BOOTHBAY HARBOR, Maine — Once in a blue moon, the largest creature on earth is spotted not far off the New England coast.
Blue whales also are among the rarest on earth, with only a few hundred estimated to be in the north Atlantic ocean.
On Sunday one of them, a leviathan estimated to be about 80 feet long, was spotted dozing in the water about 15 miles due south of Boothbay Harbor, according to the staff of two whale-watching boats that came across the animal. Eighty feet, approximately the length of two school buses, is about as large as the whales get in the northern hemisphere, but they’ve been known to grow up to 100 feet long in the southern oceans.
“I was thinking, ‘Wow, this is a chance of a lifetime.’ I didn’t want to leave because I may never see it again,” said Dominique Leclerc, a marine biologist on the whale watch boat Pink Lady II.
Blue whales are found in oceans around the world, but it’s unusual to see them off the coast of New England because they prefer the deep ocean farther offshore, said Sean Todd, director of Allied Whale and chairman of marine sciences at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor. Todd theorized that this whale was off the beaten path following krill, the tiny shrimp-like crustaceans that comprise its diet.
Because they swim so far offshore, their numbers and activities are not fully understood. They’re listed as endangered under the federal Endangered Species Act, and a previous count of 440 blue whales from the Gulf of St. Lawrence is considered to be a minimum for the northwest Atlantic, Todd said.
According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, in 2007 the International Whaling Commission estimated that there were only 100 to 555 blue whales in the north Atlantic Ocean.
The last sighting in New England waters was three to four years ago, Todd said. How long it has been since a blue whale was spotted off the Maine coast is not clear, though scientists and naturalists agree that it has been several years.
Amy Knowlton, a research scientist with New England Aquarium who comes to Lubec at the end of each summer to count right whales in the Bay of Fundy, said Monday that she and her colleagues spotted two blue whales in the bay in the 1990s. Blue whales also have been sighted in recent memory south of Cape Sable Island off the coast of Nova Scotia, she said.
“It is very rare to see blue whales in this area,” Knowlton said. “Typically, they venture way offshore.”
John Fish, owner and operator of the Pink Lady II, said Monday that he had heard the last reported blue whale sighting in the Gulf of Maine was in 1975. He said he has been in the whale watching business for 30 years and has never seen a blue whale.
“It’s a pretty major thing to have this happen in the Gulf of Maine,” he said.
Sadly, he still hasn’t seen a blue whale, he said. He was not on Sunday’s trip.
“I’m disappointed, yeah,” he said with a laugh and a sigh.
Mechele Vanderlaan, naturalist aboard the other whale-watching boat, the Harbor Princess, said it was only the second time in 21 years that she has seen a blue whale.
“I can’t get the smile off my face,” she said.
This apparently was one mellow whale. It didn’t respond to cheers from people on the boats or the rumbling diesel engines; instead it appeared to be logging, or sleeping.
The massive mammal stayed about 10 feet below the surface, coming up every five to eight minutes to send a spray of water and air skyward from its blow hole and take a breath before going underwater.
According to Todd, whales don’t sleep the way humans do. While scientists don’t fully understand sleep patterns, it’s believed that one hemisphere of the whale’s brain sleeps while the other remains alert, like other marine mammals, he said. Thus, the whale was aware of the boats but was apparently unconcerned by their presence.
“The lack of reaction of the whale to the boat is a sign that the skipper is doing the right things and they’re not harassing the animals,” Todd said.
Because of their size, blue whales were hunted heavily in the 19th and 20th centuries. As the species recovers, it’s still rare to see large ones, Todd said.
Passengers got excited when the naturalists explained that this wasn’t one of the usual whales seen off the coast of Maine, like fin, humpback or sei whales.
The boats — the Pink Lady II operated by Cap’n Fish’s Whale Watch and the Harbor Princess operated by Boothbay Whale Watch — came alongside and cut their engines, floating next to the blue whale.
“At first, they thought this is a whale and this is a whale watch. Then I explained to them that you don’t see these whales,” Leclerc said. “They clapped. They cheered. They screamed.”