One of the appeals of whale watching for the average tourist is that it does not seem overly touristy. And believe me, after visiting spots like Mount Rush-more in South Dakota and Devils Tower and the Buffalo Bill museum in Wyoming during our six weeks on the road, the McCallum family knows a thing or two about touristy.
First of all, there is an element of chance to whale watching—you may never see the featured attraction. Second, unlike most tourist attractions, there are no lines. Finally, there is the opportunity to get sick—very, very sick.
During two mornings of whale watching off the coast of Gloucester, Mass., we saw 11 humpback whales, 14 finbacks, four minkes and several dozen seasick human beings. As a tourist activity, watching a seasick human ranks right down there with getting attacked by greenhead flies on the beach. But if there is anything more wondrous than a 50-ton whale swimming and diving in the open sea, we have yet to see it.
Considering how man has abused the planet's largest creature over the years, it's remarkable that he took so long to turn the whale into a tourist attraction. Our two excursions were with a company called the Yankee Fleet, whose owner, Jerry Hill, had run deep-sea fishing trips for more than 30 years before he sold his first whale-watching ticket in 1978. "I thought whale watching would be a flash in the pan," said Captain Jerry, leaning back and switching The Yankee Freedom to automatic pilot on Aug. 4, the day of our first excursion. "I had no idea it would be this popular."
Whale watching constitutes 40% of Hill's business, though the season runs only from April through October. About a million people a year now take whale-watching trips in New England, giving this activity at least as much importance as the Moby Dick Cliffs Notes in making whales accessible to Americans.
For our first trip, my wife, Donna, and I went off at 3-to-2 odds to get sick, with Chris, 9, and Jamie, 12, listed at 10-to-1. The odds were based on a glass-bottom boat excursion we had taken in the Florida Keys four years ago. Donna and I became ill, while the kids ran around the deck eating greasy hot dogs. Even though the weather on both of our whale-watching trips was "snotty"—the crew's word for cold and windy weather, low visibility and rough water—Donna and I beat the odds with an assist from Mr. Dramamine and something called a Transderm Scop skin patch, which combats motion sickness. Needless to say, Jamie and Chris were fine too.
A number of the other 120 or so passengers weren't so lucky, and the scene in the cabin of The Yankee Freedom at times conjured up images of seasick immigrants heading for Ellis Island. But once whales were spotted, even the sickest of the sick tried to scramble out to the deck to have a look.
Nothing can prepare you for the sight of that first group of humpback whales moving sleekly through the water. We just looked at each other, mouths agape. "I thought of one thing when I saw those first whales," said Jamie later. "Sea serpents. But not scary sea serpents. Good sea serpents."
Amid all the excitement, though, another question was raised: Should we be watching whales at all? I asked Donna about it later, and she admitted feeling, as I did, slightly voyeuristic. Although the three or four whale-watching ships out of Gloucester often surround the same group of whales, they try to respect the animals' space by cutting their engines and moving on after 10 or 15 minutes. In addition, the presence of whale researchers on board gives at least a quasi-educational bent to the trips.
The staff answers questions, many of which are foolish ("How do you train the whales out here?" was one I heard), and prevents tourists from tossing, say, taco chips overboard to feed the whales. But face it—we're tourists, and we do tourist-type things. For example, whenever sighted whales dived deep and suddenly emerged on the other side of the boat, a frantic scramble for position invariably ensued. "Jeez, Dad, why don't you just throw me over the rail?" said Chris on the second day, after I had literally heaved him from one side of the boat to the other so he could get a better glimpse of a humpback.
Some environmentalists worry that the natural behavior patterns of whales are being altered by tourist boats that pique the animals' curiosity. The tour companies downplay that notion. "There's no data indicating that whale watching has a negative effect on the whales," says the Yankee Fleet's chief scientist. Steve Frohock, a self-proclaimed "whale head" who has a bachelor's degree in animal behavior. "And far from degrading whales, whale-watching trips have the opposite effect. Almost every time we go out, one member of the family has been dragged along, but by the end of the trip, he's the one saying, 'I've never seen any-thing like it.' "
Our own reaction? Well, we've never seen anything like it. On the first day, a humpback named Valley (so called because a V-shaped chunk is cut out of the top of its right fluke) and another, named Phrase (because spots that resemble little quotation marks dot its flukes), put on an extraordinary show that seemed almost choreographed. After surfacing about 50 feet from the boat, one dived, and the other dived a split second later. One resurfaced; the other surfaced a split second later. "They've been hanging out like this, off and on, for quite a while," said Frohock, who can recognize by sight about 250 of the 550 named humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine. After five minutes of play, Valley and Phrase took a joint curtain call, diving deep, flukes pointed skyward, and disappeared.
On the Aug. 5 trip we spotted a whale breaching (jumping out of the water) from half a mile away. Frohock figured it was a humpback, which is smaller (40 to 50 feet, 35 to 40 tons) but much more playful than a finback (60 to 70 feet, 45 to 50 tons). But when we steamed over for a look, it turned out to be a finback, a species that usually doesn't perform for crowds. Frohock was beside himself with excitement.
Later, as we were about to return to port, we came upon a couple of dozen dolphins cavorting with a group of humpbacks. The sighting of dolphins has bailed out many a whale watch over the years, for which Frohock is grateful, but he remains amazed that many passengers would rather follow a few dolphins than a group of humpbacks. There was no need to choose on this trip. As if bounded by a giant playpen, the dolphins and the whales stayed together for 20 minutes, diving and swimming about 25 feet from the boat.
Following the second day's excursion, all four of us had reached the same conclusion: Whale watching stood apart on our trip because it involved living creatures. "All the whale shows on TV show the fancy stuff," said Chris. "You see the whales underwater and learn about the sounds they make and the feeding habits and all that stuff. That's good. But you can't really understand what they're like, or how big they actually are, until you come on a trip like this."
Snotty weather or not, we would go again.