A Day on Stellwagen Bank: Where Whale Watching Was Born.

Written by Jenna Schwerzmann

On a partly-cloudy June morning, nearly three hundred passengers boarded the Hyannis Whale Watcher cruise. Prepped with backpacks, coolers, and extra layers for the chilly Cape Cod winds, the passengers seemed hopeful as they handed their tickets to none other than the naturalist, Jonathan Brink.

Jon Brink has been with Hyannis Whale Watcher for 14 years, but has been in the industry for longer.  Along with Captain Mike, with over 30 years of experience, it is safe to say that these guys know their whales.

J. Brink- J. Schwerzmann

Naturalist Jon Brink, searching for whales. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

They first took us to an area off Stellwagen Bank informally known as “Finback Alley.” But what we actually found at first were a bunch of minke whales!

The minkes were quick.  The crowd got a really good look at one in particular, which surfaced just off the port side of the boat.  It was then that I noticed the “minke mittens,” or the distinctive white patch on their pectoral fins.

minke WDC

A close look at a minke whale. Notice its white “mittens” under the surface. Photo: Melissa Steinberg, WDC

While we were with the minkes, we saw not one, but two very tall spouts in the distance. These were the blows of finback whales.  I learned that it was special to find two fin whales together, as the crew had typically seen them feeding alone.   When they are observed close together and synchronized in their movements, an “association” has formed.   I heard this from the intern on board, Melissa Steinberg, who collects data and photos for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

m-steinberg-j-schwerzmann

Melissa showing some passengers a sample of baleen. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

It was Melissa who spotted the next whale.  After traveling to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, near Provincetown, the boat was quietly anticipating the next sighting. It started to feel like our luck ran out, but then Melissa saw a spout in the corner of her eye.  Captain Mike took us closer to the area, but we still had to wait a few more minutes until we saw yet another species of whale – a humpback!

Everybody loves to spot a humpback on a whale watch tour.  This one did not disappoint.  Though we were running out of time, we were able to observe the whale for a little while. It even showed us its fluke!

humpback-fluke-j-schwerzmann

A humpback whale tail, or fluke. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

Jon told the crowd that we were probably the only tour on the Cape to find a humpback today.  All the naturalists in the area know each other well and communicate often, in order to coordinate whale watching. In fact, these Cape Cod companies pretty much wrote the book on the whale watching industry as they worked collaboratively with NOAA to develop the measures and protocols now included in the Greater Atlantic Regional Whale Watching Guidelines.

This naturally fits the values of Whale SENSE, a program that recognizes responsible tours. Whale watch companies volunteer to participate in this annual training.  They agree to follow regional guidelines and regulations, educate passengers, notify officials of whales in distress, set an example for others and encourage ocean stewardship.  Hyannis Whale Watcher was the second company to join the program in 2009, after Dolphin Fleet in Provincetown.

It is clear that Hyannis Whale Watcher is proud to be a part of this program.  Jon said it was a mutual decision for the company to join, as they mostly wanted to set an example for other vessels. While the whale watch companies in the area are all well aware of the guidelines, recreational boaters might differ.  This is why Jon incorporates information about Whale SENSE in his narration.

When asked what his favorite part of the job was, Jon said it was educating kids. “They’re the ones that are going to save the whales,” he said. “If you save the whales, you’re going to save everything else out there.”

“Think of the threats they face as raindrops. Giving them protection is like giving them an umbrella. If you give whales protection, it’s a big umbrella, and everything else fits in underneath.”

finbacks-j-schwerzmann

Two finbacks together in an association. Photo: Jenna Schwerzmann

This is great reminder that all species—from seabirds to sharks to whales—rely on us to keep the oceans clean.  Conservation is only successful when people work together to do our part. Getting out on a responsible whale watch is certainly a great way to respect wildlife and support conservation, but it is important to remember that we can all be responsible stewards for the environment at any time.

Whaleboats Buy my Quesadillas

Written by Tamara Lang. All photos courtesy of Major Marine Tours.

My dad tells people I work on a whaleboat.

I’ve tried correcting him. It’s a whale-watching boat, dad, I try to say, with glaciers as a bonus. Whaleboats operate off of antique whaling ships, and I don’t work on those either. I can promise that I have not hunted even a single whale, nor lived one chapter of Moby Dick. I just show flukes to people and share facts about that species. Point towards a blow. Take a picture. Go our separate ways.

He nods and smiles, then says the exact same thing the next week. I’ve given up trying.

