This whale story will sound like a lot like a fish tale but I assure you it is completely true. And I’m not going to be exaggerating either; if anything I’ll be underselling it.
In the summer of 2003 I was set to embark on another of my poly-annual trips out east to visit family, a drive I had made about thirty of forty times by then (and easily a hundred by now). With plenty of time on my hands I decided out of the blue to try and find something…anything…touristy and interesting to do along the way. I had veered off the TCH to cross the World’s Longest Covered Bridge too many times to count already and had stopped at the Covered Bridge potato chip factory a few times too, so I had to look a bit further afield. And that is how I ended up on the whale tour to end all whale tours.
I detoured off of my usual route to Pennfield where I spent the night with relatives. I woke up early on the morning of August 14th and called the tour company as instructed to ensure that the weather-dependant cruise was able to sail. I was told that we were good to go which was my first stroke of luck. A foggy summer had cost the company over 80% of their whale-watching days. In fact, this was to be their first outing in nearly two weeks.
(Don’t quote me here but it looks like it was Sea Watch Tours. I’m not entirely sure about that but I am pretty sure that it doesn’t really matter either way what the tour operator was called.)
On the ferry over to Grand Manan Island I saw about forty dolphins (or porpoises…what do I know?), and one of the three hundred remaining right whales on the planet. I might have taken this continued luck as an omen for the sights I was soon to see but I didn’t. At this point I was still completely oblivious about what I was about to experience.
A van was waiting at the ferry terminal and it delivered me to the dock where I met the captain and about twenty-five of my fellow passengers. Curiously, among them was a regular customer from the Ottawa music store where I was working at the time. It’s a big world, and it sure is chock-full of coincidences.
We boarded the 30’ vessel and chugged a couple of hours out into the ocean when rather suddenly we found ourselves absolutely surrounded by humpback whales. The massive creatures swam a wide perimeter around our boat playing and, I suppose, testing the waters (I shan’t apologize for a pun).
When the pod deemed us to be friendly they swam in closer to us and then they really start clowning around. I can’t tell you how many whales there were in total – maybe fifteen or twenty? – but they danced and caroused around us like there was a hundred of them, each one jumping and flipping around like they were auditioning for an aquatic version of Cirque du Soleil.
Breach?!?!? For a while that seemed like all they were doing! With mine own eyes I saw three humpback whales breach simultaneously. They were perfectly spaced and exactly in synch, and very close to the boat. One of the animals breached so close…I swear he wasn’t much more than twenty feet from us when he launched out of the water. We saw dozens of waving whale tails, with one critter slowly diving right next to the boat and giving us a long wave with his tail seemingly frozen above the water. There was so much camera clicking you’d think it was Bruce Springsteen swimming around out there.
This just kept going on and on and on. Soon two or three other whale tour boats discovered us and parked themselves at an ethical distance and watched as the whales performed for our boat. For our part, we were unable to keep a safe distance as anytime the captain tried to move us slowly away the whales followed us.
At one point I saw one of the whales swimming towards the front end of the boat right where I was standing. In a fit of excitement I said nothing to anybody and ran to the other side of the bow just as the whale slid beneath me, literally brushing up against the hull. As I stared down into the water I watched as the entire length of that massive creature swam by nose-to-tail, his huge eye tracking me as he went. He was at the very surface of the water and was so close I swear I could have merely leaned down and touched him as he swam by, though I didn’t dare. That whale totally and certainly was looking right at me, eye-to-eye. It was exhilarating. I had no idea that a whale-watching tour meant the whales would be the ones doing the watching.
Our captain (who was as excited as anyone on the boat) kept us parked in that spot for an hour and a half, maybe two hours and those whales just did not stop. Finally he apologized, saying we had been out so long that we just had to start heading back. I think the captain was more disappointed than anyone to have to leave but leave we did, having run out of time before the whales ran out of energy.
When we landed back on solid ground our captain told us that after thirteen years leading whale-watching tours following another twenty-five years of fishing the same water, this was hands-down the greatest whale experience of his life. He advised us all never to go on a whale tour again, for we would surely be disappointed. I’ve ignored this advice twice and concur with the captain’s assessment.
Unfortunately (I guess) this trip occurred during an era when I was loath to bring cameras on vacations. I mean, I went on some crazy, crazy vacations with no camera…I can’t even begin to tell you! Anyway, of course I was the only person on the boat that wasn’t clicking miles of pictures the entire time, and I remember coming off of that boat smugly thinking to myself that I was the only passenger who actually saw a whale with his own eyes rather than through a camera lens. Of course all these years later who’s laughing now?
But no regerts*: if I had been busy clicking pictures I might have missed my one-on-one encounter with old Big Eye and that would have been a shame. Come to think of it, the whale that was watching me didn’t have a camera either, so there’s that.
Ultimately, if there is any regret at all stemming from this trip it’s that I missed The Big Blackout that knocked out power to most of Ontario, Quebec, and the Northeastern United States, which happened while we were obliviously gazing at humpbacked ballerinas. I suppose you can’t be everywhere.
Anyway, it’s all true, I swear.
(Oh, and fun fact: turns out whales aren’t even fish. They’re mammals!)