PROVINCETOWN, Mass. — "I can't find a darned thing out here," a disconsolate voice squawks over the radio of a whale-watching boat.
Others in the little flotilla of nautical sightseers pipe up with a contemporary version of "Thar she blows!" They have spotted fin whales, dolphins, and share their findings. They exchange longitudes of their sightings.
Soon the complainer's voice returns, sounding happier. "We're rotten with whales now."
At sea, there's cooperation. On shore, the boats seem fiercely competitive, offering various lures. One serves Portuguese food. Kids up to age 8 ride free on another. Prices range from $22 for a ride from Boston Harbor to $10 for a sunset cruise from Provincetown.
Whale watching, a tourist attraction from Hawaii to New England, is big business in the Gulf of Maine, where whales feed near the Stellwagen Bank and Jeffrey's Ledge. It is a business often run by people whose forebears slaughtered the very whales the modern-day captains show off to their customers.
It's also a business that has contributed enormously to the scientific knowledge of whales.
Return to Same Spots
"Now it's old hat that humpbacks return to the same spots in the summers in the northern longitudes, but we learned that through the early whale-watching boats," said Charles (Stormy) Mayo of the Center for Coastal Research. "We also learned the frequency of calving from the whale-watching boats and now we're finding the exceptions to that rule."
Mayo says humpback whales normally calve every two to three years, but this year a humpback produced a calf two years in a row, only the second time that has been observed.
"Scientists forget that we didn't know that before the whale-watching boats provided us with such a density of information on individual whales," Mayo said.
The peak year for the whale-watching entrepreneurs in the Cape Cod area was 1985, largely due to ideal weather, when business hit the $4-million mark. In California, where whale watching has been going on for about 30 years, business is even better.
The current whalers move their boats slowly into the midst of feeding whales as passengers snap away with cameras. A naturalist or a researcher explains what kind of whales they are seeing and some of that information is shared with serious research efforts.
Until about 1972, "The Joy of Cooking" included a recipe for whale meat, as the final entree--"vast but last"--of the seafood section.
Today, "Save the Whales" is a national cry, and almost an international one, although some nations still engage in limited whaling, which they say is for scientific research and conservationists say is an excuse for commercial whaling.
Americans are fascinated by the behemoths. Back in 1985, the plight of a 45-ton humpback whale named Humphrey became Page 1 news for nearly a month as he wandered up and down the Sacramento River. Eventually, volunteers and researchers steered Humphrey back into San Francisco Bay and on into the Pacific. His sighting nearly a year later, happily traveling with other humpbacks in the Pacific, was also happily noted.
Reports of whale strandings, a phenomenon that aroused the curiosity of Aristotle a millennium ago, usually bring hundreds of would-be rescuers to the scene, risking limb and hypothermia to shove the huge mammals back into the water.
The whales, now fully protected for 200 miles off the U.S. shores, were important to America's economy from the beginning. Greg Early, an expert on strandings of whales for the New England Aquarium in Boston, said that some of the first settlers stopped where they did because they espied beached whales, which translated into easy pickings.
The rarest whale spotted by today's Cape Cod tourist boats is the right whale, so named because it was the easiest, or right one, to catch. They are slow, they float when killed and so they were the most heavily slaughtered. An estimated 200 to 300 right whales swim in the North Atlantic waters, part of a world population of only 1,800.
Whale watchers have only about a 5% chance to see a right whale, Mayo said, though last year sightings were more numerous.
When Al Avellar, captain of the first of the Cape Cod whale-watching boats, went out with a boatload of schoolchildren from Truro, he had a rare day, spotting between 30 and 50 right whales. Mayo, who was aboard, isn't quite convinced of the numbers.
"To tell you the truth, I wasn't very good at identifying whales back then," he said. "Some of the whales we thought were right whales may not have been."
This year the Cape Cod boats have reported two sightings of great blue whales, the largest animals known. There's uncertainty whether two individuals were involved or just one sighted twice. Both reports estimated the whale's length at 75 feet. The great blue whale, rare and endangered, can reach 95 feet.