A Cape Cod Notebook 6/10/08

Listen 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 magnificent creatures.

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 forgotten it.