For various reasons I wasn't feeling too enthusiastic about my birthday this year, so I decided it might go down easier if I did something a little different to celebrate, something out of the ordinary, even larger than life, if you will.
For some time I'd been meaning to try one of the local whale watches that leave from Boston Harbor, and suddenly that seemed like the perfect solution.
My experience on the West Coast was that whale watching is a very tricky business, only really worth undertaking during the migration seasons, and even then it was far from certain you'd see anything. I did see a few gray whales spouting way in the distance off the coast of Point Reyes once, and more sadly once encountered a small, dead beached whale, its skin charred black by the sun, on the Marin Headlands shore. This time around, I hoped my Boston whales would be a) in closer view than those Point Reyes whales and b) alive.
If you check out a web site for one of the many Boston area whale-watch companies, one thing you'll notice is that whale-sighting is "guaranteed." One would be justified in wondering exactly how this is arranged. A special deal with the whales, perhaps? Dedicated seats at Fenway Park, in return for reliable shipside appearances? The answer, as far as I can tell, is that from spring through fall, they can pretty much count on a number of whales hanging out at a particularly toothsome (for whales) feeding area outside of Boston Harbor. If you don't see a whale you get a refund or a voucher, but my impression is that they're usually there.
We decided on the New England Aquarium's whale watch tour, thinking the naturalist on board might offer more interesting details about the whales we hoped to glimpse. It was a longer ride out to Stellwagen Bank, the area where the whales like to feed, than I'd anticipated - maybe 45 minutes or so. It was also very, very windy up on deck - I was grateful for an extra jacket and a kerchief for my hair. But part of the fun of the trip was just seeing Boston Harbor and the ocean beyond. Boston may be right on the water, but unless you make the effort it's all to easy to go weeks or months without seeing much evidence of it.
Pulling away from the city:
One of the small islands that lies within the harbor:
When you pass this lighthouse you've left the harbor for the open sea:
Once we got out to whale country, it wasn't long before we saw our first whale, or at least one little tiny corner of him or her. I think part of the excitement of looking for whales is that even when you do see them, you never see the whole animal all at once. Just a blowhole, a tailfin, a flipper, maybe a shadow suggesting the rest of the massive body beneath the water. Even if you're lucky enough to see a whale breach (jump out of the water), it goes by so quickly you're left wanting more.
There were three types of whales representing at Stellwagen Bank that day: humpbacks, finbacks, and minkes. I learned that the humpbacks have the most appealing behavior from a human perspective - they flip their tailfins up out of the water when they go down for a dive, and are more likely to cavort at the surface, slapping a fin against the water as though waving at the rapt boatload, for example.
The tip of a humpback tail:
Our boat was three decks high, but there were many other, much smaller crafts seeking the whales, too. We were a little frightened for them, these diminutive sailboats and motorboats, their passengers standing gleefully on deck as the whales glided by.
It turned out we did see a whale breach, a young humpback that seemed to be enjoying all the attention it was getting and leapt almost clear out of the water one, two, and finally three times. You can try taking a picture, but if you're like me then by the time you realize what's going on and get your camera poised, all you capture is a big, disembodied splash, and the delighted faces of the whale-seekers surrounding you.
It was really awe-striking though.
On the way back, we got a parting glimpse of two humpbacks (left) heading in one direction and a finback closely passing them going the other way. The guide on the boat told us that most of the whales in these waters are females with their calves, showing them the aquatic ropes.
And then, almost back to port, Boston Light, off in the distance, the U.S.'s oldest lighthouse.
As much as we saw, the day definitely still left me wishing we could see just one last whale, just a little bit more.