a whale of a tale

I turned 29 years old today. For the occassion, I want to share some photos I took during a whale-watching trip while living in Boston. I spent two years living there post-college, working at MIT Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington (yes, THAT Lexington). One of my most memorable experiences was a whale watching trip in summer of 1998, operated by the New England Aquarium out of Boston Harbor.

The New England Aquarium run several boats, including The Voyager II, out to Stellwagen Bank, a huge region off the coast of Massachusetts covering over 1100 square nautical miles. It's a natural feeding ground for the endangered right whale, who stop there during the summer on their annual migrations. It also happens to lie directly underneath the major shipping lanes to Boston Harbor.

I went on the cruise during the summer of 1998. When the Voyager II got out to Stellwagen Bank, we saw several whales in the distance, but it took about a half hour before one decided to cruise past us. In the first picture, you can see the whale gliding past, at a respectful distance. This is a specimen of the "right whale" species.

After a few moments, the whale decided to come closer for a better look. It was astonishing how quickly the whale moved - in the photo, you can see that the whale is much closer, the guardrail to the viewing platform at the front pf the Voyager II is visible at the right. The whale it literally just a few meters from the boat. At this point the Voyager II was forced to cut her engines, since the ship must be at a standstill when whales are within a certain distance (to avoid injury).

The whale was quite cooperative - it was fascinated by us and floated lazily alongside. I call the next photo "smile" because it really seemed like it was grinning at us. At this point, the actual size of the whale became more apparent. I have no experience to be able to say if this was an average size specimen or not, but it was simply enormous.

I mentioned how the whale was fast - this next photo also proved to me just how agile they are as well. Suddenly, the whale did a complete 90 turn in two dimensions, turning towards the Voyager II while simultaneously pointing downwards. The maneuver took a second. The effect was like watching a ship hover in space. The head of the whale is now much deeper than the tail, and this is why the flippers look green. The fins are actually white (as seen in the "smile" photo above) but the heavy concentration of algae in the water give a flourescent effect, which is illustrated best over the white background of the flippers.

I think the whale was showing off here. From hanging stationary in the inverted position a moment before, suddenly it bent upwards and did a sharp turn. The whale is probably 30 feet long, but it has a better turning radius than our Hyundai Elantra! It was almost a paradox that such an immense creature could be so fast and so agile. In its native element, the whale moves with power and precision. It seems to violate physics and inertia.

It seemed at this point that the whale would leave. The whale seemed to change its mind though, and came back for another look. It actually dived under the Voyager II and came up on the other (starboard) side. I ran to that side to get a photo but only caught it as it went under again. The picture shows the whale diving back to return to the depths. We saw some more whales in the distance after it left, but none ventured near enough for a close inspection as did this adventurous fellow. When the Voyager II's engines started up again, we all knew it was over. My only regret was that we didn't see any breaching, but that just gives me resolve to visit Stellwagen Bank again someday.

Overall, it was an incredibly dramatic and awe-inspiring encounter. When I moved to Massachusetts, I had deliberately paid for the Save the Whales license plate (proceeds go to fund these organizations) - but that was out of a more generic liberal impulse. Only after actually experiencing the whale in its natural habitat, did I really come to understand their power. The single best word to describe it: grace.

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