Whale watching in New England

Nick Della VolpeOur Town Outdoors

What weighs several tons and scarfs down hearty meals before heading off to the Caribbean? A whale, nature’s largest creature.

While visiting my brother Jim and friend Drew Costa in Weymouth, Massachusetts, we took in an afternoon whale watch ride on one of Captain John’s tour boats, based in Plymouth. Loaded with hopeful whale-watching tourists, the ship motored out to the Stellwagen Bank, a nearly 2-hour boat ride along the coast on the way to the open sea, before reaching and motoring around the whale feeding grounds. The day’s group was said to be mostly Baleen whales.

Turns out that feeding is better off the coastal shelf along Cape Cod than it is in the Caribbean, where the whales breed and winter over. Apparently, there is less available food in the much clearer water of the Caribbean.

According to marine biology students onboard, these whales eat some 2,000 pounds of small fish and krill each day while feeding off the Cape. Talk about binge dining!

The whale’s rising and splashing down on the surface, and the thrashing of its tail, helps scare the little critters into tight schools — to be scooped into the whale’s waiting maw. I’d like to think those little guys served a greater good.

A Humpback whale breaches.

During the boat ride, the biologists carried around a sample jaw structure. The lining of the whale’s mouth looks something like a piece of grandma’s corn husk broom or a horsehair paintbrush. It allows the whale to filter out that huge gulp of seawater, leaving the captured fish inside its mouth. To an Italian lad, that sounds a lot like the colander mom used on pasta night.

These whales are truly magnificent creatures. Enormous yet graceful in their watery habitat, you can’t help but “ooh!” and “ahh!” watching their movements from the tour ship. We’d move back and forth across the boat when the tour guide announced over the PA system that one or two whales were breaching or surfacing at the 2 o’clock …or 11 o’clock position. Kind of comical to see all those cell phone tourists pointing lenses at the action 15 or 20 yards away. Oh, for an old-fashioned telephoto lens.

All in all, it was a lovely afternoon. Sunny, mid-70s. We guys started it with our own feeding session at a local restaurant, nearby on the wharf. Calamari tossed back with a libation to fuel the journey.

The author, center, with his brother, Jim, left, and friend Drew on the right.

The whale observation tour took a little over four hours, the bulk of it traveling to and from the coastal shelf. You had a choice of seats: enclosed below with the engine humming, or wind-tossed benches topside.

There was also some side entertainment provided by the youngsters aboard. Four hours is a long time for them to be patient. So, when they weren’t gawking at whales with the rest of us, they ginned up games, like hide-and-seek, to amuse themselves.

The kids were happily running around the ship, weaving in and out amongst the rest of us – sometimes to their moms’ chagrin. “Sit down, now!” Be careful!” frazzled moms shouted, doubtlessly imagining sailors tossing out life preservers and crying “child overboard!” The kids were fine, of course, and the moms would be, too after a martini back onshore. The tour ended with all kids still safely stowed on board.

Nick Della Volpe is a lawyer and a former member of Knoxville City Council.

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