Swell

I turned 62 on Monday, one of those in-between birthdays that aren’t a major milestone. But this time around, instead of wrestling with the feeling that I’m just getting older, I decided to do something I’d never done before. Every year is a chance to experience new things. Despite living an hour’s drive from the Atlantic, I’ve never been whale watching, and I’ve always been curious to see live whales in their ocean habitat.

The season opened this past weekend, so we planned a trip for Sunday. I found a great company, a family owned business in Gloucester that has a marine biologist as a tour guide and that participates in whale conservation efforts. I found a discount coupon online. I found a nice restaurant nearby. The weather looked promising.

Only one glitch—when I called about reservations, I learned that there were going to be gale force winds off the coast on Saturday (despite great weather here), so it was best to check back on Sunday morning to find out if the waves had eased. Fortunately, the report was promising on Sunday—still swells, but okay for sailing—so we set out for Gloucester.

We made it with minutes to spare before departure, after getting lost along the way. But the sun was shining, everyone was helpful and friendly, and we found a good seat along the starboard side of the ship. I came prepared with all my winter gear—warmest coat, hat, mittens, leg warmers—to beat the sea breeze chill. As our ship powered beyond calm Gloucester Harbor and began to hit some swells, I was fine, enjoying the ride, like a kiddie rollercoaster.

It took about 45 minutes to arrive at the edge of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where we had a good chance of seeing humpback whales feeding. Sure enough, as we drew closer, our guide informed us that there were at least two humpbacks off the port bow at about 11 o’clock. But when I got up with Al to move around and take a look, all of a sudden I felt terribly dizzy. I immediately sat back down and tried to regain my bearings, but the ship was dipping and swaying. I felt just awful.

Fortunately, one of the crew saw me and offered to help me walk to the stern, which was more stable, and sit down. She brought me a small cup of ginger ale, half a Saltine and a plastic bag, just in case. Al was right by my side. To my surprise, the food actually helped a bit (neither of us had eaten more than breakfast, and the fact that we’d arrived so late precluded any lunch—a good thing, as it turned out).

But I was still very dizzy, so we found a space on the starboard bench, and I lay down with my head in Al’s lap. The whales, however, remained on the port side. Not an auspicious beginning to our expedition. Then they swam under the boat and began to spout near enough so I could lift my head and see. With a graceful flip of their flukes, they slipped beneath the waves. We were able to note the distinctive black-and-white patterns on the flukes’ undersides, which, our guide explained, is as unique to each humpback as a human fingerprint. These two he recognized from file photos as Mend and Evolution, familiar visitors to the Stellwagen Bank.

I felt badly about depriving Al from seeing the activity on the port side, but he reassured me we didn’t want to try to move over there. Two big, beefy guys were losing their lunches. Later, we learned that we had been in the midst of eight foot swells. Lots of people got sick. So I actually held my own better than I’d thought.

As our ship motored to a better viewing location, our guide explained more fascinating facts about humpback whales—including that it’s the males who sing, and that their songs are unique to each breeding ground. One whale will start singing, and then another picks up the melody and modifies it a bit, to demonstrate his prowess to the females. This continues throughout the breeding season like a game of telephone, so by the end of the season, the whale song is completely different.

I closed my eyes (which helped my dizziness) and did my best to relax with the boat’s rocking, which also helped, and listened to the guide’s narration. Then, our tour group got lucky. A juvenile humpback breached halfway out of the water and flopped back. Of course, it was on the port side. But then the whale (we dubbed it Hubert Humpry in honor of this presidential election season—yes, we’re dating ourselves) swam toward the bow and breeched again. This time, I managed to stand up on tiptoes, hugging Al tightly to steady myself, to see the action.

Our guide explained that humpbacks breach for four reasons: to rid themselves of parasites, like barnacles; to help their digestion; to signal other whales with the sound of their hitting the waves (sound travels farther under water); and to play. Hubert, I decided, was definitely playing, because he was putting on quite a show, smacking the waves with his huge flipper and breaching at least a half dozen times, all around the ship. Magnificent.

Between the two of us, we managed to capture it on video. I include the edited version, above, for your enjoyment. (If you can’t see the embedded video, click here for another view.) But there is nothing like seeing these extraordinary creatures in person—even risking motion sickness to get there.

There is so much to learn, to see, to do. I’m 62.

Evelyn Herwitz blogs weekly about living fully with chronic disease, the inside of baseballs, turtles and frogs, J.S. Bach, the meaning of life and whatever else she happens to be thinking about at livingwithscleroderma.com.

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