Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The Whales of Stellwagen Bank

When my husband prompted the slightly eyebrow raising text question of “what do you have planned for Saturday?”, I was slightly apprehensive about answering. Unsure of whether his plans involved cleaning out the guest room, going for a 12 mile sprint or cleaning out the cat box, I cautiously answered back that I thought our schedule was open. “Great!” he responded, “Wanna go see some whales?”. I was thrilled and jumped at the chance. Through his job, he was offered the chance to assist in taking out a BBC documentary crew to film the whales off of Stellwagen Bank for part of a program they were doing. He got the green light from the powers that be to bring me along to help with general boat handling, and so we spent Friday night packing provisions and getting ready for our adventure.

At 4:30AM the alarm sounded, and we pried ourselves out of bed. I kept repeating the mantra “It’s worth it to see the whales” as I one-eyed the world and shuffled about getting ready. We hit the road around five and pointed the car North towards Scituate, Mass where we would be meeting the rest of the voyagers for the trip out to the Bank. We made good time and were introduced to the marine sanctuary that would be guiding the trip and headed down to the docks to load up the boat. We were taking a 50 foot aluminum cat out to the banks, with about an hour and a half ride time to get to the sanctuary. Driving up, we had ridden through a couple of hearty thunderstorms, but the skies looked as though they might break, so we kept a positive outlook, and our raingear within arm’s reach.

The film crew showed up in high spirits, and Captain Bob gave them a brief safety and operations talk before departing the docks. I was given the chance to bring us out of the harbor, and I eagerly took position behind the wheel for a while before relinquishing back to the Captain. We had a good laugh as the head scientist Dave pulled out bags of fresh baked treats from a local bakery and watched the film crew pounce on the offering. Being the old school boaters that we are, Kyle and I had packed 5 sandwiches, 3 bananas, 3 water bottles, 2 bags of chips, half a bag of grapes and a few other small snacks, and the rest of the sanctuary crew hand done likewise. Apparently, no one had told the film crew that you always pack like you’re going out for a week when boating, because you just never know. They had looked a bit concerned while taking into account their non-existent provisions until they realized that the scientists had all intentions of sharing, and they gratefully dove into the confections.

After our jog out to Stellwagen Bank, Dave gave a brief interview to the film crew, and we began our search for a pod of whales to film. We spotted a fair amount of dolphins as we circled the bank, and it wasn’t long before the telltale flock of low hovering seagulls gave way to a couple of water spouts, and we made our way over to the whales. Denise, one of the scientist on board counted approximately 10 humpbacks grouped together bubble feeding. The Captain dropped the engines down and we nosed up to the group.

I have lived my entire life on the East coast, and much of that in the Northeast, and I don’t think I have ever seen anything this incredible. We literally had one big fellow right off our nose, and he was continually bubble feeding- a trick they use where they will dive down and circle around blowing out bubble to force the fish to the surface in order to feed. It was amazing! They were so close that we could have just about reached out and touched them, although not something you want to do with a wild animal! All of us- scientists, film and boat crew- were out in on the deck in 6 foot seas and sideways rain just to get closer to these incredible animals. As we were heading back into the harbor, there was a pair of humpbacks breaching. Sadly, I wasn’t at the ready with my camera, but it is a sight I will never forget- those great bodies coming clean out of the water and landing with a spectacular splash- a perfect way to cap off our trip!

The work that they are doing at the Stellwagen sanctuary is truly outstanding, and I am grateful I got an up close opportunity to witness their efforts first hand. Whales have always had a special place in my heart, and it is incredible to see the hard work put in by the entire team to protect the population. I would encourage anyone who gets a chance to get out to the bank and witness the whales for yourself, even in pouring rain and high seas, it is well worth the effort. To read more on the valiant work of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, visit their website.

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