Down East 2013 ©
Talk about hidden in plain sight. Whales are some of the largest creatures on Earth, and yet most people go their entire lives without ever seeing one up close. They don’t know what they’re missing. The Gulf of Maine happens to be home to a unique ecosystem that serves as one of the most abundant food sources for a whole variety of whale species, from the lumbering, corpulent North Atlantic right whale to the shy minke whale. Between May and November these ocean giants can be found gorging themselves on a series of undersea shoals and ridges just a few dozen miles off the Maine coast between Kittery and Eastport, providing a sea-level display like no other. Those people who own a yacht are sometimes lucky enough to float upon a pod or two on their own (though all mariners must observe federal guidelines to keep from affecting the whales’ behavior).
Don’t fret if you can’t captain your own ship: the Maine coast is sprinkled with whale-watching boats that will let you spend a few hours with these impressive creatures from the deep, and we’ve included a list of where to find the boats. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Individual humpback whales are identified by unique markings on the underside of their tail flukes, while finback whales are recognized by chevron markings behind their eyes, and North Atlantic right whales have distinct callosities, or bulbous growths, on their snouts. The science of using such identifying marks was invented in the late 1970s by Scott Kraus, an undergraduate student at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, and has been used to track whale migrations from Maine to the Caribbean and the Carolina coast of the United States. Today Allied Whale, a research program within the College of the Atlantic, maintains a photographic catalog of all whales in the Gulf of Maine, using
images taken by many of the whale-watching boats that depart from places like Bar Harbor, Eastport, and Kennebunk. This record, a cetacean family album of sorts, allows researchers, whale-watching guides, and regular visitors to Maine to actually
recognize individual whales year after year, even noticing changes as younger whales mature.
Though the North Atlantic right whale is one of the largest creatures on the planet (the blue whale takes that top prize, and the finback comes in second), it is also one of the most vulnerable. There are just four hundred left in the world, with entanglements in fishing gear and ship strikes being the two most common human-caused mortality sources for whales, according to Dr. Sean Todd, director of Allied Whale in Bar Harbor. The federal government has instituted a variety of regulations to protect them. Ships can approach no closer than five hundred yards to a North Atlantic right whale and must stay at least a hundred yards from humpbacks and finback whales. New requirements that lobstermen use sinking lines, instead of the more common floating type, for their traps are also designed to protect whales that might otherwise become entangled in them.
If the Caribbean is the whales’ bedroom, Maine is their kitchen. Warmer southern waters are conducive to birthing and mating, but the frigid, nutrient-rich currents that wash into the Gulf of Maine and the region’s tremendous tides create the ideal feeding ground for whales. “If you are a large, fat, blubbery forty-foot-long animal, when you open your mouth it had better be worth it,” declares Dr. Sean Todd of Allied Whale. “So whales tend to eat in areas of densely aggregate prey, and there are not many places like that — but the Gulf of Maine is one of them.” Shoals such as Jeffrey’s Ledge, off Kittery, and the inner Schoodic Ridges, off Mount Desert Island, create a natural upwelling that sends schools of herring into the bubble nets (literally a cage of air that humpbacks create to trap fish, allowing the whales to then rise open-mouthed and swallow the cage whole) of humpbacks, krill into the lunging maws of finbacks, and copepods toward the North Atlantic right whales. Some locations even offer the chance to see whales from dry land; Zack Klyver, who grew up in Eastport before heading to Bar Harbor to lead whale-watching trips, recalls observing feeding finbacks push schools of herring into Passamaquoddy Bay, turning the water black with the densely packed fish. Whales have been found in locations throughout Maine, though finbacks seem to favor the areas around Mount Desert Rock and humpbacks are more numerous around Jeffrey’s Ledge. In recent years fishermen and the occasional whale-watching boat have even reported spotting orca whales (commonly known as “killer whales” due to their hunting prowess, including feeding on other whales), a species more commonly associated with the Pacific Northwest.
More than a few sightseers have been alarmed at how interested some whales, especially humpbacks, can be by the presence of whale-watching boats. Though captains are restricted in their ability to approach whales, often humpbacks will swim within a few yards of the ships and playfully slap their pectoral fins on the surface of the water, use their tails to create a surprising saltwater shower for onlookers, or exhale loudly (and malodorously) just upwind. Staring into the grapefruit-sized eye of a humpback, many people believe they’re making a mental connection with the gentle giant, but Allied Whale’s Sean Todd cautions against making such inter-species leaps. “It’s tempting to anthropomorphize, and I’ve certainly had experiences where it seems the whales are interested in us,” Todd says. “But there is a tendency to overestimate intelligence when it comes to animals.” Todd says one noteworthy aspect of whales’ intellect, in addition to the high-pitched songs they emit as a breeding mechanism, is their ability to pass a system of rules — defined as “culture” in scientific terms — from one generation to the next. This is manifested in the whales’ predictable annual migration patterns, as scientists and whale-watching boats have grown accustomed to seeing the same whales and their offspring returning to the same spots in the Gulf of Maine year after year.
While whale-watching trips have been departing from Maine shores for decades, the industry has taken off in popularity in recent years. Smaller, fishing-type excursion boats have evolved into more stable, faster, double-hulled catamarans in locations like Bar Harbor, where the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company now takes up to sixty thousand passengers a year out to see the whales. Since whales are wild, unpredictable creatures, most companies offer vouchers for a free trip in the unlikely event that the whales fail to show themselves. For an increasing number of visitors, a trip on a whale watch has become a key part of their summer vacation. “Every day that I go out, we have people from all over the world who have never seen a whale, and many who have never even been on the ocean,” remarks Zack Klyver, head naturalist for the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company. “This is something they have come here primarily for; this was a major factor in their decision-making process, and we feel excited to help their dreams come true.” The attraction is equally strong in other sections of the coast. Karen Duddy, the director of the Kennebunk & Kennebunkport Chamber of Commerce, says a whale-watching trip is at the top of virtually every traveler’s “To Do” list, especially for families. “It’s so popular that I just keep the brochure for the whale-watching boat right here at my desk so I can give people their number, rather than having to go get it from the front office,” Duddy says.
As much as researchers have learned about whales over the years, thanks largely to partnerships with whale-watching boats, the undersea giants still hold many mysteries. Where minkes and finback whales spend the winter, for example, is unknown, a surprisingly basic fact if scientists are to sufficiently study these migratory creatures. The inability of the North Atlantic right whale stock to rebound, despite the strict protections put in place, also perplexes scientists. Even the humpbacks’ reason for breaching, where they launch themselves headlong out of the water (offering an acrobatic display for whale-watching customers), has never been determined conclusively, with researchers suggesting it may be a courting ritual, a feeding mechanism, or simply a way of having fun.
Edited by Joshua F. Moore; photography by Bret Gilliam.