Having a whale of a time

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The Far Side

The trouble with having a big cup of tea,  healthy bodily functions, and a hesitancy to use the onboard facilities, is that it takes forethought to make arrangements.  i.e. if you see Jane head off in the dingy for the loos in the harbour, and you don’t anticipate your need to join her, you have to wait it out.

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Harbour building from the prow of Judy

When the harbour is a few minutes ride away and involves hooking up, ‘bathroom’ visit and showering too, you have to bide your time.  Nevertheless, once we were all sorted out, we worked out that we’d have just about enough time to take the dingy onto the opposite side of the ‘hook’ for a swim with the harbour seals, and make it back in time for the afternoon  whale watch boat on one of the Dolphin Fleet.  The  advantages being that spotter planes guide the boats to whale sitings and they are much more stable.

The introductory talk on board seemed designed to kill all hope.  The humpbacks, we were told, were feeding further north this year because of rising sea temperatures.  If we saw one whale we’d be extremely lucky.  See two whales and we’d be unbelievably fortunate, but the company did good work monitoring the whales and supported their conservation.  With the $40 plus fee justified we set off with somewhat deflated expectations and the knowledge that we had at least seen a couple on the way down (even if it was so briefly that we couldn’t be 100% certain which type).  Even so, I thought ‘yes, but they haven’t factored in Jane’s whale singing  and my dead father’s skills in making things happen.

As they say in the brochure ‘passengers forget themselves in the passion of the moment’.  We all did try to pay attention to the very interesting talk about whales; the ‘baleen’ display (the giant hairy cartilage filters in a whale’s mouth that sift plankton); statistics to make you weep, and the jar of plankton (muddy looking water), but 200 or so eyes were mostly glued to the sea.  Mine almost hurt with the concentration, and my brain strained from willing the whales to appear.  (Think of the wildlife photographers who do this for a living.  They must edit out 99.9% of the material they shoot for two or three minutes of spectacular tale slapping.)

Jane sang, I veered from one side of the boat to the other squashing into any little gap at the rail.  Suddenly a cry went up around the boat: “DOLPHINS” and a school of twenty or thirty white-sided atlantic dolphins did their thing, speeding along at a lick, slicing through the water, racing the boat, and seeming to share our delight in their sleek antics.  Patrick Leigh Fermor in his book Mani described them thus (and in no way could I better his description): ‘they were beautiful abstractions of speed, energy, power and ecstasy leaping out of the water and plunging and spiralling and vanishing like swift shadows, soon to materialize again and sail into the air in another great loop so fast that they seemed to draw the sea after them and shake it off in mid-air, to plunge forward again tearing two great frothing bow-waves with their beaks…’  and more (he wasn’t stingy  with his sentences).  We were thrilled.  If we saw nothing else, we were still thrilled.

Then, amazingly, it happened: “WHALE” came the cry, and the boat emptied out on one side and we crammed over to the pointing arm.  And that’s when we saw the rarest whale on the planet, critically endangered, one of only around 320 left: a North Atlantic Right Whale.  So called, poor thing, because it has just the right sort of oil, just the right sort of blubber, and it’s easy to kill.  There it was, right next to the boat, all 60ft of it, head full of  callosities, looking like a bad case of barnacles, but these are what makes individuals easy to identify.  She was miles off-course, unexpectedly around on the Stellwagen for that time of year, and alone.  It was a deeply poignant siting, and brought tears to my eyes.  I felt very humbled, privileged, and I understand this is a common experience.

In the distance we saw another Dolphin boat turn back and speed forward purposefully.  We followed and soon heard a blow.  Two blows.  It sounded like an air ballon firing up directly overhead, only these spouts shot up from the sleek heads of two enormous whales, pushing 90ft long, characteristically slithering in and out of the water right by the other side of the boat.  These were two Finback Whales, not prone to the spectacular tale slamming of the humpbacks, barely mentioned in the Dolphin Fleet leaflet, but awesome in a different way.  Bigger: Finbacks are the second largest animal on earth. Faster: these are the Formula Ones of the Atlantic.  They have asymmetrical markings on their sides; their left sides having a darker swirl of colour than the right, sleekness emphasised by white lower jaws.  I tried to get a picture, they put on a bit of a show for us, but they were so fast, most of my pictures came out like this:

Footprints of Finback Whale

It took me a while to spot these calling cards.  So huge are Finbacks that for a few moments after they surface and plunge they leave these ‘footprints’ behind on the surface.

I could return home happy.  I’d seen whales.  I’D SEEN WHALES.  Who knows how long we’ll have them?  I would hope enough people are interested to protect them and enjoy them like I did.  I’d like my grandchildren in Wales to see whales.  I’d like my grandchildren in Germany to see whales.  (I can’t wait to show them the footprints to prove that Granny did.)

First, though, there was that 8 hour return trip to Boston to contemplate.  Would I be hideously sick like I was on the way down?  Should I sneak onto one of the fast ferries that plough back and forth to Boston from Provincetown?  I have to admit I faced the prospect of the return sail with great trepidation. But am I one to take the easy way out?

ps Francis.  I know you are itching to hear about the incident in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, where I didn’t see a single picture, but I did have a unique experience lying on the floor in the middle of the snail staircase with a charming man, but you’ll just have to wait.  There’s a couple, maybe  three more blogs in this series until we get there.

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