Accessibility links

Whale Watching Promotes Ecology Awareness

Recent advances in our understanding of whales and growing public awareness that the big marine mammals were being hunted to extinction have brought many endangered species of whales back from the brink. Support for whale conservation has been stimulated by the whale-watching industry that has emerged since the 1970s. On the Gulf of Maine off the North Atlantic coast, for example, an estimated one million people a year go out on whale-watching boats to glimpse and learn about these marvelous creatures.

On a brisk, windy day, under a sky of gray low-lying clouds, Captain John Vasque guides the Dolphin Watch IV out of Provincetown Harbor and east toward the choppy seas where he hopes whales might be. This is his second three-hour whale watch cruise today.

Mr. Vasque was a fisherman for 35 years before he became a whale watch captain. He says that the forty or so tourists on board today stand a good chance of seeing a whale. It is late spring, during the whales' annual migration here from distant waters to the south.

Phillips: "Do you get a hunch, a sort of feeling of where the whales are?"
Vasque: "Sometimes it's a hunch where you are going to go and sometimes it's just a lucky guess. It's fun and it's frustrating at times."
Phillips: When you were fishing, did you used to see whales as a fisherman?"
Vasque: "I remember one time we had torn a net and I was sitting on the stern trying to fix the net. And all of a sudden this whale comes up and we could almost touch the whale and he kind of hung there for about half an hour. And I said 'Geez! This is pretty good!'"

Contrary to stereotype, not every whale is big. That's according to Michael Reardon, our onboard naturalist. Every Dolphin Fleet cruise has its own onboard scientist from the Center for Coastal Studies, a scientific group specializing in whale research, marine ecology and public outreach. Mr. Reardon says that while all whale species are mammals, not fish, there is a huge variation between species. "First of all, the term 'whales' could refer to anything from the Blue whale, which could be a massive thirty five meters long whereas you also have whales that are porpoises, which can be a little over a meter long. They range over a huge spectrum. But they all share the common thing that they breathe air, they do give live birth to their young.," he says.

Phillips: "Now they have breasts, and they also have belly buttons too, right?"
Reardon: "They do have mammary glands and a mother will lactate just like humans do. It's interesting. That familiarity will attract a lot of people to liking these animals."

Finback whales, which are large and very fast swimmers, are common in this region, as are minke whales. Much rarer is the North Atlantic right whale. Only three hundred or so North Atlantic right whales are known to exist worldwide. Still that's what this group of young teenagers hope to see, and they have made up a little chant they hope will make it happen.

"Because he's got that cute thing on the bottom"
"I just want to see one whale."
"I want to see one jump. What's that called when they jump?"
"Breaching. I want to see one breach. That would be cool!"

"Betty," a tourist from New York State, gets visibly excited as we approach the open sea about twenty kilometers offshore. Once, she saw a whale breach about three meters from where she stood on deck and has since made whale watching an annual ritual. "I think they invented the word 'awesome' for them. It's like nothing you've ever seen before. They remind me of a giant pickle sometimes, they are all bumpy. You would just never think you could see something like that so close," she says. "It was one of the best things I've ever seen in my life."

The species we are more likely to see are humpback whales. Michael Reardon says that humpbacks are known for the haunting underwater "songs" they use to communicate with and identify other whales and for and their willingness to sidle up to whale-watching boats. "Out of any whales, they tend to be most curious to the boats. If you are get a close approach from a whale where it is showing curiosity, it is likely to be a humpback. And also, they tend to raise their flukes on every dive. A fluke is a tail. And they will raise that tail right up out of the water when they are going for what they call a 'terminal dive,' when they are going to stay under. And when they do so, it gives you an opportunity to identify them," he says.

The black and white pattern on the underside of each humpback's fluke is as unique as a fingerprint. The ship carries a log of about fifteen hundred s fluke photographs dating to the early 1970s. When a whale appears, it is given a name, and its fluke pattern is compared with the photos for a match. This enables scientists to track individual whales and to make estimates about species populations over time. It also helps amateur whale-watchers like Eunice Rhinegold identify with specific whales and "adopt" them. Today, Ms. Rhinegold and her family hope to catch a second look at a humpback named "Half Moon." "It's a male. He migrates up here. They saw him last year, north of here. So we want to see if we see him," she says. "It's coming to see family! It's a homecoming!"

Finally, Mike Reardon spots a whale and points it out over the loudspeaker to those in the group that may have missed it. Everyone runs to the portside of the boat.

Reardon: "There he goes the spout again! You can just kind of see it by the waves there. ou've got quite a bit of swell because the tide is turning."
Phillips: "Did you see him?"
Kid: "Yeah! He came up a little bit. I can't believe our cheer worked!"

Captain Vasque also seems excited. He slows the boat and fixes his gaze on the patch of water where the whale dove down.

Phillips: "You see one?"
Vasque: "Yeah. He's right here. He's gonna come up one more time for us maybe. Come on! One more time!"
Phillips: "Whales do what they want to, huh?"
Vasque: "He's doing what he feels like doing. This is his playground!"

This particular whale does not return close enough to the surface to see again, and there are unusually few sightings during the rest of the cruise. Naturalist Mike Reardon acknowledges that that is disappointing. Yet he believes that something more than mere thrill seeking underlies the worldwide fascination with spotting whales. "These whales were very close to the point of extinction. And since we have tried to combat that, the dying off of the whales, some of them have recovered. So if you can save something so close to the point of extinction, then maybe you can do lots of great things in the world. You can actually make the world a great place to live."

For more information on whales and whale science on the Internet, try the Center for Coastal Studies' website at and take it from there.