Join a whalewatching cruise this summer to explore Maine’s offshore waters and encounter denizens of the deep.
Abundant food lures many whales to the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy each summer and fall. Among the species often spotted feeding offshore are finback whales, humpback whales, and the smaller minke whales.
Lured by the opportunity to see such magnificent mammals “up close and personal,” summer visitors sail aboard whalewatching cruises that explore whale feeding grounds. The operative word is “explore”: Just because whalewatchers sail where the whales might be does not mean that the whales will be there.
And that’s the lure: Whalewatchers never know what they might see as the crew casts off the lines and the boat heads for deep water.
Expect to experience coastal Maine as sailors did 100-200 years ago. Islands are tree-studded crowns thrusting from the sea; depending on the tide, ledges shelter harbor seals hauled ashore to relax and catch a few rays. Harbor porpoises flash their dorsal fins while chasing fish. Eider ducks raft along rocky shores, and seabirds seldom seen ashore — the black guillemot comes to mind — float individually in a boat’s wake. Floating on the ocean surface, curious seals watch boats sail past.
Lighthouses rise above remote islands: Matinicus far out in Penobscot Bay, Egg Rock in Frenchman Bay, Petit Manan off Pigeon Hill Bay, and Mount Desert Rock more than 20 miles off Mount Desert Island. Lobsterboats flit across the bays and among the inner islands.
To enjoy a whalewatching cruise, passengers should dress for chilly temperatures. By Outer Banks and even Long Island standards, Gulf of Maine waters are cold, and the least easterly or southeasterly breeze can sharply drop the air temperature just a few miles offshore or envelop a boat in damp fog. Wear long pants and comfortable footwear and bring a jacket.
Passengers should also expect their whalewatch boat to move with the wind and waves. Some motion will occur even with a relatively calm sea; swells can increase offshore, and some passengers may experience motion sickness. Plan accordingly; eat a light snack, but avoid a heavy meal before going on a whalewatching cruise. Consider taking Dramamine before sailing. Chew gum while aboard the boat.
And bring a camera, because someone will suddenly shout “Whale!” or “There she blows!,” and passengers will scurry to see an awesome creature in its natural environment.
And what might passengers see?
• A distant spout caused when a whale surfaces to breathe. Although photographically disappointing, a spout confirms that a whale’s present; whalewatch skippers usually turn their vessels toward the area, and if whales are feeding, they may not move far before a boat arrives nearby.
• A dark hump emerging from the sea, almost like the Monster teasing tourists at Loch Ness in Scotland. Sometimes a smaller hump emerges alongside a larger hump as a whale calf accompanies its mother while she feeds.
• A whale of a tail rising dramatically from the sea as a cetacean starts to dive. Each whale has an identifiable tail fluke; researchers use this information to track individual whale movement through the Gulf of Maine.
• A whale rising to the surface alongside a whalewatch boat. While federal regulations prohibit such boats from approaching whales too closely, no regulations prohibit whales from approaching whalewatch boats.
• A whale suddenly breaching, actually leaping from the sea to slam into the surface amidst flying spray and a thunderous splash.
Because of Maine’s close proximity to whale feeding grounds, summer visitors can choose among many cruises departing different ports. The busier ports for whalewatching cruises include Kennebunkport, Boothbay Harbor, Bar Harbor, and Eastport.
For detailed information about whalewatching cruises, log onto www.visitmaine.com/attractions/nature/whale_watching/ and click on the “whale watching trips” link.
Another informative source is www.maine.info/whales.php.