Whale of a Time
Close encounters with Humpbacks
For many whale watchers the playful and inquisitive Humpback Whale has to be ultimate whale for a close encounter - and New England is difficult to beat for the closest encounters of all. After all, the scientific name, Megaptera novaeanglidae, means ’great winged New Englander’. One location is extra special - Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary. Situated between Cape Ann and Cape Cod this is a shallow underwater bank, to less than 100ft in places, that creates upwelling that attracts a range of fish including vast shoals of sand eels that have to be the best ’baitfish’. As the whales start to feed, the sand eels mass together in vast shoals, resulting in some fantastic encounters with feeding humpbacks.
The whale watching boats in New England are some of the best and most have researchers on board. They may compete for clients on the dock, but, at sea, the boats are in contact and help each other out. Even if you are just passing through New England do go out on one of the boats over the summer period. If it is mid week and you head out from on of the smaller ports from around the bay (boats go out from Provincetown, Plymouth, Boston, Salem, Gloucester, Boston, Salem, Gloucester and Newburyport) there may be a small crowd on board.
Even heading out of Boston on a popular weekend with hundreds on board you’ll still have one of the best whale watching trips you can experience. At the right time of year it is very unusual not to see any whales and they’ll give you your money back or a free second trip if you don’t encounter the whales. Guides will be even be disappointed if you see whales but don’t get a good encounter.
Humpbacks off New England happily kick feed close to a boat and bubble nets can appear right alongside a boat, to the delight of those on board. They wait with cameras poised and are never disappointed when the whale lunges out of the water, open-mouthed, gulping a huge mouthful of sea and sand eels! I’m convinced that if the boat happens to be nearby as they start to work on a shoal of sand eels, they’ll use the boat as an extra decoy! Other times a young humpback may decide to do some multiple breaching next to the boat.
I may be biased, but for humpback encounters I think Stellwagen Bank is one the best in the world. Mason Weinrich who used to run the Whale Center of New England described the New England humpbacks as ’urban whales’ that grew up used to boats and on calm days mother humpbacks would come right up to the whale watching boats as if to introduce the calf to the vessel.
With the number of boats going out to Stellwagen on a busy weekend well over 1500 people will have some incredible encounters that leaves them with an experience they’ll never forget, helping to spread the conservation message. But for the ultimate whale watching encounters, go on a private charter. In the past I’ve been privileged to be a guide for Discover the World on the Trail of the Whale trips in the past. Out of Gloucester, Cape Ann, we use ’Captain Bill’s’ and the Whale Center of New England (sadly not running at the moment), chartering the Miss Gloucester, usually at some point during August. This boat can take over 100, but we have 25 maximum, and usually less. Each tour includes at least four 8+ hour day trips with the option to go out on the ’public boats’ on half day trips at other times.
Our captain was superb in getting us close to the humpbacks and fast moving Fin Whales, one of the additional species you usually see, along with Minke Whales. You can’t promise Atlantic White-sided Dolphins over the week but you have a good chance. Long-finned Pilot Whales turn up on the occasional trip and if you are extremely lucky you may see a Sei Whale or even a Northern Right Whale. But the best time for the latter is from the autumn on Stellwagen Bank, or, more likely, nearby Geoffrey’s Ledge.
We had researchers on board from the Whale Center of New England that always look forward to our trips and the chance to go out for a full day with a bunch of whale enthusiasts. Mason Weinrich came along at least once and his knowledge of the humpbacks built up over 25 years was legendary. Most humpbacks are recognised by the fluke pattern and it was rare for Mason (and the rest of his researchers) not to recognise a whale and give you its full history and lineage to some of the other humpbacks you have seen.
The flukes vary from type-1 (all white) to type-5 (all black) and the pattern is unique. Most whales are named by the fluke pattern (this one is called Giraffe because of the marks on the type-3 fluke) and shouldn’t be male or female names (they often don’t know the sex when a humpback is 1st named) or human names - but a few do break the rules.
’Icurus’ has a bent and shredded fluke from a net entanglement, likened to Icurus of legend falling to earth (yep, these researchers have a lot of imagination at the ’naming parties’ for new humpbacks that take place each year!). Then there are humpbacks like the famous Salt that have distinctive patterns on the dorsal fin (a white area like a sprinkling of salt), or a distinct shape, like Sabre, with a highly curved dorsal fin.
With the experienced crew, the time, and freedom to move around the boat a charter adds up to the ultimate in whale watching.
My very first encounter with a humpback on Stellwagen Bank was with a youngster called Amazon that was so close that you could see the tubercles with the hairs on the rostrum and look directly into the inquisitive eye, an experience that takes your breath away. Amazon circled the boat back and forth for 20 minutes continuously flipper slapping and rolling, even going right under the boat.
During this time we switched off the engines and walked around the deck following Amazon (something that is difficult to do on a boat with hundreds of people and a tight schedule), or just stood there in awe as Amazon looked at us. Even the captain grabbed the chance to come down and enjoy the encounter!
On every trip people were in tears over an experience that surpasses anything they’d ever imagined. It is not the case of whether you are going to see humpbacks, but how many and what types of behaviour you’ll build up over the week - breaching, bubble feeding, close encounters, flipper slapping, gulp/lunge feeding, kick feeding, playing in seaweed, spyhops and suckling etc. Even in years when there are fewer humpbacks around the time spent at sea means we get some of the best encounters of the season.
On all Trail of the Whale trips there were those who have saved hard for a trip of a lifetime that were just a bit concerned it would not live up to their expectations. Well …. they always went back having experienced a trip that surpassed all expectations. They really did have a whale of a time!
As a naturalist I felt so fortunate to lead these trips and the amazing encounters. On one excursion we had two groups of around 10 bubble feeding to each side of the boat. With the engines switched off we didn’t know which way to look. Then one group lunged to the surface, open mouthed, and went right under the bow, dragging along the surface to let water out of the mouths. To see the whales so close and the reaction from the whale watchers (several were soaked by the blow!) has to rank as one of those really special wildlife moments.
I even had a close encounter to beat my first encounter with Amazon. A whale called Beacon came alongside with two other humpbacks called Timberline and Roswell. So we switched off the engine and for the next hour they just played around the boat, watching them, or just listening to that atmospheric sound of the blow. At one point Beacon even pushed the others out of the way to be the closest to the boat. So it is not surprising that many people come back again and again.