Ruth Bass: Watching the wonder of whales


RICHMOND Early in August, meteorologist Matt Noyes announced that starting Aug. 9 we would have the nicest 10 days of the summer. Sun, low humidity, temperatures in the high 70s or low 80s -- it would be the kind of weather we loved, and we would be right inside his main territory on Cape Cod.

We've been watching Matt on NECN for a long time (Channel 50, Time Warner), and he's proved not only reliable, but totally charming. It's hard to believe, as he moves across what looks like a weather map and is really a blank screen for him, that he isn't talking only to the viewers in our kitchen.

As has been common lately, science and freaky weather betrayed him for one day. It rained in Dennis, Massachusetts, on Wednesday, but nothing like the torturous storm that flooded Long Island. Then Noyes weather came back -- dry air, cool nights, plenty of sunshine.

Fortunately, we had picked Tuesday for whale watching, something I hadn't done since we watched the migrating California grays off the coast of San Diego. We were on a large sailboat that time, but once I saw the size of those barnacled whales, it occurred to me that upending our boat would be no problem for them. We assumed the sailors knew what they were doing, and we would be safe. We were.

Hyannis Whale Watchers in Barnstable Harbor was less than a half hour from our rented house, so we signed on. For years, we had watched whaling trips go out of Barnstable in clunky slow-moving boats, but these days, it's high speed. So the ride to whale land takes less than two hours.

The nature guide on board protected herself against disappointment by announcing right away that she hoped we would find whales. We decided to concentrate on the web site hype that practically guaranteed it.

We took motion sickness pills with memories of people who had been terribly ill on whale watches and settled on the hard metal benches for a ride that would take us close to Sandy Neck Lighthouse, something we had only seen from a distance before.

A row of gray-shingled, obviously old, Cape houses line the shore beside the small lighthouse. If wind, surf or an otherwise angry Mother Nature swoops any of these out to sea, they will not be rebuilt. Right now, they look like an inviting way to escape the real world.

We left Cape Cod Bay and entered the Gulf of Maine in the Stellwagen Banks area, a marine sanctuary, and quite soon the nature sent everyone rushing to one side of the boat to see our first humpback whale. We were looking at Tong and her calf, plus Perseus and her calf, both babies born in the Gulf of Maine earlier this year. The two females had traveled from the Caribbean to give birth, and their offspring would be so firmly imprinted with the location that they would return.

We kept seeing whales, cheering when the huge mammals sent their flukes out of the water, providing photos sparkling with sun on the water and diamond droplets tracing the outline of the triangular tails.

We saw five or six different humpbacks and a pair of Finnbacks. The guide, who provided lots of information without being overwhelming, said some 3,000 whales have been named by official whale watchers. One of her favorite names is the young whale called Thread because the name reflects his mother's: Fringe. His mother died, and he was playing alone in the Atlantic, entertaining us by cavorting around like any kid, even rolling onto his back.

It's not happenstance that a humpback whale can be named. The black and white markings on tails and fins are like fingerprints -- unique to the individual. We left Stellwagen and faced into the wind, delightful but definitely not the right way to treat your hair.

Ruth Bass lives in Richmond, and is the former Sunday editor of The Berkshire Eagle. Her website is


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