The elusive giants off Cape Ann

A breaching humpback whale off Cape Ann, Mass. Seeing them is a hit-or-miss proposition when on a boat tour. Seven Seas Whale Watch
A breaching humpback whale off Cape Ann, Mass. Seeing them is a hit-or-miss proposition when on a boat tour. Seven Seas Whale Watch
Posted: August 25, 2014

Whales are curious creatures, and naturalist Michelle Barclay has seen them do some unusual things in the waters off Massachusetts.

One even quieted a crying baby, leaving a boat full of whale-watchers speechless.

"A passenger's baby was crying, and everyone was getting annoyed," she said. "Suddenly, a humpback came up to investigate and looked right at the mother and baby. The baby stopped crying, and everyone onboard said, 'Oh, my God.' "

There was complete silence after that. Then the whale disappeared. "It's a moment everyone will never forget," she said.

Another time, Barclay was on the highest part of the boat when she looked down and saw a whale "spyhopping," rising vertically from the water like a periscope.

"They do it a lot. This one time, it leaned in close enough so the next thing I saw was 10 hands going up on her head - everyone got to pet the whale."

Barclay said that rare encounter occurred during a whale watch off Cape Ann, about 37 miles north of Boston. She was on the boat as a naturalist for Seven Seas Whale Watch in Gloucester, Mass.

An expert on whales, Barclay tells passengers all about these fascinating creatures, from how they use bubbles to catch food, to how they sing - humpbacks are famous for songs composed of rumbles, clicks, and whistles.

She also helps figure out where the boat should go. After all, it's not like whales stay in one spot all day.

I figured whale-watch boats would have sonar equipment to detect these giant mammals. I was wrong. It turns out sonar interferes with their environment, so the boats skip it. Experts like Barclay, who has been on the job 25 years, simply keep their eyes peeled. They also chat with folks on other boats.

And they rely on passengers to yell and point like crazed sports fans when they see something. Anything. Then the captain knows which way to head.

The passengers who joined Barclay with me and my family were more than happy to help scout for whales - at least those who weren't seasick. A few youngsters found it hard to stomach the four-foot waves we had that day.

Barclay said it would take about an hour to get where we needed to be in the ocean. "This is not Sea World. It's more like a safari," she said as the harbor disappeared from view. "You could see anything at any time. Keep your eyes open. Enjoy the ride."

The boat bounced along as we were traveling at a pretty good clip. Inside my head, I was chanting: "Please let us a see a whale," hoping we wouldn't have to take them up on a free second trip if we didn't get lucky. Our schedule allowed for just one day to make it happen.

Soon, Barclay was explaining how some whales have teeth, but others don't need them. Instead, baleen whales have several hundred whiskery sheets of horn, called whalebone, hanging like a curtain from the roof of their mouths to catch food. They can take in 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of tiny fish and plankton a day.

Next thing I knew, she was shouting, "Starboard! Right side!" Sure enough, I looked and saw the shiny black back of a long whale swimming by. It was so breathtaking I felt I might cry.

But that quiet moment of awe passed quickly because the woman next to me immediately started shrieking and pointing. "Over there! Over there! I see! I see! Oh, wow! So big!"

Another whale had surfaced. This one turned out to be Hancock, a humpback known by the white, signaturelike mark on her fluke (named for John Hancock). She even breached once, a rare treat, leaping out of the water like an acrobat. Barclay said she weighed about 90,000 pounds and that her fluke was 18 feet wide.

Seeing whales was a highlight of our Cape Ann visit. I feel a kinship with these creatures, especially after learning they don't sleep (like me). They do rest, though - with one eye open.


Making the Most of Your Cape Ann Visit

Cape Ann is a seaside area of quaint clapboard houses and gently winding roads that offers everything from historic homes and art galleries to fine dining, boutiques, and great beaches. The thing I noticed is that though everyone is familiar with Cape Cod, this other cape is equally beautiful, and seems less crowded and less commercial.

Aside from Gloucester - the city that launched the doomed fishing boat in The Perfect Storm - Cape Ann includes

Essex, Rockport, and Manchester-by-the-Sea.

If you stay in Gloucester and want to see the ocean from your room, try the Atlantis Oceanfront Inn, which serves a delicious breakfast (the fish cakes are yummy) and has a heated pool. My teenager, who loves to sleep late, decided to get up at 5 a.m. one day to watch the sunrise. He wound up meeting a professional photographer who was out for the same purpose. (Then he came back and teased me and my husband for not getting up.)

Seven Seas Whale Watch is a must. The company has been in business for 30 years. The luckiest passengers get to see humpbacks breach clear out of the water. You might also get to see finbacks, which can be huge and can swim 30 m.p.h., among other creatures.

Love fresh oysters, tasty salads, great Margherita pizza, and succulent porchetta - with live music, to boot?

Short & Main has all that and more. It's owned by Nico Monday, godson of Alice Waters, an American pioneer in the movement to use only the freshest seasonal ingredients from local, sustainable sources. The menu changes daily, and lively chatter filled this fun, intimate restaurant when we visited.

Be sure to leave time for exploring Main Street, where there's everything from record stores to boutiques. Pop Gallery is a recent addition. It has hot-pink walls and an eclectic mix of items, such as clothes made by local artists, as well as jewelry and bath goods. The shop even has gum in cool little packages. One said, "I may be old, but

I got to see all the cool bands."

If you enjoy waterfront dining, try Latitude 43, with indoor and outdoor seating. Coastal cuisine is featured, plus award-winning sushi. The restaurant's lobster bisque is spicy and sweet. My husband is a big fan of the bouillabaisse (mussels, fish, fennel, fingerling potatoes, saffron, tomato stew, with grilled shrimp and scallops).

- Linda Tuccio-Koonz

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