“In the long view of history, it will seem a remarkable turn-around: that a century that began by actively hunting whales ended by passively watching them. Animals, too, have a history-although one we can know only a tiny part of-and while modern science has demystified the whale whilst revealing its true wonders, our attitudes to whales also changed when we see them close-up.”
-Philip Hoare, The Whale
On my last full day in Boston I chose to spend the afternoon on a New England Aquarium whale watching trip.
It was fitting that I was departing from a Massachusetts port, for the state has a long history in whaling. New Bedford and Nantucket are two of the most well know whaling ports of the American whaling industry. A whaler named Herman Melville, worked out of New Bedford and it was here that he wrote his masterpiece Moby-Dick, published in 1851. After this, the whaling industry began to decline with the discovery of petroleum, which replaced whale oil. The last whale boat to head out of New Bedford was the schooner John R. Manta in 1925.
We headed out of Boston Harbor, under clear, blue skies, on the Cetacea at 14:00. I also had a few target birds on this trip. The first one, the common eider, I picked up to the starboard, on a rocky island.
It was an hour and a half cruise to our destination: Stellwagon Bank National Marine Sanctuary, 25 miles east of Boston. The Cetacea slowed, and I loosened the tie on my hat and wiped the sea spray from by binoculars. We cruised along the underwater plateau, all eyes scanning the water for any tell-tales signs of a whale. The Cory’s shearwaters (another lifer) cutting across the water ridges seemed promising. I eyed every white-capped wave and deep blue trough with interest, willing a whale to appear.
We got word that another boat had a whale six miles from our position. The Cetacea surged forward. I tightened my hat and tucked my binos into my jacket. We soon spotted the whale-watching boat, bobbing on the open ocean and then spotted the bushy spout of a humpback. It dived twice before giving us a good look at her flukes which our naturalist was able to identify the whale as “Scylla”, a female born in 1981. “Scylla” saved the best for last as she gave us a full breach off to the starboard.
We had to return to port and I again tightened my hat and stowed my binos. As we headed back we where given one last treat, a tall geyser-like blow of a whale off to the starboard. The whale folded into the waves revealing a pronounced fin. This was indeed a fin whale, the second largest creature in the world, coming in second only to the blue whale. I had seen blues in Monterey Bay but the fin was a lifer for me!
The fin whale has been called the “greyhound of the sea” because of it’s speed. It was fast enough to avoid the harpoon but with the invention of steam power and the explosive harpoon, the fin finally met it’s match. In the 20th century, no other whale have been hunted more than the fin, with an astonishing 725,000 hunted in the Southern Hemisphere alone.
Humans have been hunting and killing an animal at least 1,500 times heavier than an average man , in a watery element that is not our natural home speaks to our use of technology and willpower, when there is a profit to be made. Unfortunately it does not speak to our empathy and understanding of the natural world. Whaling stopped because it was no longer profitable not because we thought that it was morality objectionable. For whatever reason, we no longer hunt whales to the same extent and the ocean and these magnificent creates can begin to heal. The fin did not follow the passenger pigeon, the dodo, or the moa down the path to extinction and to see this magnificent creature was a true gift on this trip to Boston.
Looking astern on the Cetacea on our return to Boston Harbor, crossing under the flight path of Logan International Airport.