Instead, each evening, I walk into the shared kitchen of my company housing in Seward,Alaska and ask after my coworker’s days. “Find any whales?” I ask, the question sloped like the breath of a sleeping dolphin, since I know this is a conversation I can have with only half of my brain. Yes, or no. Humpback, orca, fin, or maybe minke, with a differently-toned “ooooo” or “ooooh” for each. I nod, and flip my quesadilla. We measure our days in humpbacks, my coworkers and I, and our weeks in orca.

Major Marine Tours_Orca-whale-Copy-min

Orca whale. Photo: Major Marine Tours

Our months are marked in bubble-net feeding or nursing calves, viewed from a non-intrusive distance. Anything other than that will startle me awake, make me burn my quesadilla to stories of fin whales breaching or transient orcas hunting sea lions. Whales are the markers of my summer in Alaska. They’re what I love and the moments for which I live.

 

 

They also buy me the groceries needed for that quesadilla.

On the water, whales become a necessity. I walk about the boat with my eyes glued to the water, laughing with passengers as I search the water behind their ears. Each trip on the non-whaleboats starts with an optimism as wide and translucent as a sparkling puddle, but on the rare trips, after a few miles miles without blows, I feel the tiniest pit in my stomach. As the miles go on it widens in time with the passenger’s quiet. I crane my neck backwards to look up at the mountains and cirque glaciers above, pointing them out to people and falling back into awe along the way, but the whales still announce their absence. I look into passenger’s eyes instead and see their slight impatience, dark with

Major-Marine-Tours-14_09_104-min

Photo: Major Marine Tours

the chance that they might not love this cruise, might not tell their friends, and might leave my next year’s quesadilla unbought. I take my lunch to the wheelhouse and scan the water, the pit growing. I don’t hunt for whales, but I do search for them for a living.

But then the blow comes, as always unexpected. I slip out onto the deck and there the whale rises at a distance, and I point my words and my energy towards her gleaming back. Once all eyes are directed towards the next blow I slide back and watch, because this is where the magic happens. Eyes go wide with awe, voices still and focus, and an entire deck forgets to breath. When a humpback rises through still water beneath the stark cliffs of the Kenai Fjords, words become useless. Air gains breadth. Beauty becomes moldable, colors as tactile as oil paints. The whale folds the world around her back. And all we can do is watch.

Major Marine Yours_feeding whales

Feeding humpback whales. Photo: Major Marine Tours

And then the humpback sounds, and we shake ourselves into language. In the smattering of words that follow I sense a feeling, wide as a whale unseen beneath the surface. That feeling is love. When I talk to passengers now I look them in the face, and I see in their eyes the love of the ocean that will follow them throughout their lives. Through each bill passed or opposed, through each plastic bottle bought or replaced, through every piece of trash tossed or held beside the ocean and for every moment of choice, the love that one humpback taught one person upon the Kenai Fjords will swim beneath both words and their actions. And that can change the world.

I am glad above all else that I love in a world where people make money from whales. Because I can earn five quesadillas a week and winter travel money from a summer of working on boats in Alaska, I handle the lines that send a boatful of people from around the world out into the waters where they’ll come to love and then to protect. Major Marine Tours, the company for which I work, functions as a profitable business, but because the owner has had a lifetime of coming to love this place and this environment that money goes through the Seward Sealife Center and the Seward Middle School to circle right back into helping the community love the wildlife.

I want to end with a story. Early this season I saw a whale almost unheard of in these waters: a sperm whale. We saw the blow from a distance, and I almost didn’t believe it

MMT_Sperm-Whale-1

Sperm whale blow. Photo: Eric Chandler

when I saw that sideways-slanted blow catching the sunlight. Sperm whales were one of the most famously hunted whales in commercial whaling days, with select solo males such as this one serving as the inspiration for Moby Dick, and their history with humans reads as the twinning of violence and industry. Sailor’s tack came bought with the blood of sperm whales. They are also one of the deepest-diving whales, perfectly adapted to the cold squeeze of deep water. To see a sperm whale is to see an alien, a creature from a world only imagination can reach.

I stood on the bow in the sun, wrapped in awe. Sunlight caught on the back of a whale who fed in perpetual night, and it was the same light that, for the moment, I shared. The whale breathed out; I breathed in. From a respectful distance I watched him gather his strength for the deadweight drop to the bottom of the ocean, and then he dipped below the water. His back rose in a mound, and then his fluke lifted gently from the surface of the water, as his body rolled straight and the blades of his fluke floated upwards into the sun. Then, slowly, he sank, until only the tips of his fluke were visible, and then nothing but the lit surface of deep water.

