Find Cape Cod Tourist Attractions, Activities, Events & Things to Do: A Whale Of A Time
The water changes color, brightening to bluish-green, almost turquoise. The bubbles come next, frothing to the surface in a circular pattern. And then the colossal head appears, mouth open wide, gray-white baleen extending from the upper jaw, filtering sand eels and small fish from the seawater.
Another humpback whale surfaces nearby, and another, and soon the Provincetown whale-watch boat Captain Red is keel-deep in whales. From the top deck of the 100-foot vessel, Joanne Jarzobski, director of marine education for the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, calls out the names of whales as they come into view.
“There’s Entropy, and at two o’clock is Sickle and her calf,” she says, quickly identifying each whale by the black and white pigmentation pattern on the underside of the flukes, as unique as human fingerprints. Soon there are a dozen humpbacks feeding within sight of the vessel, much to the astonishment of the approximately 200 passengers.
A mature female named Filament stirs up a cloud of bubbles within a few dozen feet of the boat. The massive head of the 50-foot-long, 45-ton creature breaks the surface as she exhales a mist of steam. Her unnamed calf, about six months old but already 18 to 20 feet long and weighing several tons, surfaces next to her. Although the calf is not feeding, it mimics its mother’s behavior in preparation for the time when it will wean and begin eating up to two tons of food a day.
“This is an incredible display of feeding,” Jarzobski says. “This is why the whales come here, to eat and to nurse their calves.”
Whale watching on the East Coast began in Provincetown in 1975. Legend has it that charter fishing boat captain Al Avellar noticed that whales never failed to capture the attention of his passengers, so he began scheduling regular excursions specifically to view the animals. To provide an educational component to the trips, he tapped the Center For Coastal Studies, which had only recently been launched.
The convergence proved fruitful for both Avellar’s Dolphin Fleet and the Center; well into the 1990s, whale watches were the chief source of data on the area’s cetacean population.
“It’s really been a model for this type of partnership between a commercial enterprise and a nonprofit research organization around the country—and around the world,” says Jarzobski. The Center signed on with Provincetown’s other whale-watch line, Portuguese Princess Excursions, in 2006.
Of the half-dozen or so New England ports from which whale watches now operate, Provincetown remains the closest to Stellwagen Bank, the 842-square-mile National Marine Sanctuary that is the summer home to six species of cetacean—the order of marine mammals including whales and dolphins. Its shallow underwater plateau, formed by the same geological processes that created Cape Cod, drops precipitously at the edges. The upwelling currents that result mix surface and bottom waters, creating a nutrient soup abundant in plankton, the basis of a rich marine ecosystem. After spending the winter breeding in the Caribbean, humpbacks and their fellow cetaceans come here to gorge themselves on sand eels attracted by the plankton and to teach their young feeding techniques.
Once at the whale grounds, Jarzobski points out a finback whale in the distance. At up to 80 feet, finbacks are the second largest living animal on earth, surpassed only by the blue whale which can grow up to 100 feet. It’s one of three baleen whale species seen this day, along with the humpbacks and the smaller minke whale. Toothed whales such as pilot whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphin and harbor porpoises are also frequently seen in the waters just north of Race Point. Sometimes, an early-season whale watch spies a North Atlantic right whale, the rarest of the baleen whales, with only 300 to 400 individuals known to exist. They’re often seen in Cape Cod Bay from February through April; last year, the Center identified 162 different right whales in the bay.
Like the finback, humpback whales are classified as a threatened species. Hunted in Canada as recently as 30 years ago, the humpback population may have dwindled to about 700 individuals during the 20th century. The population has since recovered, with some 11,000 estimated to frequent the North Atlantic. The Center’s database of Gulf of Maine humpbacks, identified by their distinctive flukes, now surpasses 2,000 individuals, “the largest and longest-running data base on cetacean population anywhere in the world,” according to Jarzobski.
Humpbacks are also quite entertaining. Lolling on their side, they slap the water with their long pectoral fins. Seemingly standing on their heads, they smack the water with their tail. They cruise through the water with their knobby heads protruding above the surface like a damaged submarine. Occasionally they breach—a spinning jump out of the water—no mean feat for a 45-ton creature.
All of these behaviors are associated with feeding, Jarzobski says. The whales provide a spectacular show, especially when a dozen or more are actively dining at the same time. Whales seem to tolerate gawking humans and in many ways have become accustomed to boats, Jarzobski says, but anything that disrupts their natural behavior is considered intrusive. “Most of the commercial whale-watching boats really have experienced captains who understand behavior around whales,” she says.
On board the Captain Red, passengers shift from port to starboard, as more humpbacks come and go, some slapping the water with their fins, others breaching in the distance. For those on their first whale watch, the experience is something to remember. “It was amazing,” says Stephanie Jaquet, 12, of Nice, France. “They are so big!”
On the return leg of the 3-1/2-hour trip, Jarzobski talks about the Center’s disentanglement program. Whales still face a massive threat from entanglement in fishing gear, she says. Some 75 percent of humpbacks have entanglement scars, and each year 10 to 25 percent of the population becomes entangled.
“As much as we can protect them from some things, that is really the biggest threat they have,” she says. As the only organization federally authorized to rescue whales caught in fishing gear, the Center has untangled—and probably saved the lives of—some 80 whales.
For the researchers, the whales become like old friends, returning year after year. While all whales can be identified—finbacks have a unique gray and white swirling pattern behind the blowhole, for example—the patterns on the flukes of humpbacks make them easy to spot and identify for researchers like Jarzobski, who’s been doing whale watches for the Center for a decade.
“It’s a great tool to get their life history, what they go through, across to people on whale watches,” she said. Salt, for instance, was one of the first humpbacks identified in 1976, and with the exception of one year, has been seen every summer since. She had her first calf in 1980 and has had at least 10 since.
The expansion of whale watching beyond Provincetown created an industry with gross sales of more than $21 million, according to a report by a pair of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers. Jay Hurley, general manager for Portuguese Princess Excursions, estimates the two Provincetown lines carry about 100,000 to 120,000 passengers during the April to October season, and he doesn’t expect the industry to disappear anytime soon. “It’s a unique experience,” he says. “I think there’ll always be interest.”
Later, Jarzobski posts a report on the three-hour trip on the Center’s website. Total sightings: more than two dozen humpbacks, five finbacks, four minkes. “An incredible day of whale watching,” she concludes. nBack to Cape Cod Travel Guide Stories