HEAD HARBOUR PASSAGE, New Brunswick, — The passengers aboard the Bandero, a whale-watching boat out of Wilson’s Beach, Campobello Island, were quick to spot the first whale.
A white poof of mist on the surface indicated a finback was blowing air as it was rising. Slowly, the huge whale slid up to the surface and rolled, revealing its gray, sleek back. Suddenly there were three finbacks, rolling up and down in balletlike unison. Another large finback surfaced next to the boat, blowing mist all over the passengers, to their delight.
At one point in the two-hour tour, it seemed as if the boat was surrounded by finbacks. Suddenly, an endangered right whale surfaced, showing its trademark tail as it headed back underwater.
Minutes later, the tourists were treated to a right whale and then a breaching minke.
Tourists, boat captains and those who work the sea are saying they’ve never seen as many whales as have congregated over the past several weeks in the international waters off Down East Maine, particularly in the Campobello Island, Eastport and Lubec areas.
Scientists and experts said this week that it appears the whales are following food, while providing a boost to the local economy.
Burrell Brown, 55, captain of the Bandero, said he has been plying these waters as a fisherman and tour guide since he was 14 years old.
“I’ve never, ever seen it like this,” he said. “When I was a fisherman, I would see a whale here and a whale there. But now I really pay attention. I have never seen so many whales this close to shore before.”
His passengers were ecstatic, particularly when a minke whale began breaching near the boat. It forcefully propelled itself straight up and then crashed on the surface, sending up whale-sized spray.
“I thought we might see a whale or two,” said Graziella Coren of St. James, N.Y.. She and her husband, Mark Zuckerman, and their two children, Valarie, 17, and Eric, 16, were vacationing in Maine and booked the trip from Captain Riddle’s in Campobello.
“But we have seen dozens. Every minute another whale comes up. This is beyond our wildest imagination,” she said. “It’s an experience my family and I will never forget.”
Holly Garner-Jackson came to Maine in 1980 to study whales as part of a stranding network, monitoring the deaths of whales on beaches.
“I am surprised by the numbers [of whales swimming in the area] this year,” she said Tuesday. “I am especially surprised by the numbers of humpbacks, especially this late in the year.”
On a trip out of Lubec on Monday, Garner-Jackson saw at least 10 finbacks and a minke.
“The fishermen say that when the whales are here, all is OK because they follow the food,” she said.
James Robertson of Robertson’s Sea Tours of Milbridge and Capt. Jim Parker agree. They operate their tours off the Schoodic Ridges.
“We, too, have seen a large amount of humpbacks,” Robertson said Tuesday. “Some days, we are seeing more whales than I’ve ever seen. It has been awesome.”
“It’s all about the food,” said Moira Brown, senior scientist of Boston’s New England Aquarium. A team of scientists has been summering in Lubec while studying right whales.
Ever since Hurricane Bill came through last month, Brown said, the whales have been coming quite close to shore.
“There have been lots of finbacks, humpbacks and minkes,” Brown said. “It has been quite spectacular.”
Brown said the local fishermen have been saying there are a lot of small bait fish available. “The whales are capitalizing on it,” she said.
Andrew Pershing of the University of Maine in Orono is an expert in whale migration and feeding routes.
“I’ve been hearing the stories of great numbers of whales up there,” Pershing said Tuesday. “I think the oceanographic conditions are just right, and it says to me that this area has prime feeding conditions.”
“This has been great for the local economy,” Brown said. “The best way to see these whales is to go on a whale watch. Those captains are familiar with the whales and their behavior.”
For a listing of whale-watching tours Down East visit www.visitmaine.com