Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Auntie Has a Whale of a Time

In honor of my turning 29 AGAIN last week, the Army Dude and I decided to go on a whale watch on Sunday. Here I am aboard the Whale Watcher, owned by Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises in Barnstable. I'm wearing my uber-cool Friendship Trap sweatshirt and carrying the also-uber-cool tote bag a good friend brought me from Belgium. You can't see it, but the tote bag says "le joie de vivre avec stuff."

It was at about this point in Barnstable Harbor that I realized the downside of this adventure. To wit: my fellow man. I'm not a huge fan of humanity to begin with, and the boat was packed with a lot of particularly noisy specimens. Entire families, many with small children who were distressed by the wind, the motion, and the fact that they weren't allowed to get up and run around during the hour it took to get to Stellwagen Bank.

Incredibly, the Army Dude actually dozed off in the midst of all this. I couldn't believe it, but then it occurred to me that it was probably quieter than working with an airborne battalion in Iraq. I decided to quit being a delicate flower and enjoy myself.

As we approaced the feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank, we started seeing whales. The naturalist on board warned us that there was no telling what or how much we'd see.

And then the next thing we knew, it was whalepalooza. There were whales everywhere! This group is bubble feeding, which is when a group of whales gets together and surrounds a school of fish. They release air from their blowholes which creates a net of bubbles that contains the fish. Then the whales swim right through and scoop them up.

This whale is kick feeding, which is when an individual churns up the water with his fins and tail. The bubbles confuse the fish and then he scoops them into his big, gaping mouth.

Note the baleen on the top jaw. That's for the purposes of straining out the water and leaving only the tasty, tasty fish behind. Not that I think whales spend much time savoring their meals. This feeding thing looks like a tremendous amount of work, and it takes an awful lot of fish to keep that blubber layer pleasingly plump.

This is another example of bubble feeding. If you look closely, you can see another whale in the background near the boat. Even as we watched whales feeding right up near the side of our boat, we also saw others feeding and spouting in the distance. By the end of an hour we'd seen over 30 whales in the area, with sightings close enough to identify 19 individuals including two mama whales with their calves. It was amazing.

We learned that the technical term for that water vapor in the air is "whale snot." This was the third or fourth exhale that came right at us, before the naturalist helpfully suggested that we should keep our mouths closed and turn away because we didn't want to be breathing it in. Well, that ship had already sailed.

The Army Dude is convinced that we are going to come down with some kind of exotic whale disease. "Like whooping cough or swine flu," he said, "except a whale thing." So far, I feel fine. I am craving sushi, though.

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