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The Biggest Show on Earth
Whale Watching in New England
By Cliff Calderwood
Sometime between April and May each year the whales return to Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Massachusetts. Itís not only a wonderful sight to experience but heralds the return of warmer weather and a chance to reunite with old friends.
You see many of the whales that return have been coming back to the same place for many years, and naturalists and scientists that study these mammals can recognize individual whales by their distinct markings and theyíve even given them names. A missing whale creates anxiousness amongst the community and a sense of loss.
The whales off the coast of Massachusetts and Maine are drawn to the krill-rich feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank in Massachusetts Bay, and the cold enriched ocean in the Gulf of Maine. Many towns along coastal New England offer opportunities to take a whale watch tour and gain experience of these beautiful giants.
In Massachusetts, you can take a whale watch cruise from Hyannis, Provincetown, Plymouth, Boston, Gloucester, and Newburyport. In Maine tours are offered from Bar Harbor, Boothbay Harbor, Kennebunk, and Portland. Iíll give you more whale watch cruise resources to check out in just a minute.
The most common whales seen off our coastal waters are Humpback, Finback, and Minke whales. Keep your eyes open for dolphins as these playful creatures tend to remain close to the whales.
Itís a fact that whales move around. They follow the food and so some days finding them can be a challenge for the boat owner. But today the cruise boats have sophisticated sonar equipment that helps locate the whaleís food, and with constant communication between the boats many of the tour operators guarantee whales sightings. or you get to go again for free.
Through my own experience and cruise operators Iíve talked to, Iíve accumulated some tips to make your whale watch cruise pleasant and safeÖ
Top Eight Tips for Whale Watching:
1. Most trips last for about 2-3 hours depending on how long it takes to get to the feeding grounds and locate the Whales and youíll be in open water so if you normally suffer from motion sickness take a non-drowsy medication.
2. Make sure youíve got your camera with plenty of film or digital memory ≠ and keep your eye on the ocean, because these mammals explode into action but this isnít any circus so itís unpredictable when youíll get the "shot of a lifetime." So be prepared!
3. Take binoculars if youíve got a pair. The boat will keep its distance from the whales unless the whales decide they want a close up of you, so sometimes getting the best views will be through binoculars.
4. A sunny day on open water with a breeze can be deceptive as it feels nice and cool, but water reflects and magnifies the sun rays so protect with sunscreen, and take your sunglasses to reduce the glare off the water.
5. If youíre a hat person remember to wear one with a tie strap as it gets breezy out on the ocean, and the ocean is rife with enough Red Sox baseball caps already thank you very much.
6. The deck of a whale watch cruise boats can get wet and slippery, and so wear rubber-soled footwear like sneakers for traction.
7. Take a sweatshirt or windbreaker as it can be cool out on the ocean especially late afternoon and in spring and fall. I dress in layers so I can adjust whatever the day brings.
8. Pack a picnic lunch and drink plenty of water - not alcohol. The shipís open galley are nice sources of income for cruise operators because youíve a captured audience, but save your money for when you get back to shore and eat well then.
About Mass Strandings:
Mass stranding of whales is a common occurrence on Cape Cod. Nobody really knows what causes this apparent mass suicide but itís been happening for hundreds of years ≠ Henry David Thoreau wrote about them over 150 years ago as he traveled along the Great Beach area which is now he Cape Cod National Seashore.
The general theory is that the lead whale ≠ usually a female ≠ becomes sick and disoriented and heads to shallow water, and everybody else follows. It then becomes a helpless and futile attempt to recover and save the lives of the whole group. The shifting sand bars caused by natural erosion and the massive storms in the area can quickly change the whole sea floor topography, adding to the danger and confusion for these large animals.
For more whale watch information check out these resources: