, and they were also looking at humpbacks. After a long visit with our two - recognized by the naturalist by the distinctive markings on the underside of the tail - we switched places with the other crew and watched two more. (Eventually a boat from Gloucester's third company arrived.) All told we saw 7 humpbacks and 3 minkes, which is pretty good considering people I talked with later were lucky to have only seen one whale.

There's a lot of water out there and whales are still a protected species. In many areas outside the U.S., they are still hunted despite electricity taking the place of whale oil. In the U.S., whaling has been relegated to coastal museums catering to the tourists and the most famous account of whaling, "Moby-Dick."

We learned a lot about whales on this trip (this was a much better naturalist than the Cape Cod one) and even tho' I saw birds I've never seen before and will likely never see again, the whales were the stars of this show.

Rightfully so.
(Margo D. Beller)

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