ANNAPOLIS -- A 35-foot whale feasted on fish and Chesapeake Bay hospitality yesterday as it cruised the waters near the Bay Bridge.
Watermen and pleasure boaters gathered and watched until dark as the jet black whale swam in waters ranging from 40 to 60 feet deep near the bridge.
The mammal apparently was first spotted about 10 a.m. near the mouth of the Potomac River, but it wasn't reported until three hours later when it was sighted by a state Department of Natural Resources buoy tender, the Widener, according to Robert Gould, a department spokesman.
"He's feeding, and you can see that he's not lost or anything," said Natural Resources Police Cpl. Wayne Jones, who saw the whale from a police boat. "He seems to be doing pretty well."
Scientists were baffled as to what prompted the whale's appearance.
"I imagine he just started chasing some fish up the bay, found a good food supply and kept going," said Dr. Cindy Driscoll, a veterinarian for the Department of Natural Resources.
The scientists yesterday could not identify the species, but they said it was not the first whale to enter the bay. Most whales, they said, that have come into the bay have ventured in during the warmer summer months.
Whatever its motives, the whale picked a picture-perfect day to make its appearance -- and then put on quite a show in calm, sun-drenched waters.
Watermen cheered like teen-agers at each appearance of its dorsal fin, and pleasure boaters exchanged high-fives when the whale chose to surface within 20 or 30 yards of them.
"It was really beautiful," said Eddie Cantler, a 31-year-old waterman from St. Margarets, who tracked the whale from his oyster boat, the Dar/Lis, for two hours yesterday.
Mr. Cantler said he was just finishing a day of oyster tonging about 3:30 p.m. when he saw a small crowd of boats clustered around the Bay Bridge supports.
Initially he thought someone had been hurt, so he sailed by to see if he could help. When he heard it was a whale, he stayed anyway -- and watched as it repeatedly brought its dorsal fin up and spouted water from its blow hole every two or three minutes.
Like a handful of other watermen, he stayed until sunset brought an end to the show.
"We watched it feed on fish, and could see the fish jump out of the water ahead of it, as it approached. Then you could see the fish in the whale's mouth," Mr. Cantler said. "It was something."
Early yesterday evening, the whale was last seen about one mile south of the Bay Bridge, near the mouth of the Severn River.
David Schofield, a marine mammalogist at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, said that whales usually stay further out in the ocean, but that sometimes they stray closer to shore while following a school of fish.
Dr. Driscoll, who is state coordinator for the national Marine Mammal Stranding Network, a group set up to track and assist stranded whales, said the last whale sighted in the bay was spotted in Rock Hall last September. It eventually worked its way down to the lower bay and disappeared, she said.