Looking for Leviathan

Many years ago I had the privilege of co-leading a week-long whale watching workshop aboard a schooner in Maine for the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences. It was an experience I will never forget (for many reasons). So, while traveling up the coast of Maine I was looking for opportunities to see whales again. There is a well-known whale watch company in Bar Harbor that cruises many miles offshore in a large, fast catamaran. They have a good success record, but it looked like it might be so crowded that it would not be my cup of tea.

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When I found out about a smaller company out of Eastport, Maine, that took smaller groups out for whale watching, I jumped at the chance. Coastal towns like Lubec and Eastport are a far cry from the hustle and bustle of touristy Bar Harbor. This is what Maine is really all about. It was a dreary morning and when I went in to pay for the trip I was very pleased to see the company name, Eastport Windjammers. Looking across the street to the dock I could see a beautiful old wooden schooner, the Ada C. Lore. Originally built in 1923, this 118 foot beauty was used to dredge oysters under sail. She is one of only three remaining historic Chesapeake Bay oyster schooners in the United States.
The weather had reduced the number of willing passengers to only 10, barely enough to make a go of the trip. Once the captain and crew arrived we were off.

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There were a number of birds we passed as we cruised out toward the bay – Bonaparte’s Gulls, Black Guillemots, and a couple of Razorbills. As we neared the shore of an island, the Bald Eagles began to appear. First only a couple, then many, all flying and calling in the gray sky. Every now and then, an Osprey would swoop down and harass one of the larger birds. One of the deckhands said that toward the end of August eagle numbers would jump dramatically as schools of fish moved into the bay. That is also the time when the most whales are nearshore, including the Humpbacks. The deckhand referred to Humpbacks as the rock star whales because of their tendency to put on quite a show for visitors.

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Within a few minutes we encountered our first Minke Whale. The Minke (pronounced “mink-ee”) Whale, is a small, streamlined baleen whale found in most of the world’s oceans. They can reach lengths up to 33 feet and weigh up to 10 tons. Minke Whales are one of the most commonly seen baleen whales along the Maine coast. This area is an important feeding ground for whales, who go there to take advantage of the rich amounts of schooling fish, plankton and krill during the warmer months.

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The dorsal fin of the Minke is tall and curved, and is located two-thirds of the way back on the body. That is usually about all you get to see when a Minke breaks the surface. They have a small blow, and usually do not extend the flipper, tail or much of their body above the surface, and rarely breach like Humpbacks.

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Soon there were several Mlinkes around the ship. And they were close. One whale in particular was swimming all around our vessel. It was distinctive in that it was missing most of its dorsal fin. The deckhand called it Stumpy and it was well-known to this ships’ crew.

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On one close approach, Stumpy raised up out of the water a little more than usual. My photo shows a series of whitish marks on Stumpy’s body at the waterline. I initially thought they were some sort of ectoparasite but looking online it appears as though these are scars on the whales’ skin left by feeding Lampreys. Lampreys feed by attaching themselves to the skin of fish and marine mammals, rasping through the skin and sucking out blood. If these are indeed Lamprey feeding scars, Stumpy has apparently fed quite a few.

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After spending over an hour with the whales, we headed back to port. Along the way we were treated to a large group of seals laying out on some exposed rock. There are both Gray and Harbor Seals in this area, but most of these appeared to be the latter.

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Harbor Seals grow to about 5-6 feet in length, and weigh between 200-300 pounds. They can be quite variable in color ranging from light brown to dark gray, with light undersides. They also may have scattered light and dark spots.

A Harbor Seal in the water looks a bit like a dog, with its round head, long whiskers and large eyes peeking above the water surface. This is the species we most often see on the North Carolina coast. The short cruise brought back a lot of good memories and increased my desire to spend more time in the future looking for marine mammals.

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