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Close Encounters of the East Coast Whale Kind

June 29, 1986|MARY MAYNARD DRAKE | Drake is a Trevett, Me., free-lance writer.

PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — "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.

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."

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

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.

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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