Whale Watching on Cape Cod

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Cape Cod, or “the Cape” to those familiar with the area, is known for many things: delicious sea food, the Kennedy family, old lighthouses, lovely beaches, its vicinity to Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard and, of course, whale watching! I quickly learned upon arrival (I was actually on “the Cape” for work) that locals don’t often partake in this activity. When I asked my brother-in-law, a native Cape Codder, for recommendations on whale watching he gave a little laugh. “I haven’t done that since we went on a class field trip about 20 years ago!” I generally like to do as the locals do when visiting a new place, but how could I come all the way to Cape Cod and NOT go whale watching? Surely one morning as a shameless tourist wouldn’t ruin my reputation.

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The lower peninsula of Michigan is shaped like a mitten.

Hailing from the midwest, I am used to observing native Michiganders hold up their hand to point to which part of the state from which they come. The lower peninsula of Michigan is, after all, shaped like a mitten – this is common midwestern knowledge.

Cape Cod is shaped like an arm making a fist.
Cape Cod is shaped like an arm making a fist.

I quickly learned, after speaking with a couple of native Cape Codders, that a similar visual aid is used when describing where certain areas on the Cape are located. Hold up your arm and make a fist, curling your wrist inward – this is the shape of Cape Cod. I was staying somewhere around the bicep but was told that most of the whale watching cruises left from the fist region. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is located above the fist in a shallow, plankton rich area where humpback whales feed during the summer months.

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Hyannis Whale Watcher’s boat was comfortable and because my cruise was after Labor Day, every seat seemed like a good one!

Provincetown (or P-Town to the locals) is the port for most of the whale watching cruises but, in the interest of time, I opted to book a cruise with Hyannis Whale Watchers, located in Barnstable.

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I lucked out and got to see several humpback whales!

I showed up early, as Trip Advisor reviews suggested, and flashed their website on my iPhone to receive a small discount on the $47/adult ticket price. I asked the ladies at the front desk where they suggested I sit and they said that since it was after Labor Day, I would have almost a private charter and any seat on the boat. They were almost right. The Whale Watcher, which normally holds up to 390 passengers was comfortable and designed for the sole purpose of whale watching. She has three decks and two cabins equipped with a snack bar, toilets, tables and plenty of Dramamine. There were only about 70 passengers onboard and I chose a seat in the very first row on the bow of the boat.

whales-9Each cruise is guided by a naturalist who helps locate the whales and shares fun facts about their behavior, migration and history. Our cruise was led by Caitlin who I found to be very friendly and knowledgeable. She warned the passengers that there were reports of a swell and advised those prone to seasickness to take a Dramamine before we headed out to the Sanctuary. Several passengers took her advice but seeing as I’ve spent a lot of time on boats and have never been seasick, I opted out. (No regrets with that decision, by the way!)

It was about a 40 minute ride to the whales and during that time Caitlin gave an abbreviated tour of the Cape, pointing out landmarks and lighthouses and offering some historical tidbits. The ride was lovely and, although it was a bit hazy out, I enjoyed seeing the Cape from this perspective.

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Reports of a lot of whale activity proved true, as we began to see whales before we even reached the designated Sanctuary area. I don’t remember how many we saw in total, I lost count somewhere around a dozen, but we were lucky enough to see several flukes (the end of the tail as the whale dives deeply), flipper flaps and even a few breaches (when the whale dives out of the water, landing with a splash.) I was also lucky to secure a prime viewing spot on the very end of the bow on the first deck and was able to get some great photographs. One whale stuck around our boat for a while, smacking his flippers against the water, rolling over and swimming underneath the boat.

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Click the image to see the “8” in question.

I didn’t notice this when I was onboard, but when reviewing the images I noticed a clearly marked “8″ on one whale’s flipper. I didn’t remember Caitlin saying anything about the whales being tagged or tracked, so I emailed Hyannis Whale Watchers asking about the markings. John was great and got back to me within a couple of days:

Hi Jenn,
Great question. No, the humpback whales that we know as individuals are identified by their unique markings on the underside of their flukes. No two are exactly the same, just like a person’s fingerprints. The number *8* that you see on the flipper of this whale is formed by two side by side barnacle scars. The baby barnacles settled on the whales flipper, side by side. They then began to excrete a calcium carbonate shell that is their home. when they died, and the barnacle shells were shed, the scar tissue left perfect side by side circles that look like an eight!
Great observation, and thanks for the question.

We stayed with the whales for about two hours. It reminded me of being on safari, what with boats out from other companies as well as a few brave souls on smaller, personal boats. Something about seeing a lion from a safari van walk among a privately owned sedan makes me jealous and fearful all at the same time. I was shocked at how close some of the whales got to these smaller 30 foot boats, but also jealous at the thrill of being at eye level with such a magnificent animal! Perhaps I can persuade my dad or my brother to take me whale watching in a smaller boat one day.

Personal boats were whale watching, too.
Personal boats were whale watching, too.
A "fluke" indicates the whale has taken a deep dive.
A “fluke” indicates the whale has taken a deep dive.

Since the whales spend most of their time underwater and come to the surface to rest or breathe, they would disappear for several minutes at a time. Caitlin told us that a fluke, when the whale dives straight down and the end of its tale flips up and then disappears under the water, indicates that the whale has gone on a deep dive and would likely be under the water for a while, so we would move on to the next one. There was plenty of whale action and it seemed like a blowhole exhale or a flipper flap was seen in many directions at once. We saw several small groups of whales who were hunting, though they aren’t called pods since their union is temporary. Humpback whales all seem to work together like freelancers, a concept I can certainly understand.

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Waving goodbye to the Whale Watcher at the end of our cruise!

By the time we got back to the dock it was a little past 1:30 and the passengers aboard the Whale Watcher disembarked happy and slightly pink. I count this trip a success and would absolutely recommend both whale watching on the Cape and Hyannis Whale Watchers to locals and visitors alike!

My images were taken with a Nikon D300 and a Nikkor 18-200mm f/3.5-5.6 VR lens and processed in Adobe Lightroom. It helped to have a zoom lens for this trip and was important to have a camera that didn’t have a delay – lots of cellphone images were full of splash!

I visited Hyannis Whale Watchers in early September of 2012.

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