I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as a whale: ’a plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devour them all at a mouthful.
William Shakespeare, Pericles Act II Scene 1
Cape Cod, 1998.
My first trip to the east coast of the USA. After a heady and humid
week in New York City, a few days in Boston and a night visiting
Stephen in the New Hampshire forest, I’m now unwinding with a
week in Provincetown, the insanely beautiful and friendly little
resort flung out into the Atlantic on the very tip of Cape Cod.
The Cape unfurls from the Massachusetts coast in the most bizarre way.
On a small scale map, it resembles an arm, thrust out from the
shoulder of the mainland and bent upwards at the elbow, as if showing
off its muscles. Look closer, though, at the fist of this arm, and it
appears to crook round again and again in an ever diminishing spiral,
like one of those endlessly repeating figures in fractal geometry.
Small wonder, then, that as you follow Route 6 up the Cape you
gradually lose all bearings, until you arrive in Provincetown without
the faintest idea of which way you’re facing or in which
direction to try and spot the mainland.
The sense of being somewhere other in a special place, divorced
from the real world is magnified when you find yourself sitting
at sundown on the sand dunes at Race Point, where the waters of the
Cape meet the colder Atlantic in a boiling torrent of criss-crossing
waves. You’re watching the sun set over the ocean, turning the
water a fiery golden red right out to the horizon, and suddenly
remember something extraordinary you’re on the
Geography apart, what makes Provincetown unique is its community, or
rather the way its disparate communities live, work and get along
together. Long regarded as a haven for artists and bohemians of all
persuasions, these days it thrives on gay tourism; but it is also home
to a sizeable population of Portuguese fishermen and their families,
who seem to rub along with their more flamboyant neighbours and the
huge influx of summer visitors just fine. The whole world should come
here just to learn how to live together.
A couple of days into my stay, I decide to take a break from the beaches, cafés, bookshops and tea dances, and take a trip out on the ocean. There are large marine feeding grounds off the northern tip of the Cape, notably the Stellwagen Bank, where schools of humpback and minke whales congregate on the annual round trip between their summer home and their breeding waters in the warmer south. Whale watching tours are popular here, but the information leaflet warns there is no guarantee that whales will be sighted on any given trip; I imagine that any we do spot will be some distance from the boat. I take an extra film for the camera, though, just in case.
The trip out to Stellwagen takes an hour or more. It’s
punctuated by announcements from our guide, preparing us for what we
can expect to see; I pass the time in between by fantasising about
several of my fellow passengers. It starts to get cold on deck, and
I’m just about to go below for a hot drink, figuring there must
be at least another ten minutes before we arrive, when someone shouts,
Everyone crowds to the port rail. Several hundred yards away,
there’s a black mound in the water. At first I think it’s
impossible to tell from this distance what it is; but then I see a
white smudge in the air above it, dissipating rapidly in the stiff
breeze, and I realise it is indeed a whale, venting spray through its
The boat turns toward the animal; and then suddenly there’s another, nearer this time. They’re minkes, surface feeding and playing in the choppy water. A few more join them to investigate this smelly, noisy newcomer in their midst; and then we spot our first humpback.
Of all the species of whale in our oceans, the humpback is somehow the
one that seems to inspire the most awe. The size, grace and beauty of
these extraordinary mammals is almost overwhelming. We look for rings
of bubbles forming on the surface a sign that a whale is
circling below, exhaling a column of air that will trap plankton and
concentrate the microscopic organisms into a rich, salty soup. When
the whale breaches the surface, it gulps down mouthfuls of this
plankton-rich brine, straining it through the curtains of whalebone
the baleen that hang from its upper jaw, and which
distinguish humpbacks and others from toothed whales (such as
dolphins), which can eat fish, molluscs and small mammals.
Having fed, the humpback nosedives beneath the surface. The sleek body takes an age to follow, arching out of the water, before the tail fluke unmistakable from a hundred eco-friendly poster prints appears. The fluke rises to the horizontal, then plunges back into the water with a slap that sends up a wall of spray, scattering the circling sea birds, only for them instantly to return and pick greedily through the flotsam.
There are heavy, slate-coloured clouds on the horizon, and the wind is
picking up. A thunderstorm is approaching, but the rain holds off for
now. Suddenly, a humpback breaches, its body full out of the water.
For a second, we see this animal in all its devastating grace and
scale, stretched full length in the air, before it falls back into the
ocean with a splash like a depth charge going off.
Every observer on the boat is stunned into silence, breath held in the throat. A split second later, two great streaks of lightning pierce the black clouds on the horizon, and everyone jolts back into life, like Frankenstein’s creature reanimated by the electrical storm. Someone gasps, "Wowww!", and we all laugh. Sometimes, the most complex of emotions are the simplest to express.
By now, the humpbacks are everywhere. A mother and calf swim
alongside us for a while, before the calf decides it wants to play and
dives under our keel. We rush to the opposite rail to watch it
surface; the mother follows, gently but firmly guiding her offspring
I’m in that strange hyperemotional state where you don’t know whether to laugh or cry, so you end up doing both at once. The guide sounds as intoxicated with it all as I am; she’d started off by alerting us to every sighting, calling "There’s one at ten o’clock" or whatever, but now there are so many that she ends up shouting, "Four o’clock nine o’clock twelve o’clock oh my God!", before dissolving in a fit of delighted giggles. After that, she doesn’t bother pointing them out any more there’s no need.
I’ve noticed that the constant spray is fogging my glasses and
camera lens; when I wipe it off, it’s sticky. The guide smiles.
"The whale’s blowhole is actually a nostril", she says.
"It’s lined with mucous tissue. So the sticky residue
you’ve noticed is, well, ..." Several of us get it at the same
time. There’s a chorus of "Yeeeugh!"
Eventually, after an hour sharing the ocean with these magnificent
creatures, it’s time to head home. On the way, I ask the guide
about her obvious excitement at seeing so many humpbacks. She tells
me that this is her first day back on the job after being away at
college studying marine biology; the previous season, she hadn’t
seen as many humpbacks in a week as we’ve sighted on this one
afternoon. I ask her whether the daily intrusion of tour boats like
ours, belching diesel exhaust into the water, has any adverse effect
on the animals, and her face falls. "I think it’s bound to",
she says. "I just pray that we keep the balance right. By showing
the whales to people, we increase awareness of how beautiful and
intelligent they are, and hopefully encourage more people to support
anti-whaling programmes. But yes, sometimes it makes me uneasy."
It’s sunset again as we pass the lighthouse at Race Point, and
head back into the little harbour at Provincetown. This has been a
day to remember. Suddenly, I laugh out loud, realising that what I
will most treasure from this holiday will be the memory of clinging to
the rail of a boat in a thunderstorm, 12 miles out into the Atlantic,
wiping whale snot off my glasses.
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