Trapped by a School of Whales: One Whale Watcher's Story
I had a very good friend who lived in Rockport, Massachusetts. Her fiance was an oceanographer who spent months at a time on Russian ships that were close to American waters. His job was to be sure they did not stray from their course. While he was at sea I often went to visit my friend and fell in love with the Rockport/Gloucester area north of Boston. Rockport is a charming, artsy, seaside town and Gloucester is the quintessential fishing harbor town. The infamous fishing ship the Andrea Gail of "The Perfect Storm" book/movie sailed from Gloucester.
My friends were married on a hot Saturday afternoon in early August at a
church overlooking Gloucester Harbor. I made the three hour drive from Albany, NY, to Rockport the night before the wedding planning to stay in the area for the
weekend. Once I got to that beautiful seaside, I didn't want to go home. It was a quiet time at the office so I called my boss and asked for a week off and he readily agreed.
I had brought just enough clothes for the weekend so I had to visit a local shop for some essentials to supplement my meager wardrobe. The motel reservation that was made for me by the bride and groom could not be extended beyond the weekend. After just a few phone calls I located a lovely shingle sided, window-boxed, B&B on Marmion Way in Rockport overlooking the ocean and a small bay.
Whale watching had never held any attraction for me. I enjoyed watching them on TV, but never had a desire to hop in a boat and go chasing after something that weighs 66,000 lbs and is 46 feet long. Yet being in that area where fishing and boats and whales are a part of the culture, I let myself be seduced.
At breakfast on Monday morning there was lively conversation about the sighting of two whales in the bay directly across the street. After breakfast I wandered over to the cliff side and watched the waves hoping to catch a glimpse of the pair but if they were there they stayed under water.
Later in the day I was browsing in some of the shops in downtown Rockport when I saw a pamphlet for whale watching sponsored by the Gloucester Fishermen's Museum. I thought if I was going to go whale watching, the people at a fishermen's museum must know what they're doing, so when I got back to the B&B I called the museum and reserved a spot on their 8AM whale watching excursion the next day.
What Was I Thinking?
When I got up the next morning it was raining and the fog was so thick I couldn't see the ocean across the street. Nevertheless, I put on my raincoat and drove the 10 minutes to the fishing museum. There were about a dozen people waiting inside. The man who was going to "captain" the boat began to give us instructions on what not to do. He told us not to stand up and that we should not all go to one side of the boat at the same time. Hmmm, now I was beginning to wonder exactly how big this boat was.
After waiting a half hour to see if the weather would clear, it was decided to go ahead with the trip. We walked across the street to the harbor and to my horror were directed to board what looked to me like a tiny wooden boat, an old refurbished fishing boat. By refurbished I mean wooden benches had been installed along the three sides of the back of the boat. A small canopy held up by metal poles hung overhead. It was definitely not one of the big yacht-like whale watching ships one sees today.
As our little boat pulled out of the harbor into the foggy unknown, I sat on a bench and wondered what was I thinking?
Of all the whale watching trips in all the towns in all the world, I walked into this one.
As the boat cleared the breakwater the fog lifted. It was still gray and raining lightly. In addition to the captain, another man from the museum was on the boat. He told us that the captain was in contact with local fishing ships. When the fishermen saw a whale spout, they radioed the captain and we would speed off into the direction of the spout. I wasn't crazy about the speeding off part, but was resigned to my fate at that point.
Nothing happened for a half hour or so, we just sailed around randomly. Suddenly the boat sped off. Five minutes later the captain cut the engine and we just sat rolling on the gray water holding our breath, well, at least I was holding my breath. After a few minutes the boat sped off again in another direction then we sat and waited, all was quiet except for the sound of the waves splashing against the boat. Suddenly water gushed into the air from a long dark shadow just beneath the surface about 50 feet away. It was far enough away that I still felt comfortable and thought it was interesting.
Our boat rocked very gently and I assumed it was the waves. A moment later a 50 foot humpback whale swam along side of us then disappeared under the water. Another humpback whale appeared on the other side of the boat so close that the whale's eye looked like a ship porthole.
Soon so many whales of all sizes were swimming by us that we lost count. We did everything wrong. We stood up. We ran as a group from one side of the boat to the other. We could feel the whales under us gently bumping into the bottom of the boat. There was no time to worry about safety, there was nothing we could do but be awed by our situation.
After about ten minutes I sat on a bench feeling absolutely overwhelmed by what was happening around me. Looking to my right I saw a woman standing on the bench next to me balancing herself. It would not have taken much for her to topple into the water. I reached up and pulled on the bottom of her raincoat to get her attention. When she looked down I asked her if she realized she was standing on the bench. Looking totally surprised she said no and quickly stepped down.
A few minutes later a blood curdling scream came from the bow of the boat. Naturally we all ran together in that direction. A woman and her eight year old son had been standing at the very point of the bow when a whale breached the water right next to them. She screamed because it was so close. When I got there I could see the smooth mark on the ocean's surface left by the breach.
At this point 20 or 25 minutes had gone by and we were still surrounded by humpback whales and still feeling them bumping under the boat. That's when I noticed twenty or more boats of all sizes that were lining either side of the perimeter created by the school of whales. The occupants of those boats were just watching the whales and watching us as we bobbed up and down in the middle of the "whale corridor."
Having totally capitulated to the situation I walked to the rail on the side of the boat to watch our captors as they continued to surface and dive within arms length. A small whale, only about 20 feet long started to swim past the boat when immediately a large whale pushed itself between me and the youngster. I assumed it was the mom and could have sworn her big eye looked right at me. I just raised my hands in surrender.
A man walked up beside me laughing and I recognized him as the captain of our pirated vessel. I asked him if he saw this volume of whales often. He smiled and said he had been working for the museum for over 20 years and had never had an experience even close to this one. I laughed and told him he should go back to the wheel and get us out of here. He assured me there was nothing he could do.
Almost 40 minutes after it began, our boat stopped rocking, and it was over. We all hugged and congratulated each other for having survived the experience. Then, as if they knew exactly what they were doing, two humpback whales breached the water about 20 feet in front of our small boat. Some people thought they were saying good-bye, I thought it was just two delinquents taunting us.
When we got off the boat at Gloucester Harbor we were like people who have shared a religious experience. We vowed to stay in touch and our captain promised that he would ask museum staff to send each of us a list of the names and addresses of everyone on the trip. That never happened. But there are a dozen people out there somewhere with whom I shared a once-in-a-lifetime experience.