I wandered through the boat, struck with wonder. I rattled off facts to passengers, describing the organ in his head encasing the spermaceti oil whalers found so rich, but which served the more valuable purpose of helping him sink and rise in deep waters. I told them about ambergris, the potent-smelling substance that forms the base of the most valuable perfumes in the world, but which has the far better appeal of being the substance the sperm whale uses to protect his stomach from the sharp beaks of the giant squid that form his prey. I took apart the anatomy of the whale we had just seen and produced stories instead of lamp oil. And I watched the glow of new knowledge on new faces as we looked down into the sperm whale’s realm.

 

And this is what I live off of: not oil, but awe. The product I present is love, pure and simple – the love of knowing an animal with immense power swims beneath your feet, in a world you can never know. With such richness of life below, respect comes as naturally as the squeeze for oxygen in the lungs of a surfacing whale. Care surfaces, plumed like a blow. And each day in what isn’t a whaleboat leaves everyone onboard rich, our eyes aglow with the love of whales that lights our world as naturally as sunlight on Alaskan seas.

Major Marine Tours _sperm-whale

Sperm whale fluke. Photo: Major Marine Tours

Tamara Lang is a senior deckhand with Major Marine Tours in Seward, Alaska, and a writer of creative nonfiction. Her writing and her travels can both can be followed on facebook at Tamara Lang Writes, or at tamaralang.com.

Whale watching “South of south” with Boston Harbor Cruises

It was a beautiful day out not on Stellwagen Bank but as we called it “south of south”. We headed out towards the south on board the Sanctuary for the 10am whale watch and after spotting a quartet of fin whales on the southwest corner of Stellwagen we headed around the tip of Cape Cod and down to an area off the beaches where we found a scattering of humpback whales. We spent time with two “little” humpbacks, Shuffleboard’s 2015 calf and another whale which was first spotted in the area back in 2015. Both whales were diving deep and appeared to be feeding on areas of bait that sometimes roiled up to the surface. This early in the season many of the whales are just returning to the area to begin their summer feast. Both whales are looking a little skinny and appear to have some dimply skin going on – calves often have “bad skin” so maybe this continues on into the juvenile years. We often compare whales to humans in terms of their life spans and parental care. Maybe they also have acne!

06-03-17 10AM Dimply whale TM DSC_0851.jpg

For the 2:30 whale watch we headed down to the Cape Cod beaches in search of the whales again. The area is once again a hive of activity. On the way out we spotted two basking sharks, around twelve grey and harbor seals, tons of seabirds and our two fantastic juvenile humpback whales. The whales turned out to be sleepy this afternoon, perhaps after a morning of heavy feeding. One thing we noticed and we moved through the area was the enormous number of lobster pots. Entanglement in fishing gear is a major threat to a number of marine animals, especially our large whales. 70% of humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine and 83% of North Atlantic right whales bear scars from entanglement and between 10% and 25% of our humpback whales will gain new scars every year. This is an enormous issue that needs everyone from fishermen to researchers to legislators to work together to find solutions that will protect the whales and allow our local economy to flourish. Unfortunately this threat was brought home to our passengers when we spotted a seal that seemed to be acting strangely. After investigating we noticed a yellow line around the seal’s neck and a further blue line trailing around it. Researchers grey seals typically see between 3-9% of seals entangled at any given haul out. These seals typically become entangled at a young age will grow “into” the entanglement causing major injuries as the lines become tighter. Rescuers have had some successes in disentangling seals by sedating them remotely. Hopefully this little seal will get resighted and hopefully disentangled. It’s hard to see the impacts that we have on these animals first hand but it is important to reminded from time to time that we have to continue working to find solutions to protect our marine ecosystem.

Best,

Tegan and Linnea

06-03-17 230PM Entangled seal TM DSC_0911

Field Notes: Out Of the Fog

From Whale SENSE Atlantic participant Boston Harbor Cruises: 

Laura L., Julia, and Chrissy

May 1, 2017 trip

We headed out into the thick fog surrounding Boston with hopes that sightings luck would continue to be on our side. While exiting the harbor the crew kept a sharp lookout for other boat traffic, but before too long we were able to shift our focus to spotting whales. There was just enough of a breeze to sweep the fog away to give us about almost a mile of visibility, and before long Chrissy spotted the first blow of the day, followed by a pair of humpbacks nearby. We focused our attention toward Nile and Lynx, who were doing some slow traveling. Passengers had just gotten the hang of spotting the whales as they resurfaced when Nile shocked us coming up right along the port side and then lob tailing just yards away from the boat.

I was warning passengers that the whales could come up anywhere and asking for help to resight them so as not to miss the whales and lose them in the fog. Shortly after, I heard a shout from the stern and sure enough, the whales had come up behind us and were swimming away. Just as everyone’s eyes were turned, Nile gave a huge tail breach! We followed them as they maneuvered in more of a linear fashion.

From the fog emerged an enormous cargo ship, and we felt a bit of a pit in our stomachs as the humpbacks swam in the direction of the shipping lanes. Luckily we were able to stay with them long enough that we could see they were not in the ship’s path, however it was a stark reminder that the oceans and their inhabitants are under constant siege from anthropogenic threats. The conversations I had with passengers on the way home gave me hope- while we cannot eliminate every risk, we can contribute to bigger solutions such as plastic bag bans, reducing waste of goods and energy, and fostering an overall shift in our attitude away from fast consumerism. It was such a treat to be enclosed on foggy Stellwagen Bank in the company of Lynx, Nile, and the other critters we enjoy watching so much.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

The Common “Sense” Way to View Majestic Whales

February 17, 2017

NOAA Fisheries hopes you’ve enjoyed diving into all the whale science and stories we’ve featured this week. From coast to coast, you may be asking how you can get out and see whales for yourself.

Captain John’s boat with humpback. Credit: WDC

Going out with whale watching tours that follow responsible guidelines is a great way to see whales in a manner that is safe and respectful for wildlife and humans, while supporting local businesses. The Whale SENSE program provides recognition for companies who follow these guidelines.

What does Whale SENSE mean?

Each whale watching company that participates in the Whale SENSE program—supported and developed by NOAA Fisheries and its long-time partner Whale and Dolphin Conservation—agrees to follow basic guidelines that help minimize disturbance to whales, alert appropriate authorities to whales in distress, and provide a safe viewing experience.

The “SENSE”-ible guidelines are:

  • Stick to the regional whale watching guidelines
  • Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers to have SENSE while watching whales
  • Notify appropriate responders of any whales in distress
  • Set an example for other boaters
  • Encourage ocean stewardship

Whale SENSE acknowledges companies that are committed to responsible practices, and provides training as well as marketing materials and recognition on the Whale SENSE website so tourists can make informed decisions when selecting a tour operator.

“Our goal is an educated and respectful approach to whale watching,” said Aleria Jensen, Deputy for Protected Resources at NOAA Fisheries Alaska Regional Office, who helped to establish the program in Alaska. “We’re proud of these companies for taking a leadership role and committing to stewardship on the water.”

(c) Gastineau Guiding

Where can you find Whale SENSE endorsed companies?

There are 23 recognized Whale SENSE tours operating along the Atlantic coast and in Juneau, Alaska. The Whale SENSE program started in 2009 with several tour operators in New England. After regional success and expansion along the Atlantic seaboard, the Atlantic program became a model for Alaska Whale SENSE, based in Juneau.

“Working directly with participating companies has allowed us to maintain a great relationship with them” said Monica Pepe of Whale and Dolphin Conservation. “We take their suggestions and feedback seriously, and as a result the program is constantly evolving to be as successful as possible.”

Captain John’s boat with Pinch lobtailing. Credit: WDC

Each region has unique whale watching challenges that the Whale SENSE community of operators has helped address. Along the Atlantic coast, Whale SENSE vessels have acted as “first responders” able to spot and report entangled whales, especially endangered North Atlantic right whales. Having Whale SENSE participants stay with entangled whales until trained responders arrive to attempt disentanglement efforts is key to a successful long-term conservation strategy.

Frank DeSantis—owner and captain of American Princess Cruises in Queens, New York, and Whale SENSE participant since 2013—describes his first encounter with this rare whale. “This was our first-ever sighting of a right whale on one of our trips, and while we were devastated to learn that it was entangled, we felt fortunate to be able to document its condition and report it to the authorities. Our Whale SENSE training provided us with the tools to know what we could do to help in that situation.”

In Alaska, Juneau is a key foraging location for humpback whales, and a world-class whale watching destination. Whale SENSE Alaska was introduced in 2015 to augment NOAA’s 2001 regulations about approaching humpback whales, providing additional operational guidelines and training for viewing wildlife, and recognizing companies for participating in the program. Whale SENSE was formed in Alaska with the goal of minimizing disruption to humpbacks during critical foraging times, while still ensuring that whale watching remains a viable and sustainable enterprise.

Allen Marine Beach clean up

So whether you want to see breaching whales off Cape Cod or a killer whale in Alaska (or humpbacks on either coast), Whale SENSE tours provide safe and educational opportunities to view the whales we’ve come to know during  #WhaleWeek2017!

More Information

Learn more about Whale SENSE and recognized operators.

You can see lots of species on Whale SENSE tours.

Get more information about responsible marine life viewing.

Learn about Alaska’s Whale SENSE program from this 2015 Tweetchat!