In the last few weeks whales have made many appearances up and down the beaches of the east end of Long Island. For many seeing a whale for the first time, it is a powerful experience. Viewing them never gets old.
The excitement while watching the airstream of water emerging from their spouts, their dark silhouette against the deep blue sea, and those amazing magical powerful tails is epic. These last few weeks the whales have been breaching right offshore as if showing off for those on the ocean beaches watching with cell phone cameras clicking. For us sixty-something folks who remember the “there she blows,” whale spotting sequence from the movie “Moby Dick,” such moments are most memorable.
In fact, Nancy Atlas’s show on Main Beach, East Hampton a few Tuesdays back was augmented by the appearance of whales. She boasted on Facebook the whales enjoyed when the band played reggae music. Personal friend and famed Montauk artist, photographer and drone master James Katsipis literally captured the majesty of a whale breaching off Montauk. In the last few weeks, almost every beach goer out east has a new whale tale to tell.
The connection of whales to the east end history is well presented at the Sag Harbor Whaling & Historical Museum.There displays illustrate a time when the processing of whales in Sag Harbor in the early 1800s made it one of the busiest seaports in the whole world. Thankfully, measures have been taken in the last forty years to curtail whale hunting. As of Jan. 2022, the worldwide whale population was estimated to be 10,000 to 25,000. Sadly that’s 10% of what it once was.
I have my own whale tale. It was at sea off Montauk with my dad and brothers on Pop’s boat. We were pursuing tuna, specifically the elusive “giant bluefin tuna,” that can weigh up to one thousand pounds. We were unsuccessful in that quest that day and although over the years we harvested many tunas off Montauk, we never landed a giant bluefin.
On this one specific windless warm late August day, perhaps 25 miles off Montauk, we were not catching anything. That happens with fishing. Then like in a National Geographic TV special the magic of the seas started to happen. We spotted groups of hammerhead sharks, sometimes in groups of six, patrolling the open waters. Then we observed a school of bonita tuna. They are too small to catch for eating, so we just watched in amazement as they were running from all those sharks.
Next out of nowhere an electric blue marlin launched itself into the air just one hundred yards off the boat. On that rare flat water day in the ocean, it was quite a spectacle.
Then the water began to shine. There was a large number of small schooling fish just swimming on the surface that were reflecting the sunlight on this rare still ocean day. Then I saw for the first time in my life a spout from a whale, then there were two, then four, then perhaps a dozen.
My dad stopped the twin diesel engines as the whales surrounded the boat. Now his boat was a 43-foot Egg Harbor fishing boat of which he was very proud. But as the whales got closer and closer the boat felt like a small dingy. We watched in amazement as the whales swam around the boat. The huge tails, waving at us. One came so close to the stern that you could distinctly see the eyelashes over the huge eye as the whale rolled passed the boat then under the boat. All of a sudden we felt very vulnerable and Pops put the boat in gear and started to gently maneuver the boat away from the feeding whales. Then slowly they faded into the horizon as we headed back to Montauk at full speed.
Later that night my dad admitted he was extremely concerned but stayed cool to keep us all from freaking out. He said at first, he was admiring the beauty and spectacle of seeing so many whales. Then he said he feared one might inadvertently hit and harm the boat. It was a fear we all sensed when that one whale with the eyelashes seemed to wink at us.