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Spout Spotters: Boater Safety Around Whales Online Course Launches

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Intern's first trip on the water

In this blog a WDC Intern, Kate McPherson, chronicles her first trip out to study the whales off Cape Cod …

When I decided to begin my summer field internship with the WDC in late April, I forgot that what is cold in Maine in April is also cold in Massachusetts: namely, the ocean. Rule of thumb states that temperatures on the water are 10 degrees cooler than on land, but obviously this does not hold true for all occasions. While New England temperatures are beginning to creep toward their summer peak, the Gulf of Maine has yet to warm any considerable amount and temperatures continue to hover around 50°F, meaning that with wind chill on the water it still feels like March. Consequently, I spent the majority of my first two weeks in Plymouth learning the ins and outs of data entry, coding, and photo identification while the whale watching boats prepared to dive into their busy summer schedules.

The anticipation of seeing whales in their natural habitat was enough to make the first week fly by, and with each practice data sheet I was envisioning what my first boat trip might be like. Which species would make an appearance, if any? My only prior whale watching experience had been sadly uneventful, and while I studied marine science in college, I had never seen more than harbor porpoises in the wild. Browsing through the photo database assured me that many types of whales frequented the waters off Cape Cod, and stories from past interns confirmed that summer boat trips could include all sorts of antics from the charismatic humpback whales, but I was still hesitant to expect much from my first venture.

Over the final weekend in April, a few coworkers went out on a whale watching trip and returned with fresh data and photos to be coded and entered into our database, which I was able to assist with. Much of the photos and data were centered around three humpback whales known as Nile, Measles, and Evolution based on the unique patterns of black and white found on their flukes. Our catalog of individual humpbacks contains so many fluke images that at first it seems nearly impossible to distinguish one from another, but with practice and repetition you find that little details begin to jump out at you from the page, and patterns become easier to identify. By the end of that coding session, I was even able to pick up on differences in the dorsal fins of these animals (which typically are much more similar than tail flukes!)

Finally the day arrived; it was time for me to go on my first whale watching trip of the season. We left the office early and made our way down to Hyannis to board the Whale Watcher, where we were met by the captain, naturalist, and a handful of intrepid family groups and high school students. Travel out towards Provincetown and Stellwagen Bank was slow, as the vessel was required to keep its speed to 10 knots or below due to recent North Atlantic right whale sightings in the bay, and we were unable to spot any whales despite the calm conditions and smooth waters.

Then, as if sensing the qualms of those aboard the boat, whales began making appearances on all sides; a North Atlantic right whale here, a small pod of harbor porpoise there, and a large finback whale that meandered just off the port side, leaving onlookers in awe. While this was still a relatively slow day for seeing whales, it was thrilling for a first-timer like myself. The captain was not as impressed, and soon abandoned the area in pursuit of some humpback whales that had been spotted nearby by another whale watching vessel. As we moved to the new location, we continued to see finbacks and right whales in the distance, reminders that the ocean is never as still and quiet as it appears at first glance.

Our new destination promised to be exciting as bubbles were seen coming towards the surface in a great, green rush, followed by two distended humpback mouths filled to the brim with fish and seawater. While the whales enjoyed their catch, I positioned myself along the rail so that I would be able to catch a glimpse of their flukes before the whales dove down again. This would be my first attempt at identifying individuals in the wild rather than off of a computer screen. When a spotted fluke rose from the ocean, I decided that this individual looked an awful lot like Measles, one of the whales I had coded in the office only days before, and my suspicions were confirmed as the second whale dove and revealed herself to be Nile, as evidenced by the Nile delta-shaped mark on the upper left portion of her fluke. It was a truly incredible moment as I realized that two whales I had only before seen in photographs were now swimming and feeding before me in the bay, large as life and more incredible than I could have ever imagined.

We stayed with the whales for nearly half an hour before the captain determined that it was time for us to embark upon the return portion of our trip. I reflected on our encounters of the day as we worked our way back to the dock, and wondered what sort of sightings the next trip out would bring. With the whole summer ahead of me, I knew that I would become accustomed to seeing whales in the wild performing behaviors that I had only read about in papers, but hoped that I would never take these experiences for granted. As massive and invulnerable as these animals may appear, they still face many threats in the wild, largely as a result of human activity, and it is only with continued advocacy and education that encounters such as the ones I experienced that day will remain a possibility.