Seeing a leviathan at close range brings a new meaning to 'big'

WHALE WATCHING

March 21, 1992|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Staff Writer

"A curiosity about the whale nation has been a part of me for as long as I can remember."

5) --Canadian author Farley Mowat, 1972.

Nothing beats an unfettered whale -- up close and in living blubber.

Watermen and boaters who have spied the one or more leviathans near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in recent days will confirm that. Television footage is nice, but it can't capture the power of something far bigger than an African elephant. An aquarium is too small to contain the large whales.

Acrobatic, 40-foot humpback whales feeding off Cape Cod, Mass., and elsewhere, looking like ballet dancers as big as Greyhound buses, must be seen live.

Although whales and other marine mammals rarely venture into the relatively shallow Chesapeake Bay, you can see the animals as they migrate or spend a part of the year in the Atlantic off Maryland and Virginia.

For people who can travel to New England, whale watching off Cape Cod is worth doing at least once in a lifetime.

A private company that began operating last year, Atlantic Seabirds, offers a number of all-day bird-watching and whale-watching excursions leaving from Ocean City. The boat chartered for the trips, the 90-foot-long O.C. Princess, travels as far as 70 miles offshore.

"We've had some type of whale on just about every trip," says Gene Scarpulla, an aquatic biologist for Baltimore. He started Atlantic Seabirds last year.

Similar trips have been run out of Ocean City during the past 15 years.

The next trip is scheduled for April 25, when fin whales measuring up to 80 feet, the second-largest creatures on Earth, are expected to be seen following the mackerel run north. Only blue whales are larger. Common and Risso's dolphins also are expected.

Bottlenosed dolphins and pilot whales also are seen on many trips. On a trip last August, boat passengers saw dozens of dolphins and about 125 pilot whales, which measure up to 23 feet and swim in large pods.

Hundreds of sea birds -- petrels, shearwaters and other species that spend most of their time at sea -- also were seen, as well as sea turtles.

Another trip is scheduled for June 6. Various large whales, including minke, sei and sperm whales, have been seen at that time of year. The sperm whale, the species of "Moby Dick" fame, sometimes can be encountered in groups of up to 40 animals near the submerged canyons off Maryland and Virginia.

In past years, the National Aquarium in Baltimore has organized whale-watching trips out of Ocean City and the Cape Cod area. Although no Ocean City trips are scheduled this year, the aquarium is offering a three-day excursion to Gloucester, Mass., between Sept. 17 and 20. Two half-day whale watches are included.

It also is offering a weeklong trip to Juneau, Alaska, Aug. 8-16. A coastal cruise will allow participants to see humpback whales, sea lions, bald eagles and other species.

Marine mammal experts usually are on board during the Atlantic Seabirds trips, as well as those sponsored by the Virginia Marine Science Museum in Virginia Beach, Va., and those out of the Cape Cod area. Not only do they help find and identify whales and other species, but also they are knowledgeable about dangers the animals face, including hunting, pollution and entrapment in fishing nets.

Prices can range from $16 per person for a four-hour trip out of Cape Cod to $75 for a 12-hour excursion out of Ocean City. If you go to New England with the National Aquarium, it costs as much as $425 a person for non-members, which includes lodging and transportation.

The boat trips also help scientists understand the distribution, behavior and other aspects of whales and other species.

"The boats provide a platform for marine mammal research," says Dr. James G. Mead, curator of marine mammals at the Smithsonian Institution. "It's a good combination."

On the Atlantic Seabirds trips, observers log the locations and numbers of each species. They also make notes about behavior.

In the Atlantic off Virginia and in the Gulf of Maine off Cape Cod, observers take photographs and video footage. Humpback whales have distinctive markings on their tails, dorsal fins and other body parts, enabling scientists to track the movements of individuals.

Many of the large whales have been hunted nearly to extinction. Most nations have stopped whaling, but a few, including Japan, stillpermit the killing of whales for their oil, teeth, baleen, bones, and other parts.

Since most whaling has subsided, scientists now are trying to follow the recovery of the animals and work for their protection.

Officials at the Virginia Marine Science Museum theorize that a small group of humpback whales that has been at the mouth of the Chesapeake and in the nearby Atlantic for the past three winters may be good news.

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