On a still day in late March out at Herring Cove Beach, dozens of people faced the water. Low voices traveled over the sand. The crowd was hushed, as it might have been in a cathedral. A quiet delight was in the air, and a sense of sharing.
We were watching groups of right whales just offshore. Some were skim-feeding, pushing their huge ungainly heads through the water, showing their baleen plates. Some rolled over and revealed their odd paddle-shaped flippers. Some fluked up and revealed their perfect black tails. There was at least one calf among them.
I appreciated the whales, of course, but the people interested me most. There was magic in their reactions. Closed off in their domiciles for so long, they reveled in this connection to these rare and critically endangered animals. It was not the first time I had observed this magic, and definitely not the last. After all, I work on a commercial whale watch, and I have been observing people observe whales for decades.
Later, on one of our April whale watches, a beautiful fin whale surfaced right alongside our boat; the water was so clear that her entire body, over half the length of our 100-foot boat, was visible. Her colors defied description: steel blue, gun-metal gray, a blaze of white, a frosting of orange diatoms. Again, I was interested in the whale, but it was the passengers’ reactions that most captivated me: a collective gasp at such colossal beauty.
This summer, out on Stellwagen Bank, the humpback whales were the stars. Sometimes one would even launch its entire body out of the water and up into the air. One day a little calf did so repeatedly, and intermittently rolled over and waved its long, white, blade-like flipper towards the boat. The joy on the boat was palpable. Some people hooted and hollered; some even cried; some, curiously, applauded — not knowing another way to show their appreciation.
But this is not about how we love the whales; this is about how we fail them.
The day the calf entertained us was a Saturday. We were not alone with the whale: six small boats accompanied us all the way out from the harbor: they knew that we would bring them to whales. When we got out to Stellwagen, we encountered another dozen or so small craft. Some of them behaved respectfully, but most zoomed around, jockeying for the best vantage point, eager to get photos. They showed no regard for the beautiful creatures they were trying to get close to. One boat actually went through a bubble cloud, which is one of the humpback’s mechanisms for capturing fish. One boat separated the calf from its mother; another cut off its apparent direction of travel.
Welcome to the whale’s world in the summer.
Before you label me a hypocrite — after all, am I not out there doing the very same thing? — let me explain. The commercial whale watch boats are dedicated to responsible behavior. We follow a set of guidelines called “Whale Sense,” which basically boil down to respect for the whales. We are not blameless, but we do our best.
Those other boaters probably mean no harm but certainly do cause it. It is harassment, pure and simple. There is little or no enforcement on the open water. One small Environmental Police boat with a blue light on top could bring some order out there, but we do not see one. I feel a sense of guilt; these wild animals give us so much and get so little in return.
What exactly do we owe our wildlife? Is this a transaction? What in the end can we do?
I haven’t even mentioned other anthropogenic effects, like entanglement in fishing gear and ship strikes. Over half of all humpback whales exhibit entanglement scars. About 10 percent of adults and 25 percent of juveniles acquire new scars each year. That little calf showed some propeller scars on its back. Then there is the warming ocean full of plastic. People on the boat buy the single-use plastic water bottles (which the company should not sell) and which have to end up somewhere.
Wildlife, Henry Beston said, “are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendor and travail of the Earth.”
We love our whales. We must change our ways to help them. We can do better.