The only way my first whale-watching experience could have been better is an encounter like this one (photographed by Brian Skerry). Short of that, today exceed even my wildest expectations.
This morning there was so much freezing fog around Cape Cod bay that the cruise we were originally booked on was cancelled. We were told that the fog would lift around noon and that we could go on a later boat. I was skeptical because I had no idea that the weather in New England can change so dramatically and so quickly: at 11.45am a mild wind cleared the sky revealing a scorching sun, and we set off.
I expected that we would get to see a couple of whales, maybe two or three of the extremely endangered Northern Rights that, amazingly, came to graze on the local plankton in droves over the past few days. There are 436 Northern Right whales in the world: around 200 of them have been spotted in the waters of the Stellwagen Marine Sanctuary and feeding just a few hundred metres away from the shore (yesterday we saw about a dozen of them in the distance). Today from the boat I saw 37 of them, and one of the even breached - the professional researchers and consummate whale-watchers in our party said they had never seen a sight like that.
At that point my first-time whale-watcher’s wishes had already been well and truly satisfied, but there was more to come: two Minke whales appeared - lean and fast, they accompanied the grazing Northern Rights up and down along the coastal line. And then four Humpbacks - the most playful and spectacular whales to behold - dived and sounded deep, jumping up in a massive splash of water, and descending with a show of mighty black and white flukes. But the greatest and most impressive sight of all were two Finbacks, mother and calf: the second largest animals on the planet (after the blue whale) made an incredible showing. The mother was huge, slow, considerate; she swam along just to make sure the calf didn’t get into trouble. The calf was exuberant and fearless: with a few frolicsome moves he lunged so close to the boat and so near the surface that we could see his full length before he dived underneath us. It took my breath away.
After this experience I can totally see why some people drop everything and devote themselves to the study and preservation of whales. I myself felt seriously tempted. I know from reading a lot about whales that they are amazing and mysterious creatures, but the whole human range of linguistic superlatives rather fails to translate the feeling of an encounter with them. I had the clearest sense that we thought we were watching them, but really they were watching us.