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Whale-watching success! A beautiful day in Gloucester, MA

Thursday, July 15, 2010, by Aleta Wiley, REU Proctor
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Last Sunday, three students and I went whale-watching. Again. Several weeks ago, we had driven to Gloucester, MA, and spent four hours on a boat, in the midst of a cold, thick fog, and returned to shore with no whale sightings. Lucky for us, Cape Ann Whale Watch gave us vouchers to come back on a boat trip at no additional cost since they guarantee whale sightings on their trips. We knew we would be missing the final game of the World Cup, but we had high hopes it would be a good day for whales. And boy, did we have some sightings! It was a beautiful, warm day on deck of the Hurricane II, and with the high visibility, the boat powered out much faster to the whales. Almost immediately, we happened upon two humpback whales, a mother and her calf. The two whales approached our boat closely at first, and for the next 45 minutes, we would wait 5-8 minutes to see them surface for a minute before diving deeper in the water again.

There are three species of whales commonly seen off the coast of Massachusetts: humpback whales, fin whales, and Minke whales. Humpbacks are easily identifiable because their pectoral fins are white, so even when they are below the surface of the water, you can see them swimming. Also, humpback whales are the most likely to lift their tail flukes completely out of the water when they dive more deeply. Researchers name new whales when they are 2-3 years old, usually based on the pattern on their flukes. Whales are never given common “human” names, nor are they given gender-specific names, since the actual sex of the whales is very difficult to determine (except for mothers who are swimming with their calves!).
Once we lost sight of the humpback whales, we continued on our boat trip. We were treated to a rare close sighting of three fin whales. Fin whales, the second largest animal on the planet after the Blue whale, swim faster than other species, so they are often only seen from farther away. After watching the humpback whales for so long, the Fin whales seemed huge! They seemed to be floating directly under the surface of the water, and periodically, they would lift their blowhole out of the water, round their backs until their dorsal fin broke the surface, and then re-submerge. After the excitement of the humpbacks, everyone on board seemed quietly impressed at the great size of the Fin whales.

As the Hurricane II returned to Gloucester, bouncing along on the waves like an amusement park ride, we all enjoyed soaking up the sun on deck. Another delicious meal of New England clam chowder and Bailey’s Cheesecake at a local restaurant completed our trip!

"The whale watching trip was so much fun and was made even better by the fact that we saw three different species of whale along with a mother and calf. It was also great that we were standing next to someone who was getting World Cup updates, so we didn't miss anything at all. It was spectacular!"ANDREA GARCIA

"This trip was amazing and the weather could not have been better! Although I was quite dazed by the Bonine (which I am so glad I took), it was awesome seeing the three fin whales traveling together. It made me feel so small out there on the ocean. Even more amazing was seeing the mama humpback with her calf only feet away from where I was standing! We wanted to name the baby 'Rose' (to match the mama's name, 'Dusky') but we then realized that the name violated all three naming rules. So, there is a baby whale out there somewhere that is currently nameless. Another huge upside of the trip was getting homemade Bailey’s cheesecake at Halibut Point [a restaurant in Gloucester]. You can't beat that for a Sunday adventure."MORGAN VIGIL