The Benign Hunt:
Whale Watching on Cape Cod
Seeing these majestic giants rise from the deep and nuzzle alongside a whale watch boat is, for many, the most memorable event of their holiday. And, if you are anywhere from Plymouth to Provincetown while reading this story, you are very near a whale watch excursion center and a thrilling adventure.
Whale watching crews leave regularly from Plymouth, Barnstable and Provincetown Harbors; most guarantee a sighting. Depending on the port, trips vary in length.
No matter where you embark, your cruise will take you to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, the whales' favorite feeding grounds. Each year, beginning in late winter, whales return to The Sanctuary, which encompasses over 600 square nautical miles, about 26 miles east of Boston, 6 miles north of Race Point and 7 miles from Gloucester. Because the water is shallow here, plankton upon which whales feed rises closer to the surface.
During your excursion, naturalists will help you spot, identify and learn more about these gentle giants. You are likely to see humpback, finback and minke whales, and no words can describe the thrill and awe associated with each sighting. Perhaps you'll see whales breaching (leaping straight out of the water into the air), spyhopping (holding their heads high out of the water as if having a look around) or sounding (executing a dive). Sometimes, a whale will slap the water with its flippers as if greeting you.
While humans trace their ancestry to animals who left the sea and moved to the land, whales trace theirs to mammals who left dry land and returned to the sea. Of course, all this happened fifty odd million years ago, but many still think these giants are fish, not mammals of the deep. In fact, Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, once referred to the whale as "that spouting fish with the horizontal tail."
In the early 17th century, whales ruled these waters. In fact, the Pilgrims noted that, because of their size and number, one could walk across their backs to the shore. Regrettably, whales were as profitable as they were plentiful back then.
Whale oil was used to make candles, soap and crayons, and whale blubber was boiled to make oil for lamps and machinery. While whale skin could be turned into shoelaces and saddles, whale bones could become fishing poles, corset stays, pie crimpers, crochet hooks, yarn winders and even house frames. The sperm whale contained minute quantities of a substance called ambergris, which was used to make fine perfumes. Because it sold for $300 per pound, it was a very profitable by-product. The seamen often received the ivory teeth. All in all, because just about every part of a whale could serve a useful purpose-and turn a handsome profit-fortunes were made in the whaling industry.
Cape Cod, Nantucket and New Bedford soon became major ports for the fleets hunting these creatures. Provincetown, boasting hundreds of sailing vessels, was once one of the richest towns in Massachusetts.
In short, many species of whales were hunted almost to extinction. Despite more than 60 years of protection, The Right Whale, whose numbers are estimated at less than 350, is still in danger. It got its name from being "the right whale to kill." Right whales are especially rotund (great sources of blubber and oil) and slow. In addition, they are voracious eaters, often oblivious to their surroundings when feeding. Therefore, they are easier to hunt and catch. Also, because they float when they're dead seamen could load them onto ships easier.
Each year in late winter, though, Right Whales return to our waters from their winter homes along the Florida and Georgia Coast. Last March, researchers spotted 3 of these rare whales courting in Cape Cod waters--a remarkable sighting indeed!