Thursday, June 21, 2018

'Barnacled angels': the whales of Stellwagen Bank – a photo essay

John Berger wrote of the ‘”narrow abyss of non-comprehension” between ourselves and other animals. That abyss is implicit out here, in the open ocean. Given what we have inflicted on these animals, and given the future threats they face, this protected zone seems like a modern Eden. Surrounded by jumping, feeding humpbacks, circled by minke and fin whales, with white-sided dolphins weaving in between, it seemed to me that merely bearing witness to this wonder was enough. They were in their moment, and so were we.

At the tip of Cape Cod, a sandy spit reaches out into the Atlantic, like an arm, towards a vast underwater plateau where humpbacks gather each summer to feed. This is the US marine sanctuary of Stellwagen Bank, where for the past three weeks I’ve been a guest on the Dolphin Fleet whalewatch boats, working out of Provincetown. I’ve been coming here for 18 years; it’s where I learned about whales. I’m inordinately fond of these animals and like me, they come back here too.

Every spring, the whales return from their mating grounds in the Caribbean where they’ve spent the winter, fasting: those clear blue waters hold no sustenance for a whale. The grey-green seas of the Cape are filled with food: the cycle of upwelling nutrition feeds phytoplankton, that feed zooplank-ton, that feed the sand-eels, that feed the whales. They’re unconcerned by the clouds of gulls that follow them, in the same cycle, after the same food – even stealing fish out of the whales’ mouths.

Like other rorqual whales, humpbacks’ throats expand in rubbery pleats reaching down to their navels. Opening their mouths wide, they strain their food using the strips of baleen – made of keratin, the same substance found in human fingernails – that hang from their upper jaws. Humpbacks co-operate in one of the most spectacular sights in the natural world. Blowing precisely calibrated streams of bubbles from their mouths, they swim round in circles, creating curtains of air around their prey. Then they rise, open-mouthed like giant crows. As they do so, they seem to alter the shape of the water itself... read/ see more: