One thing I’ve always wished to do on vacation is take a whale watching cruise in the Atlantic. Getting my wish this year on our week-long residence on Cape Cod, we set sail Wednesday afternoon on the Dolphin IX. With the bright sunny day giving us land temperatures in the high 70s, the waves in the open ocean were just a few feet in height, which the 100-foot boat cut through easily. The air temperature dropped quickly on the water, making me grateful for wearing long sleeves and Capri pants, which had become uncomfortable in the blazing sun of Provincetown while we browsed the numerous tourist shops.
On the way out of the bay, we passed Long Point, the farthest tip of the Cape, the curly-cue at the the end of the hook. Once upon a time, a fishing village stood at the point, but the fishing industry in P-Town has long since died out, taking with it icehouses, fisheries, and commercial stability. The tourist season, which we arrived on the shoulder of, keeps the town in existence. A lighthouse still stands on the tip of the land.
We were alerted as we reached open water that two Finback whales swam nearby. These second largest (75-85 feet long) and fast whales surface less often, so we did not see the creatures save a spout or two in the distance. The boat plowed on, heading to a location farther out teeming with Humpbacks.
As we were educated on the tour, I learned why the northern waters are deeply colored while the tropical waters are not. Simply put, tropical warm waters are desserts in the ocean, void of life and nutrients. Coral reefs are the oases. Northern waters are filled with algae, plankton, fish, and nutrients. While whales swim in tropical waters to give birth, they do not feed in the warm seas.
North of the Cape, we found the Humpbacks. At first there was one, but it only took a minute to spot the spouts of five more nearby and still more in the distance. At 45 feet long, half the boat length, the Humpbacks surface frequently, spout, and perhaps show a fluke on the way down. After a deeper dive, the whale shoots out of the water in a full breach. At this point, the crowded boat shifted as everyone moved to the railings to see the water more clearly. I chose to stand with my calves and hips wedged between the benches, dead center on the bow, which gave me a vantage point of 200 degrees over and around the heads of the other passengers.
We witnessed a variety of behaviors, including flipper slapping, a few breaches in the distance, and a close up of tail slapping. The boat was just 50 feet away while a male Humpback slapped the water with his tail for over 10 minutes while we humans snapped pictures and recorded video. Floating a bit too close, several admirers wound up soaked from what seemed a very intentional sideways splash from the whale’s tail (See the video). At one point, the water churned up as a greenish shade of brown – whale poop. We were treated to a little bit of everything on this tour.
Moving on, we came across a whale feeding. With the mouth above water and the lower section visible and swelling with water, the female coasted along for a few minutes before dipping below the surface again. Along side the female was an infant, approximately six months old, copying mother’s movements as she surfaced, spouted, and showed her tiny dorsal fin. In the northern waters, they eat one ton on small fish and krill per day, just 2% of their body weight. These whales are extremely efficient eaters. Humpbacks swim in loose social groups, not pods. Father’s are absentee, so all lineage is traced through the females.
The 4-hour trip ended all too quickly as the boat zoomed back toward the harbor. Along the way, we spotted more of the Finback whales, and then stopped along the beach to observe a Basking Shark feeding along a more shallow section of water. This is the second largest shark in the ocean and it feeds on plankton. In total, we spotted over 15 Humpbacks, 3 Finbacks, and 1 Basking Shark, along with birds such as the Sooty Shearwater, and a variety of gulls.
This was the BEST DAY EVER!