Whale watching trip perfect for ignoring whales, watching birds

A red-necked phalarope in post-breeding plumage, lacking the red neck. It's the plumage typically seen in summer and autumn in Maine.
Joe Turner
A red-necked phalarope in post-breeding plumage, lacking the red neck. It's the plumage typically seen in summer and autumn in Maine.
Posted Dec. 28, 2012, at 2:13 p.m.

I’m the only person I know who gets on a whale watch boat and ignores the whales. As many times as I’ve been into the Gulf of Maine, you would think by now that I could recognize the towering spout of a finback whale, the balloon-shaped spout of a humpback, the V-shaped spout of a right whale, or the no-spout spout of a minke whale. There is so much that I have yet to learn about our cetacean population, yet once I am at sea, I stare myopically at the birds. What I need is a program that seduces me to learn more, offering an enticement. By that, I mean beer.

Next Friday night, the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon is staging a Whales and Ales event at the Sea Dog Restaurant in Bangor that is a tad more sociable than many of Audubon’s soirees.

Zack Klyver is the chief naturalist for Bar Harbor Whale Watch. He will present a visually captivating show on the whales of Maine. Zack has also just founded a company called Flukes International Whale Tours, which plans to search for blue whales. Blue whales are the largest animals to have ever existed, so my first question to Zack: “How hard can it be to find one?”

On average, I get on the Bar Harbor Whale Watch cruise at least once a year to look for birds. The birds are where the whales are. They all follow the food. I’ve had some great days out on the Friendship V, the company’s first high-speed catamaran, and my initial experience with the company even pre-dates that boat. My debut voyage took place about 25 years ago, but I remember it like it was yesterday. We left the dock on a brilliantly sunny day, cleared the breakwater, and steered directly into a fog bank. It was unavoidable. The ocean was foggy as far as the eye could see…which was about 100 yards.

One hundred yards of visibility may make it difficult to find whales, but the ocean birds were swirling around the boat all day. It was the first time I got to see Wilson’s storm-petrels, a dainty little bird not much bigger than a swallow. They breed on islands in the south Atlantic and migrate up here during their winter. Sometimes the Gulf of Maine can be flooded with them, as they were on this day in 1988. They flutter and tiptoe across the water, plucking food from the surface. This day was also my first experience with red-necked phalaropes.

During the return to the dock at the end of the adventure, the sun reemerged as we closed upon the islands that shelter Bar Harbor. Just then, a parasitic jaeger flew right by the stern — another lifer. By this point, I had a handful of new birds and a grin from ear to ear. Whereupon, the captain announced that we would all be getting rain checks due to the lack of whale sightings.

“You’re kidding,” I said to myself. “I had all that fun and now I get to do it again for free? What could be better than that?”

Another free ride. My second voyage went just like the first. The day was brilliant onshore and foggy offshore. Another great birding day and another rain check. Ironically, 1989 was the last year that I experienced whalelessness on the Bar Harbor Whale Watch. I’ve been out many times since and enjoyed every minute of it. I get there early, stand at the front of the line, and rush up the gangplank to grab my favorite spot on the boat: top deck, left front corner. I will surrender that spot to whale lovers when a whale comes alongside. There’s no need to be selfish. I just snub the whales, walk to the opposite side of the boat that is now unoccupied, and watch the birds.

Thus, I remain largely ignorant about the beasts I’ve chased so often. I have much to learn from Zack Klyver when he makes his presentation at 7 p.m. Friday, Jan. 4, at the Sea Dog. The Whales and Ales program is free. The beer isn’t.

I’m particularly glad that Zack is including information about blue whales during his show. Maine has humpback, finback and minke whales. We even have a few right whales. This will give me a chance to add blue whales to the inventory of ocean species that I can misidentify at a distance.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail. Reach Bob at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

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