Late this afternoon, after we’d set up our chairs and towels on a high spot on the beach at Nauset, I spotted a white-hulled sailboat far out on the horizon. The rest of our gang rushed headlong towards the water to throw themselves into the breaking waves but I stayed put with my binoculars, thinking that a closer look would show me that another Edward Hopper painting had come to life for a moment.
That happens down here, Edward Hopper paintings coming to life, and it’s no surprise, since the Cape was one of his favorite subjects.
Today happens to be Hopper’s birthday---he’d have been a hundred and eighteen---and it would have been a nice coincidence if it was one of his sailboats hauling by.
But just as I got my sights trained on the boat something black and rounded broke the surface in the foreground. It rose with a splash and disappeared with another toss of white foam and I thought:
Whatever it was broke the water again. And disappeared. I swept the binoculars back and forth and found whatever it was just as it came up another time but I couldn’t hold it in my line of sight. Couldn’t be a whale, I decided, though, not this close in. I thought:
And I tucked the binoculars in their case and the case in our beach bag and sauntered down to the water to think about a swim.
A while later, having thought my way into the fifty-seven degree water up to my waist and having had a wave breaking over my shoulders make up my mind to dive all the way in for me, I was swimming along, contentedly numb to the cold, when I suddenly felt all alone in the water. I looked towards shore and saw lines of people standing along the berm at the high point of the beach, looking intently and pointing out to sea.
By this time I had forgotten my own earlier thought that I’d spotted a whale. I figured these people were watching a return of the seal. But then they seemed a little too rapt. Seals are fun, but they’ve become common enough that they shouldn’t enrapture a whole crowd like this. I thought:
You might recall that some Great Whites have been causing consternation around the Cape lately. Nauset Beach was closed one day last week because a shark swam by. The snack stand now sells t-shirts that say “Let’s Do Lunch” with a cartoon of a grinning shark leaning on the lettering.
But if there are sharks, I said to myself, sensibly, wouldn’t there be screaming? And the lifeguards would be acting concerned and waving for me to get out of the water, wouldn’t they?
I turned around to see what the crowd was looking at and took a wave smack in the mush.
After I came up for air and cleared my eyes and mouth of salt water, I trudged up the beach to our spot and dug the binoculars out of the beach bag.
I got them focused just in time to see a long white flipper lift itself out of the water, wave, slap the water, and disappear.
And I said:
“Captain! There be whales here!”
I’m a Star Trek geek before I’m a Melville geek.
But Uncle Merlin already had his binoculars out and was sharing them with the blonde and the young men Mannions.
Of course there are whales here. That’s why there are two companies up in Provincetown that make their money taking tourists out on their ships to watch whales.
But the whales have tended to stay farther out to sea. The two times we went on a whale watch, it was an hour and a half cruise out of Provincetown to their preferred feeding grounds on the Stellwagen Bank. Uncle Merlin, who has been spending summers on the Cape far longer than any of the rest of us and can reasonably claim to have grown up on Nauset Beach, can’t remember ever having seen whales along here before.
At first Uncle Merlin doubted these were humpbacks. He’s had more recent and more up close encounters with humpbacks on his Hawaiian vacations the last two years. In the mornings he would take his coffee down to the beach in front of his hotel and watch the humpbacks playing offshore and listen to them sing when he took a swim. These looked smaller than their Hawaiian cousins and their backs looked black. The Hawaiian humpbacks are more bluish gray, he said.
The black backs and the white undersides and their to his eyes relatively smallish size had him thinking, at the blonde’s suggestion, minkes.
But the light’s very different here and perspective plays tricks. What’s blue in the soft morning light off Maui can easily turn black in the late afternoon glare off Cape Cod and judging size at long distance without references points isn’t easy. There were a couple of boats out there, sport fishing boats, thirty and forty footers, that looked awful small to me, toy-sized even, next to those whales. Except I couldn’t be sure they were next to the whales and not much farther out. You’re better off making these calls based on behavior.
To start with, there’s the spouts.
