You’re leaning on the bottom deck portside rail, chin resting upon your crossed arms, as the jet-powered 130-footer rips through the chicanes. You’re happy you got talked into bringing that light parka. Just like the website said, it is almost 10 degrees cooler than back at Barnstable Harbor. You turn up your collar. OK, where are they?
It’s overcast on Massachusetts Bay but you’re sporting polarized sunglasses to dull the blinding surface glare. You look around. People are reading newspapers, playing cards, heading into the galley and coming out with snacks and beverages. Two decks above, your ear-phoned kids lean shoulder-to-shoulder over the rail silently bobbing to their mp3 music. You wish you could be that patient. Where ARE they?
You punch up your camera roll and study the photo you snapped of that 150-year-old lighthouse at Sandy Neck. Nice photo. But lighthouses aren’t why you committed a half-day of vacation on Cape Cod to this adventure. Sure, the half-hour drive from your resort was scenic and all, but where are they? This is Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises. Where are the whales?
Then, just as your mind drifts and you imagine yourself being mistaken for a Kennedy …
SPLASH! Dorsal fin starboard!
Just like that, the monotony’s over. You’ve reached the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in Mass Bay 25 miles east of Boston. Whales migrate there every spring and hang out until fall, happily (if toothlessly) sucking down the local cuisine. You stuff your Sudoku magazine in your backpack. You triple-check that the camera strapped around your neck is “on” and the zoom lens cap is off. It’s showtime.
Oohs spread among your fellow passengers, but you resist the urge to rush across the ship. You hold your position as you were coached. Sure enough, the captain skillfully circles the boat around and you portside folks get your good look. Not only that, but the credentialed staff whale expert who introduced himself earlier stops by again to explain what you just saw. It’s a sei whale, you learn, probably about 50 feet long and 50 tons and identifiable in part by its tall, curved dorsal.
Seis, you learn, actually are rare sightings in these waters. Not as rare as killer whales, or orcas, last seen here in 1986. But not seen as regularly seen as other Mysticetes, or baleens, such as humpbacks. Most of the whales at Stellwagen, you learn, are baleens. What sets them apart from orcas and other Odontocetes is that baleens have no teeth. Their upper jaws are lined with rows and rows of long keratin plates between which they essentially trap their food, mostly plankton and small fish. Keratin is the protein that makes up your hair and nails.
Later on, back at your resort, you’ll reflect on how impressed you were with your Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises naturalist and your captain. You’ll reflect on how the Whale Watcher’s unique propeller-less technology makes the waters safer for sea life. You’ll reflect on how convenient the whole trip was from start to finish.
You’ll think about all that later.
But right now, you’ve just seen your first whale and you’re not thinking about anything else except seeing your second. All of a sudden you’re as obsessed as Ahab (just not a hater). And soon enough, someone notices a finback off in the distance. Your boat races up for a closer look, safely and within regulations set forth for federally protected waters. And a bit later, here, portside: a tail fin, upright and corkscrewing. And there, starboard: a spout.
By the time you return to harbor four hours after you set out, you’ve seen and photographed all kinds of baleens: the sei, the fin, a few minkes, even some playful baby humpbacks. Some cruises are more rewarding than others, for sure, but this one’s been really good. You’re instantly inspired to plan another for your next visit to the Cape.
Before this current trip ends, you’ll experience more adventures, of course. Seal watching at Chatham sounds promising. So does visiting the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute. But for now, all you can think about is your next whale cruise.
And how next time you won’t even mind working those Sudokus.