Maine Windjammer Whale Watch
An hour before breakfast, Captain Mike motored the Angelique out of Swans Island’s Burnt Coat Harbor and into the Gulf of Maine. We’re heading toward Mt. Desert Rock, a tiny island roughly 15 miles offshore.
Today is our whale watch, but Captain Mike is already downplaying our chances.
Every year, Captain Mike schedules a whale watching trip, but for the past two years, Mike’s been (as he puts it) “skunked.” Captain Mike blames the poor luck on overfishing. It used to be that whale sightings off Mt. Desert Rock were a near certainty, but with the depletion of the fishery, the whales have perhaps gone elsewhere to find food.
The fishing in the Gulf of Maine has been so dismal, it’s been years since Captain Mike and the mate Dennis have seen the massive Russian trawlers that dragged these waters for tons upon tons of seafood. And all along the coast of Maine, the once-lucrative fishing industry has dried up; now only lobsterman can make a decent living from harvesting the sea.
Heading for Mt. Desert Island.
Nonetheless, this is a near-perfect day for a whale watch. The winds are light and, aside from a small chop, the sea state is gentle. If there are any whales out here, we’ll see them.
And we do. About midway between the mainland and Mt. Desert Rock, Captain Mike sights a whale spout. The passengers all rush to the foredeck, their faces obscured by digital cameras. We scan the horizon and see another plume of gray mist shooting skyward about 300 yards off our port bow.
Then nothing. The whales dive deep underwater and we see no trace of the spouts again on this vast slate-gray sea.
We continue motorsailing. In addition to whale spouts, Captain Mike keeps his eyes peeled for shearwaters and gannets—seabirds whose dives sometimes indicate the presence of whales. (The birds feed on the same schools of small fish that whales do.) Shearwaters resemble sea gulls, but they’re larger with narrower wings, smaller tails, and hooked bills. We spot a small raft of lazing shearwaters, but, alas, no whales swimming beneath them.
By lunchtime, we motor off the northern shore of treeless Mt. Desert Rock.
Since the early 19th century, Mt. Desert Rock has been home to a lighthouse. Then, starting in the 1950s the island was a U.S. Coast Guard station. Later, in the early 1970s, Bar Harbor’s College of the Atlantic (COA) took an interest in Mt. Desert Rock. The upwelling currents here bring large amounts of marine life to the surface creating a prime location for researching humpbacks, finbacks, northern right whales, porpoises, dolphins, and seals.
Sailing off Mt. Desert Rock.
COA, in cooperation with the Coast Guard and Allied Whale, maintained a seasonal research facility on the island for several decades. In 1996, however, COA purchased the island from the Coast Guard, and recently dedicated their facility as the Edward McC. Blair Marine Research Station.
This morning, Mt. Desert Rock appears deserted, and its surrounding waters are seemingly devoid of charismatic megafauna.
Optimism among the passengers quickly wanes, but Captain Mike soldiers on. East of us is Inner Schoodic Ledge—a site of relatively shoal water where upwellings create yet another feeding ground. Captain Mike turns the Angelique toward the eastern horizon and motors on.
As we approach the ridge, Captain Mike is suddenly hopeful. He doesn’t see spouts, shearwaters, or gannets, but he does see a surefire indication that whales are nearby: a whale watching vessel making slow circles on the open sea. We head directly for the vessel, and so does the American Eagle who’s motoring off our starboard beam.
The hunch pays off. Suddenly we see black fins emerging from the waters off our bow. There are at least six humpbacks swimming on all sides of the Angelique.
Humpback whales are black on top with mottled black-and-white undersides. When viewed from above, humpbacks have broad and rounded heads, but they are slim in profile. Their rounded bodies narrow to a slender tail stock, then their flukes jut outward to widths of up to 18 feet. Their flippers are long, nearly a third of the length of their bodies. Adults reach 50 feet in length and they weigh up to 40 tons.
Humpbacks, which are baleen whales, eat up to one and a half tons of krill and small fish every day. Because their feeding, mating, and calving grounds are close to shore (and because they’re slow swimmers), humpbacks were easy prey for whalers. Starting in 1966, however, humpbacks were protected by the International Whaling Commission. Despite protection, the Soviets continued hunting them illegally into the 1970s. Today, the worldwide humpback population is less than 40,000.
Humpbacks are found all over the world, but they migrate with the seasons: in summer they cruise temperate and polar waters, and in winter they swim to tropical waters where they mate and give birth.
These are acrobatic whales; humpbacks often breach, swim on their backs with both flippers in the air, and engage in tail lobbing (they raise their flukes out of the water then slap the surface).
Aboard the Angelique, we see all of these behaviors.
Things start off slowly with the gentle sight of dorsal fins cutting the water and the whistling sound of their breath. Before long, however, these giants are raising their flukes, breaching, and tail lobbing.
Motoring through calm seas.
About a hundred yards away, on the other side of the American Eagle, a humpback breaches twice just a few feet away from the Eagle’s bow.
It is breathtaking.
Also breathtaking—but for the wrong reasons—is the odor. The whales are so close to us, we can actually smell their breath. As the mate Dennis Gallant says, “It smells like a mixture of 90% sewage and 10% seafood”—a description that couldn’t possibly be improved upon.
As we stand dumbfounded on the Angelique’s deck, I take a moment to survey the whale watch vessel that tipped us off to the humpbacks’ location. I’m thankful it led us here, but I can’t help but feel sorry for the boat’s passengers. There are at least a hundred people crammed elbow to elbow on every square inch of the vessel’s many decks. Here on the Angelique, however, there are about 30 of us. There’s plenty of room for us to maneuver, and everyone who wants it can maintain their own sense of personal space at a rail overlooking the water. Here, on Day 2 of our 6-day trip, we already know each other’s names, and we share the whale watching experience as a group of friends and acquaintances rather than anonymous strangers who’ve been penned uncomfortably together.
This is how to watch whales.
When the humpbacks finally retreat beneath the murky deep, Captain Mike turns the Angelique about and we motor for the looming mountains of Acadia. The water is calm, the air still, and the late-afternoon light is silvery and yellow. Cocktail hour begins a little earlier than usual today. And every face is beaming.
The mountains of Acadia.