We counted spouts from at least three whales blowing at near the same time. Minke whales’ spouts are too low to be seen at a distance. Humpbacks blow columns of air up to sixteen feet high. That’s what you’re seeing when a whale spouts, by the way, air. They’re not blowing water, they’re exhaling, but the heated air from their lungs condenses when it hits the cooler air outside. Whales expel up to ninety per cent of what’s in their lungs when they breathe out. Humans breathe out a mere fifteen. Other whales, whales larger than humpbacks, blue whales and finbacks, blow higher spouts, but humpbacks blow more often, three to five times in a row, the spouts coming ten to twenty seconds apart.
Like the ones we were watching.
None of those other whales breach as high as these did.
None lift their tales in that show-offy way.
None leap from the water and turn themselves over to smack the surface as if to see how big a splash they can make.
None raise their flippers as if waving hello and slap the waves, again as if to see how big a splash they can make. None of the others can do it because none of the others have flippers as large. Humpbacks’ flippers can be a third as long as their bodies.
And they look like they’re waving because they are waving. I’ve seen them do it, wave hello to the boat we were on when they first appeared, wave goodbye when they were about to swim off. They wave goodbye with their tails too.
Some people of a more scientific turn of mind might say that what looks like play is actually work, that the humpbacks are doing what they’re doing to scare up fish to eat, but those people wouldn’t include the cetologists aboard the boats we went whale watching on, who watched the whales themselves every day and were convinced the whales knew what the humans aboard the boats came out to see and put on a show to oblige.
And they wouldn’t include Herman Melville who called humpbacks “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales.”
I’m sure the whales off Nauset today knew they were being watched.
How they would know I don’t know. I don’t know how far a whale can see. They stuck around for another hour, at least, which I’d guess for a whale isn’t enough time for a quick snack, never mind a full meal, so I have to think the point of the show was the show.
Ok. I don’t have to think it. I like to think we were watching the cetacean equivalent of sidewalk performance art.
Better than a mime, I’ll tell you that.
While we were watching, three women in their early forties, at least two of them sisters, and a passel of their junior high school age daughters and the daughters’ friends, set up their beach chairs and spread out their towels nearby. Naturally they were curious about what everyone was looking at. We loaned them our binoculars.
We didn’t get them back for twenty minutes.
We didn’t mind though. They were having too much fun as they handed our binoculars back and forth and their excitement re-ignited ours.
There happened to be a television camera crew on the beach. They were there to do a story on the snack stand, I learned later. But they went down to the water to try to get some shots of the whales and a crowd formed around them, lots of people, mostly kids, looking to be on TV, and the daughters dashed off to join them.
One of the mothers chased after them, determined, she told us, to drag the camera crew back so they could interview Uncle Merlin. She’d enjoyed his stories about his encounters with humpbacks in Hawaii and thought that the fact that he’d been coming to Nauset all his life and this was the first time he’d ever seen whales here made him just the person the TV people needed to get a comment from for their story.
The other two mothers agreed but they couldn’t tear themselves away.
They told us they’d been thinking they’d go up to Provincetown and go on a whale watch sometime this vacation and now they didn’t have to.
“This is better,” one said. without lowering the binoculars. “Because it’s a surprise. On the boat it might be feel like you’re just going to see them in a zoo. This way, it’s like you bumped into them in the wild.”
Ground Swell by Edward Hopper from The Corcoran Gallery.
Yep. I knew those whale facts off the top of my head. But I double-checked them in this terrific book, Stellwagen Bank: A Guide to the Whales, Sea Birds, and Marine Life of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, by Nathalie Ward.
Humpbacks have been making a comeback the world over.
Humpback flippers are aerodynamic marvels and designers of wind turbine blades are taking notes.
Updated in celebration of Shark Week:
South Beach is an extension of the barrier beach that stretches out below Lighthouse Beach, and we stick to Lighthouse Beach when we’re in Chatham, so if the sharks had made their appearance in the same spot while we were on vacation we we wouldn’t have seen them or had to get out of the water just when we thought it was safe to get back in.