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Whale Watch [Nov. 2nd, 2011|12:56 pm]
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From Newport we headed north and west to Cape Cod for our last little bit of travel before having to be back near Boston for J’s training class. We had a nice restful few days at Sweetwater Forest Campground in the middle of the Cape; it was a pleasant wooded place with narrow sandy roads. J asked me what I wanted to do on the weekend and I opted for a whale watching cruise, and picked Hyannis Whale Watch out of Barnstable Harbor at mid-Cape (largely to avoid the traffic in Provincetown, which was hosting a Leather convention that weekend – initially I thought, “oh, purses and coats and that sort of thing, that might be cool!” Then I followed the provided link and, erm, not so much.)

We boarded the boat around 11 in the morning and headed for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We cruised past Sandy Neck lighthouse, where there’s a small community living off the grid. The guide was all about the kerosene lanterns and no electric power and living like our fisher folk ancestors, and it was picturesque as all get out, but I noted more than one windmill and solar array in among the small wooden houses lining the shore.

When we arrived out at the Bank (a notable feeding area for many types of whales) our first sighting was a single humpback whale; we arrived as another whale watch boat was preparing to leave. It turns out this is common; far from competing, the various tour companies keep each other informed about sightings. After thinking about it for a bit it makes sense. No cruise stays on Stellwagen Bank more than about two hours, so they’re not hanging around the whales in clumps: one boat leaves and the next one arrives. And if you go out on one of these tours and don’t see any whales, you’re not going to tell your family and friends that the specific tour company was bad; you’re going to tell them that the Cape Cod whale watching experience was bad. Which hurts all of the tour companies.

The captain was great at turning the boat so that both sides had a chance at whale viewing; we circled and swerved to keep the whale in sight for quite a while before heading off to another potential sighting. Not that it stopped most folks from rushing from one side of the vessel to the other when the call went out: “whale at 2 o’clock!” J and I found a comfortable spot on one side and stayed put, and as some of the sightings were pretty brief (take time to cross the deck and you missed it) I think we had a better time. I tried to take a few photos of the first whale we saw but quickly gave it up to just enjoy the experience; I was spending more time fretting about snapping the shutter at the right moment and people pushing in front than I was watching the whale. That turned out to be the best decision of the day, as when I downloaded the few shots I’d taken, they were all photos of empty ocean and the backs of people’s heads.

If that first whale and the few spouts we saw in the distance had been the whole of the trip I’d have been satisfied, but after that we spotted a finback whale and followed him for a bit. He was enormous; from the boat it was difficult to judge scale but finbacks run about 80 feet (think two school busses end to end.) And our afternoon on the Stellwagen Bank finished up with a really spectacular duo of humpback whales who were cooperatively feeding. The two of them circled and crossed each other, rounding up a school of fish. They took huge gulps of seawater and tiny fish, then surfaced and forced the water out through closed lips. It was amazing to see; the hide on the lower jaw of the narrow humpback head is essentially pleated, and when the whales came up to drain off the water from their mouthful of fish their cheeks and throat were expanded like a bullfrog’s. It was a grand finale to a wonderful day, and we took our leave of the whales in the late afternoon as another cruise boat came steaming up to take our place.