This has not been a good month for the oceans... the oil spill in the Gulf is now poised to become the largest in US history, and each day's news updates - from tracking the suffocating progress of the slick as it reaches delicate shorelines, to mounting reports of illness in cleanup workers suspected to be caused by poisonous chemical dispersants - leaves me more heartbroken than the last. And in the midst of despairing over the probable loss of irreplaceable southern wetland habitats, scores of fish, mammal, bird and plant life, and potentially even landing the final nail in the coffin of critically endangered species like the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle, it occurred to me that I have lived outside of Boston, a city with some of New England's richest maritime history, for over 2 years now without having observed what is probably one of the most exhilarating marine spectacles that can be witnessed from the deck of a boat - a whale watch.
The Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary, about an hour+ off the coast of MA, attracts an abundant stream of migratory baleen whales every year; Humpback, Fin, Minke, Right and even Blue whales spend time here feasting on plentiful fish and crustaceans, on their way to summer feeding grounds in cooler Arctic waters. Mothers who have given birth in low latitude tropical waters over the winter can be seen with their calves, and multiple species are often sighted in a single trip - most tours guarantee sightings, though the quality of observation varies dramatically.
Our boat headed out on a stellar afternoon, and while it was not a spectacular day of sightings, we did have some beautiful interaction with a few Minkes (shown in the photos) who repeatedly crested just below the sides of our boat, discreetly rolling through the waves, and even arching in directional changes just under the surface - the white "mittens" on their pectoral fins, and bright white bellies, made their movements underwater visible for just long enough to evoke a little chill before they disappeared into a dive. It would have been fantastic to see some breaching or surface feeding behaviors, or just a few of those most ubiquitous New England cetaceans - the Humpbacks - but I will admit to being pretty thrilled with the afternoon as it was... the Stellwagen waters were brilliant, pristine, twinkling in sunlight, and being in the presence of such gentle behemoths is humbling beyond words.
A number of years ago I came across fellow Vermont sculptor Wick Ahrens' incredible whales - gorgeously hand carved in wood, meticulously painted with acrylic, and so gesturally accurate they seem literally frozen in the midst of real life. Ahrens has logged many hours on and in the sea, closely observing the giants that became his passionate life's work, but his home is unquestionably in the hills of Vermont, thus he spends his day's carving from his studio in Peru, VT. From the artist's bio, "Devoted to the essential whale, (Ahrens) makes his own life a bridge between sugar pine timbers and those mysterious creatures who left the land 50 million years ago." A man after my own heart indeed.
(Above sculptures by Wick Ahrens', top: "Gray Whale and Calf", the largest wood whale ever made, commissioned by the Coyote Point Museum for Environmental Education; and bottom: "Stellwagen Serenade", a breaching female Humpback)