I’ve been landbound nearly my whole life. I’ve never been so far from a shore that I couldn’t see it, unless I was in the air. And after marrying into a family of seasick landlubbers, I’ve hesitated to test myself on the open water. But Long Island is a finger extended far into the ocean, and the ocean means more than beaches.
It means whales.
This past Sunday, some friends and I joined a whale-watching-and-research-survey cruise hosted by the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island. Midmorning, we chugged out of Montauk Harbor at the very tip of the south fork of the island, heading toward Block Island about 14 miles away. I kept thinking, “I don’t know anyone who’s seen this view of Montauk Lighthouse.” As the lighthouse, and the WWII radar tower, and the headlands of my island faded behind us, even the gulls abandoned their seats on the tour. Block Island loomed, and then shrank to a hovering mass on the horizon. The coast of Long Island disappeared.
It takes a long time to cross that distance over water. Hours, I think, though I wasn’t checking. The ocean quietly scintillated around us, the sun beat down, and the ocean-going birds must have been somewhere else. I almost thought the whales were too. But no. We idled a few minutes. Then the captain suddenly threw the engine into gear, the PA system hummed with the voices of the spotters, and we plowed toward distant cones of steam. Fin whales blowing. Three of them.
There are only so many pictures you can take of a 60-foot sleek grey back cutting the ripples, steaming exhalations through enormous nostrils, yards of a mostly unseen body sliding past, arching up, slicing the air with a blade of fin, sinking smoothly out of sight. It all looks the same on screen, but each instance feels different. Olympic divers would be envious: 70-odd tons, and not a hint of a splash. Fin whales are so powerful, they don’t have to lift their tails out of the water like other whales. They don’t need any extra boost of power as they dive. They whip their flukes unseen under the waves, and disappear. All they leave behind are wide slicks of flattened surface water, anomalously out of sync with the rest of the wind-riffled waves.
They’re so fast they escaped the first great age of whaling, only to become the most tempting prey in the ocean once our hunting technology caught up with them. Their populations are only recently starting to recover in the North Atlantic.
Our guide, Dr. Artie Koppelman, doled out bits of information in these snail-paced doses. He told us that the whales empty their lungs at speeds of hundreds of miles per hour. Fwoom. Being inside those giant lungs as they exhale would be like being flattened by a train, I thought. He told us that Fin whales are assymetrically colored: the right side of their face is white, contrasting with the rest of their grey-brown bodies. I didn’t catch sight of that feature, the whales surfaced, breathed, dove so fast. He told us we had seen a mother and a calf pair, and that the calf, at nearly six months old, would soon set off on its own. We watched the calf roll, lifting a fin out of the water, using the torque of its rotation to close its mouth against the 18,000 gallons of water it gulped to strain for food.
We only saw three of the giant Fin whales, though other tours have seen dozens of other whales and dolphins in the same patch of ocean. They’re big enough to find from miles away, and yet somehow the ocean isn’t big enough for them anymore. Once there were hundreds of thousands of Fins. And hundreds of thousands of Blues. And all the others, an ocean literally teeming with flocks of the most enormous creatures ever seen in the universe, and all the other things in the ocean that fed them. It teems much less now.
Eventually, we let the whales go on without us. The boat turned west, back toward the lighthouse that waited for us on Montauk’s reinforced cliffs. Sun-tired and listless, most of the passengers stopped watching the ocean, until someone spotted a dark fin cutting the water, and another blade of fin sinuously trailing it in languid figure-eights.
A real, live Hammerhead shark! In the ocean! The same ocean I swim in all summer! I wanted to put on a snorkel and trail my head in the water all the way back to port. The surface was quiet the rest of the trip, but there had to be more. I wanted to see them.
Naturalists develop the habit of visiting specific patches of earth often. Different times of year, times of day, different ways of being in the same place yield way more insight into the way other things live than a once-and-done pass through. I’ve seen more species in my patches throughout the years than I think I’d see if I chased every rare-bird sighting, or toured all most popular spots on the island.
I wish I could make a patch of the ocean, and as of this trip, I’m going to rate myself sea-worthy enough to take a stab at it. There’s no such thing as a whale-watching season pass, but I’m going to do my darndest to get out there as often as I can. It’s a big ocean, and there’s still a hell of a lot to see in it.