My First Whale
BY Robert Finch
I do not go whale-watching anymore. Even when, last month, an extraordinary concentration of
endangered right whales were spotted feeding in the Bay and off Race Point in Provincetown, I was not
tempted to go out on one of the many whale-watching boats there. It is not that I am tired of seeing
whales. I am not. Nor is it out of environmental conscientiousness, though there have been recent
stories about a number of these whale-watching boats that have broken regulations governing
maximum speeds in the vicinity of whales, harassing and possibly even risking damage to these
No, it is not snobbery or over-familiarity or environmental concern that keeps me off the whale boats.
It is just that I think the whales do not need me to see them anymore, do not need me to invade their
privacy. On the other hand, if I'm really honest, I have to admit that part of it is that no subsequent
whale-watching experience -- and I've had a number of really good ones -- has ever lived up to my
first one. I've met many others who feel the same way. I suppose it's kind of a cetacean version of
never forgetting your first love. It may not have been the best, most dramatic, or the most enduring
love, but it was the first -- that is, the first taste or contact with something that was hitherto
unimaginable, and so is, in some deep way, unrepeatable.
I still remember, vividly, my first whale, nearly thirty-five years ago. I got on board the Dolphin III, the
only whaleboat then in business. As we motored out of the harbor and rounded Long Point, at the very
tip of the Cape, I newly appreciated its name -- a long, low, seemingly endless spit of sand flowing by
us, its curbed length punctuated by small, white, weather-beaten lighthouses.
A few miles off Race Point a shout was given by the crew on the top deck: "Thar she blows -- whale --
about a mile off, straight ahead!" The engine picked up speed while bodies and eyes strained over the
bow. Like the whaling boats of a century ago, we were "closing in," but with cameras and binoculars
instead of harpoons and lances.
When I saw the whale, it was like seeing a ghost. There, about a half-mile ahead of the Dolphin II, a
large, black, glistening shape suddenly broke water. As it slowly arched across the surface, a dorsal fin
towards the rear identified it as a finback, the most common of the remaining great Atlantic whales.
Finbacks, unlike, say, humpback whales, are normally wary and steer clear of boats, This one, however,
held its ground as we approached and gradually came into incredible focus. It spouted with a low rush
of sound and speed each time it surfaced.
The captain cut the engine to idle, and the whale continued to appear alternately on opposite sides of
the boat, its huge bulk passing directly beneath us. Then it surfaced directly ahead, less than 75 feet
from the bow. First its immense dark head appeared, followed in slow succession by the blow hole, the
long right side, then the dark back arching up, followed by the dorsal fin, and finally the great flukes
thrusting up as the whale prepared to dive. On and on it came, like some great wheel of life, passing us
endlessly like Long Point itself, like Long Point shaped and sustained by the ocean. I have never