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Whale Watching Season Could Be Best In Years

Part of a whale seen during the whale watching tour (Courtesy of Ashley Schaffert)

“We’re heading east right now from Boston, and we are looking for whales, is what we are doing,” said Debbie Ridings, captain of the New England Aquarium’s custom whale watch vessel Voyager III.

And it’s not going to be hard. This is their first whale watch of the season, which is usually a bit of a crap shoot, but this year is different. The warm winter and early spring have brought all kinds of marine life into New England waters weeks ahead of schedule.

“The mackerel run is early, the herring run has already started. The water temperature, depending one where you are, is somewhere between about 39 to 41 degrees,” Ridings said.

“Toasty!” I said

“Yeah, it’s a different season for us, weather-wise,” she replied.

Another whale watching boat has spotted two humpbacks a little to the south of us. Even though they’re competitors, many of the captains out here swap information over their radios.

“Come on over, I would. They’re heading in a westerly direction.”

“Ok, roger that,” Ridings said.

We steam down to the northeast corner of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an underwater plateau that runs between the tips of Cape Ann and Cape Cod. The elevated ocean floor results in a phenomenon along the edge known as ‘upwelling.’

(Courtesy of Ashley Schaffert)

“There’s cool water that comes up with the tides, they come up to the surface, they get hit with the sunlight, and it’s a great place for planktons, it’s a great place for, you know, small fishes, krill, all of the things that, if you were a whale, you would be picking off the menu, you would be saying, ‘I want one of that, I want one of those, I want one of those,’ ” she said.

And with the water being unusually warm this year, that effect is amplified. The waters are teeming with whale chow. Right whales, humpbacks, little minkes, enormous fin whales, they’ve all been spotted in unusually large numbers, feeding greedily. It’s still a mystery, though, how the whales are able to sense these good conditions from their winter homes down south, according the New England aquarium naturalist on board, Melissa Rocha.

“We do believe they get some clues, whether there’s some kind of like secret calling network, we’re not really sure about,” Rocha said.

“Well it’s feasible, though, I mean they do communicate across vast distances,” I reply.

“It is. There has been research done that some species may use deepwater trenches to communicate. There’s something that tells them that ‘Hey, the food is getting good.’ ”

As we approach our humpbacks, a couple dozen very cold people huddle around the edges of the boat. Rocha gets on the mic to keep us entertained while we wait for a whale to surface. We don’t wait long.

“PSSHHHHHHH!”

“Oh, right off us!” Rocha said. “Some of you just got some whale breath on you.”

That one got so close that 9-year-old Matthew Wilson was able to smell it. Wilson said it smelled “Terrible. Like old fish, like tuna.”

This pair of Humpbacks put on quite a show before we had to pack it in and head back to the aquarium in Boston. It’s a long season, and many things could change, but if you want to see whales in Massachusetts Bay, right now is as close to a sure thing as you’re likely to get.

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