Chasing Whales With CRESLI In The Great South Channel

I saw a headline a few years ago about a “seafaringness” gene for people who love the sea; those who have it supposedly have a strong desire to be near, on, or in the water. That article was a hoax, but I wish it was true because it would explain a lot in me. One grandfather was an officer in the navy; the other owned an oyster packing house and worked the "buy boats" out in the Chesapeake. Both died when I was very young, so I never really knew them, and while our family went to the beach for vacation every year, my parents had little interest in boats. But they did spring for sailing lessons (which never clicked to me because it’s too much work), and I did talk them into a little row boat with a tiny outboard which I used to check a couple commercial crab pots I kept in the Chester river (unloading the boat, I almost floated the family station wagon off the boat ramp, but that’s another story).  I now own whitewater and sea kayaks, and take any excuse to get out on a boat.

There’s something amazing and primal to me about being able see out to the horizon, and then to experience the power and majesty of nature. I feel that on the ocean, but I also find it in the plains chasing tornadoes, and when I got back in early June from storm chasing (and busting badly), I knew I had to hunker down and work on updating my book. But I saw that the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island (CRESLI) was having a Great South Channel whale watch/research trip in August. On this trip, paying customers like me subsidize a serious, multi-year, mostly volunteer CRESLI research effort to identify and track the whales and marine mammals in the Great South Channel, an area off Cape Cod between George’s Bank and the Nantucket Shoals.  I’ve been on a ton of whale watches over the years, am working with Gotham Whale on an acoustic research project, have kayaked with dolphins as we circumnavigated Long Island, and have even touched baby gray whales in a bay in Baja, Mexico. But I had some concerns about this trip because, while I’ve rarely ever been seasick (only on a hovercraft in a rough English channel and wallowing in a sailboat), I’ve never been that far offshore or spent more than a day at sea. But I signed up and I’m really glad I did, since it was a really amazing trip and a profound experience.

We sailed out of Montauk on the Viking Starship, a well-worn, workhorse party fishing boat with, at best, “rustic” accommodations (which keeps the cost down). I lived all over the east end of Long Island in the late 80’s (and chased my first  hurricane-Gloria right at the East Hampton town beach), but Montauk was always a kind of unique place-it was the only town out there where you see the ocean right from the highway.  It was the least pretentious as well, and although it’s changing now, it still has kept some character, especially near the docks. A deckhand on the boat had a strong, unusual accent, and I asked him where he was from. “Hicksville” (suburban LI), he said, but then added that he really had a Montauk accent.  There seems to be a fisherman’s accent common around the Atlantic, because his accent was similar to what I grew up with Eastern Shore of Maryland, and I heard commonalities even up in Newfoundland. When I went there to paddle with icebergs some years ago, a lot of people in our group had a hard time understanding the locals; I had no problem because to me they sounded just like the watermen in my hometown.

We left Montauk at 6:30pm on Sunday and Artie, Trish and I sat on the bow drinking wine through a beautiful sunset (photo by Trish, we forgot to get a group shot).  

I was exhausted after pushing for weeks to get through the first editing pass of the 145,000 words in the book and shooting and editing thousands of photos from the always-amazing Madonnathon the night before, so I figured to crash early. Artie and Trish were (like many people) moving their mattresses to sleep out on the deck, but I really wanted to try to sleep in the below-decks bunk room to see if I could do it. Normally for offshore trips on this boat they are fishing porgies or fluke, and I think all those fisherman are drunk and/or covered with fish slime to the point that they don’t care about the dankness of the bunk room. But while the motion was fine, and the engine drone was comforting, it was just too warm and some guy had metal blasting in his earphones so loud that I could hear it several bunks away. So I grabbed one of the last spots on deck, and boy am I glad I did.

It was clear that night, and we watched the milky way and so many thousands of stars visible and the end of the Perseids meteor shower. I dozed off and then woke up again as the engine revved down as we stopped in Martha’s Vineyard after midnight to pick up a few more researchers and drop off a few passengers. I hadn’t been there since a friend’s wedding many years ago so of course I had to get up and look at the harbor in the dark. I dozed off again, and then about three in the morning, I woke up again and put my glasses on. I’ve been out in a lot of dark places, but not like this; we were well offshore and there wasn't a ship or a light out to the horizon in any direction.  The moon had come up, we were sailing directly towards it, and it was blindingly bright. The stars just went on and on forever. I stood there, the only passenger awake, and stared out in every direction and thought about my Mom, who died many years ago, way too young.  She always talked about her dream of being out at sea, out of sight of land. I think she did experience this once on a trip to Bermuda near the end of her life, but I had never done it myself. It was stunning and profound. The boat was rocking too much to get a photo so you'll have to take my word for it.

I had my big eye shade on and was trying to sleep as late as possible, but at about six in the morning our leader, Artie Kopelman, came on the PA to announce that we had a pod of Risso’s dophin right off the boat.  In all the frantic lead up to the trip, I hadn’t really had time to reset my cameras from the Madonnathon, but I ran below and grabbed one camera with the wrong lens and the wrong settings and got off a few shots. (Click on any to enlarge)

We also saw some distant Kelvin Helmholtz clouds:

And a sun halo:

And thousands of shearwater:

And then the real show began, with humpbacks cooperatively feeding, which we saw for the next two days:

One whale (they think trying to call its mother) breached over and over.  

There were so many that I eventually just put the camera down, watched, and shot a couple videos:

The fog came in overnight, and a few of us slept on deck again even though it was really damp, and we were awoken at 6am with rain in our faces.

But the fog cleared out...

All around us the last morning were whales cooperatively bubble feeding, where they would work together in a group, dive down, blow bubbles in circles, schooling up their prey in the center.  These are baleen whales with no teeth, so they just swallow all the fish whole.  You can see the bubbles first:

Sadly, nearly every whale we saw had signs of entanglement with fishing nets or other ocean debris:

I completely lost track of the number of whales that we saw, but Dr. Kopelman reported after that they identified 44, including 4 cow/calf pairs, and encountered 17 unknowns, including 2 cow/calf pairs.  We also saw countless minke whales, blue fin tuna, and sharks.

I turned my phone off when we left the dock, and that was probably the longest I've been offline in several years.  I love being connected but taking a break once in a while is a good thing.  And doing it far out at sea, amongst these majestic giants, is a humbling experience.  In these tumultuous times, one of the things I take comfort in is knowing that nature is going to do its thing no matter what we do.  Right now, out of sight of Cape Cod, regardless of whether or not we are there to observe them, there are whales feeding, breaching, and calves hanging out with their moms. 

I got back from this trip with just enough time to catch up at work and head out again for the eclipse in Nebraska; my write up of that amazing trip here.