Whale Fest

I’m into my third week as a full time whale watch captain, after working the past 7 seasons as a one or two day a week captain. Unlike the part-time job, now it’s a real job. I’m at the wheel 7 to 9 hours a day traveling at near 30 knots most of the time, in addition to pre-trip preparations and post-trip cleaning and fueling. Never thought I’d be doing this but here I am. I offered to work full time for a captain that wanted to work half the season before attending grad school. I agreed, even though she was going to Ole Miss……

There’s a huge humpback whale female named Barnacles who has a calf called Acorn this year. The whales are identified by the unique underside of their tail, which serves as their finger print.  During my first week of work,  as we were watching the two of them from a comfortable (and legally required) distance,  Acorn decides she needs to check out my boat after her mother dives to feed. When whales approach your boat, the guidelines say you should put the boat in neutral until the whale goes by and is again at a distance of at least 100 yards. Well, Acorn comes right up to the side of the boat, and is looking up at us. With the windows open, it’s literally blowing into the window. By now, I’ve not only got the engines in neutral, but turned off. Then Acorn swims under the boat and looks into the other side of the boat. Now, I’m really nervous, despite the fact the 70-something year olds on the boat are just looking out the window at this calf at almost arms length thinking this must be what whale watching is like. Sort of like someone taking a photo of a brown bear coming down the sidewalk to them.   All I can think of is – I’m going to jail. Even though I followed the guidelines I’m mandated to and didn’t approach these whales – the calf came to us – I thought this is like a guy with one leg of pantyhose over his head suddenly dropping a bag of money in your lap. You have the money. You didn’t steal it. But it doesn’t look good. The guide on the boat was brand new. He and everyone except me was ecstatic. “This is the best trip ever”…

Then mom showed up.

Right next to her calf.

Her nose and her calf’s nose right next to the boat.

Barnacles is one of the biggest whales in our area. Some 50 feet long. Now jail time was a distant memory. With two whales literally blowing into the boat  I’m thinking:  we’re all gonna die. Mom is going to think the boat is a threat to her calf and ram the boat. I was really glad I’d shut off the engines earlier. Maybe she’ll just think we’re some flotsam.

Mom showed no signs of alarm. After both of them blew a few times, nose to the boat, and looking at us, they simply submerged and swam under the boat. They casually surfaced on the other side and mom seemed to escort her calf away from the weird surface beings.

Fast forward about 10 days and I’m on another trip. It’s late in the day – about 8 pm – and I’m at a spot where normally there may be many boats watching whales and fishing for salmon and halibut at the north end of a long narrow island about 10 miles long. At this hour on this day, though, there’s just my boat, another whale watching boat, and a local watcher in his aluminum boat. We were watching two whales.

These two whales turn out to be one Barnacles and Acorn. Then it starts. First Acorn, and then her mother. Breaching. Jumping clean out of the water. Then one would slap it’s tail on the water. And then the other would. I’d never seen this behavior from a cow and calf. Normally, we’d see a calf slapping its tail or its lonnnnnng pectoral fins on the water, and also maybe breaching. I always thought this was the calf signalling to its mother who had left it to feed to come back. But to see both the calf and its behemoth 50 foot mother doing this was new to me. And just the three of us boats watching it at sunset. Wow.

Yesterday, the same thing happened. Only at the south end of the same island. But the same two whales and the same behavior. It all happened by chance that I even saw it. Normally, I travel up the east side of the long island to the north-end location where I expect to see whales, but this time I went up the west side as I’d had a tip there might be whales bubble netting. As we traveled along the southern tip of the island, I see a huge splash a mile or two away. That usually can only mean one thing – a whale just breached. I changed course for the splash, and as we got closer, we could see a calf breaching. When we got about a quarter mile away, both a cow and a calf were regularly breaching. Sometimes in unison. Barnacles and Acorn again. Of course, the passengers and guide were totally captivated.  I tried to keep the boat positioned so everyone could see well. More importantly, I was trying to keep my distance as the whales will dive before they breach, and you can’t exactly tell where they will come out of the water. This is one time you have to pay full attention so you keep a good distance so as not to endanger yourself. 50 feet of flying whale is nothing to mess with. After awhile, the boat is rocking pretty good. The splash from an 80,000 lb marine mammal makes a substantial wake.  Long days of driving, but it could be worse.

Subscribe to Mark's blog via email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.