The Whales

28 07 2008


We took our week’s vacation this summer on Cape Cod. This is the second year in a row at a house in Eastham, and while we enjoy it for the proximity to the bay shore and its low tide, we were determined to get out of the house and take advantage of the better parts of the Cape.  Too much of it is categorized in the driving or shopping mode.  So we hung our bikes on the back of the Volvo and made a list of the things we’ve wanted to do for years and haven’t — either because of weather, time or age of the kids.  We used the bicycles on the Cape Cod Rail Trail, which is lengthy and straight and goes from Wellfleet to somewhere past Dennis, and in the Provincelands, which is lengthy and hilly and possesses some awesome views.

We also went to a Cape Cod League baseball game in Orleans.  The Cape league is a testing ground for elite college players because they have to use wood bats (as well as avoid the usual distractions that virile young men get distracted by in the summer at beach communities).  Their distress in this switch from aluminum was visible on the number of long flies that, to them, should have sailed far into the parking lot but merely found their way lazily into the gloves of the outfielders.  The batters would grimace and toss the great equalizer aside and run out the hit until the play was over.  Their jobs during the summer are finding the extra 10 or 15 yards in wood that they had in tin, as well as the tinier sweet spot.  Those that do get drafted higher.  Those that don’t play minor league ball.

The Wellfleet Drive-In was another to do, which we did.  Wall-E (awesome) and Prince Caspian (ten thumbs down).

The highlight of the Cape Cod things to do — “the ONLY worthwhile thing to do on all of Cape Cod” — was a three-hour tour on the Portugese Princess out of Provincetown to do a whale watch.  As it happens, you are told from the start that you may, in fact, not see any whales.  You may see dolphins.  You may see humpbacks, or minkes, or fins.  The company that owns the boats coordinates their rides with the Center for Coastal Studies, which endeavors to educate the passengers onboard, a pleasant change from merely entertaining them.  You learn about the rarity of all whales, their endangered status, and you make plans to watch the Planet Earth episode on them again when you get home.  But mostly, as you set out from Provincetown Harbor for the 45 minute ride it takes to get to Stellwagen Bank, an offshore sanctuary where the whales and dolphins are known to stay during their time up north, you wonder if you or your kid will get seasick, which will ruin the afternoon for most anyone within a few feet of the ill one.

Our guys didn’t.  The dramamine was the drowsy kind but no one lost it.

Upon arrival to the southern end of the bank, however, all hell broke loose, in a good way.  “In non-scientific terms, Rubber Ahead!” called out the biologist as we approached what turned out to be a feeding frenzy by over 30 humpback whales, which included several calves.  I hadn’t been on a whale watch in 20 years, and I recall it as satisfactory — dolphins and whales in decent numbers — and this far surpassed it.  Rubber indeed.

We arrived at the bank at about 1:15 and there were humpback whales on every side of the boat exhibiting every kind of behavior known to humans (not mating — we’ve never seen them mate.  We don’t even know where the guys go in the winter).  Finslapping to feed, the result of which is pictured above, was most visible, perhaps because it was mammalian lunchtime  (I had a hot dog). The whale surfaces and then slaps its tail into the water, creating an aerated chaos that stuns the small fish.  It then circles down underneath, slowly emerges with its mouth open and filters the water through its baleen.  The gulls scavenge the excess, the whales submerge and spin away, occasionally leaving a trail of excrement.  In the picture above, one whale slapped but two emerged.  We never tired of seeing this.  Nor of the mothers and calves, nor of the excitement of the biologist onboard, nor of the breeching exhibited by some of the younger whales, and nor did we notice the absence of dolphins or minke whales or the minor guest star appearance by a couple of fin whales in the distance.  According to the biologist, we witnessed nearly forty different whales, about 28 of whom they could identify.  The kids — all of us really — were spoiled by the sheer number of sightings and by the extent of the observed behavior.  They weren’t performing for us, though it could be easy to accuse them of that because, you know, they know how much we paid and they didn’t want to disappoint us, but their activity sure made it seem so.  Earlier trips that day saw more dolphins than whales, later trips saw minkes and fins as well as humpbacks, and what was unique for our trip was the large number of whales feeding at the same time.

Coupled with a Planet Earth or Blue Planet marathon, you realize how much we don’t know about life and existence on the planet, and it is the mystery that drives people crazy.  “What do we care if we drop these rustbable drums of nuclear waste in the sea — who are we hurting?”  Another vast universe.  Damn that Al Gore for making us environmental again.

I almost don’t want to go on another whalewatch anytime soon, so as not to ruin the memory of this one.  Maybe we’ll let the kids get older and more cynical (I mean, mature), and try again, hoping to let them find the awe we found this time, only with a different world view.



One response

1 08 2008

I must say that is one thing I have not done. Maybe when I return from the desert. Pretty cool about the drive-in, too. I miss them.

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