By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
There was no script, no set course to follow and no guarantees when we stepped aboard the “Dolphin X” whale watch boat in Provincetown harbor.
It’s always like that on a whale watch trip. The unknown is a big part of the appeal. It’s an adventure.
“Where are we going to go? I don’t know,” says the man with the microphone, Dennis Minsky, as the 100-foot vessel eased away from the dock. “We’re looking for whales, the whales are looking for fish.
“They eat small fish, lots and lots of small fish. The fish move around, the whales move around. So we never know exactly where we’re going to go.”
Minsky isn’t merely a tour guide. He is one of eight naturalists who double as MC’s on the four vessels operated by the Dolphin Fleet, which pioneered whale watching in New England in the mid-1970s.
More than tour guides, they serve the dual function of educators and scientists, telling the story of the largest animals on the planet and also recording data in every instance one of them is observed on each of the multiple trips the Dolphin Fleet runs daily from mid-April through late October.
As passengers, you are more than tourists, aiding in furthering the understanding of these massive and mysterious creatures.
View video of massive fin whale below.
But in plunking down $45 ($2 off the regular price with an easily attainable coupon), your objective is narrowly focused: You want to see some whales.
Whale watching is offered on both coasts of the United States and Hawaii. Alaska has some of the best opportunities, but it is remote.
The World Wildlife Fund ranks Massachusetts as one of the top 10 whale-watching spots in the world. It has the advantage of being readily accessible, and highly reliable in locating whales.
Trips out of Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, are difficult to beat because of the close proximity to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the marine habitat there that attracts whales. They can often be spotted from shore at Race Point and Herring Cove, minutes from Provincetown.
On a calm, mild day in May, 2017, a few minutes was all it took after leaving the dock before the boat slowed and Minsky pointed to a humpback the captain had spotted on the surface meandering just offshore in 150 feet of water.
As if on cue, the whale did a classic fluke-up dive, meaning it raised its tail out of the water to begin a deep descent. A minute or two later it was back on the surface to resume its leisurely passage, unbothered by the presence of the boat and all the lenses focused on its progress.
Humpback encounters no fluke
“This is the most blissed-out humpback whale that I’ve seen in a long time. Really just taking it easy,” Minsky says with amusement.
It continued that way long enough for Minsky to give a thorough overview about the humpbacks that roam the North Atlantic from Canada to the Caribbean.
He is well acquainted with many of them documented in an ever-expanding catalogue of about 2,000 humpbacks that have been photographed and named.
Distinctive to humpbacks is the pattern of pigment on the underside of their tail fluke that is unique to each individual in the manner of human fingerprints. Scientists recognize them by the same names whether sighted off Nova Scotia, Cape Cod or the Dominican Republic, enabling researchers to add to the shared knowledge base with each encounter.
“Humpbacks are found around the world,” Minsky says. “There’s supposed to be 12,000 humpback whales in the North Atlantic. But they move around. Every now and then we get a whale out of Norway.”
The next sighting, a fin whale off Race Point Beach, is more mysterious and created more excitement due to its immensity.
“This is a big whale, ladies and gentlemen,” Minsky says. “That is the second-largest animal that ever lived right there, the fin whale.”
Scientists know little about where they go, but when you see a fin whale it’s a show. With a maximum length of 88 feet, it dwarfs the biggest dinosaur on Minsky’s size comparison chart and is second only to the blue whale on the all-time list of giants.
This one makes a worthy sidekick to the “Dolphin X” as it moves on a parallel course with the vessel as passengers crowd the port rail.
The fin whale looms like a submarine with only the prominent backswept dorsal fin and surrounding portion of its back exposed. With the ocean calm and clear on this sunny day, the characteristic white pattern on the lower jaw, present only on its right side, can be seen just below the surface as the tapered head slices efficiently through the water.
Majestic and mysterious creatures
“The left side of the whale is all dark. This is one of the few animals in the world that is asymmetrically pigmented — white on one side, dark on the other. No one knows why,” Minsky says.
“This whale is also the second-fastest whale in the ocean. It can go speeds approaching what our boat can do.”
Minsky points out that Moby-Dick author Herman Melville was aware of this from his time working on the whaling ship “Acushnet” out of New Bedford, Mass.
“Melville called the fin whale uncatchable and unmutable,” he says, noting that in Moby-Dick, “Capt. Ahab didn’t even try to get a fin whale because under sail they could never catch a fin whale.”
With the advent of faster boats and advanced hunting techniques, that changed in the 20th Century when nearly 3 million whales were killed world-wide, according to a study published in 2015. About one-third of them were fin whales.
The slaughter of whales has been greatly reduced, though not eliminated. The growing whale-watch industry has made a compelling case for marine mammals being worth more alive than dead.
One study estimated that in 2009 some 13 million tourists went on whale-watch trips in 119 countries, generating $2.1 billion and employing 13,000 people.
The shift is evident in Provincetown, which was one of the richest towns in the region in the late 1800s due to whaling. Now whale-watching is a cornerstone of a thriving tourism industry there.
Online reviews of those who have taken trips on the Dolphin Fleet are overwhelmingly positive, which was the consensus on this afternoon trip. Biggest cheers were from the spectacle of four fluke-up dives by humpbacks.
The extended close-up view of the fin whale was special. There was also a brief sighting of a minke, a smaller whale and one of the few still hunted in some parts of the world.
In addition, there was an opportunity to observe a scallop boat pulling in its catch, though one young passenger took a different view of it, shouting, “Look, a pirate ship!”
Due to unusually calm conditions offshore — the ocean was flat as a pond — there were zero requests for Dramamine.
As Minsky notes, there are a wide range of possibilities that make every whale-watch trip unique.
“We have seen 20 or 30 [whales] on a trip. Today was about average. What isn’t average is the beauty of this day,” he says. “They’re wild animals, they do what they’re going to do. It’s not like Sea World, God forbid.”