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Side Order: Off the coast of Boston, the whales put on a show

By Nancy Trejos
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 10, 2010; 11:40 AM

Cara Pekarcik, our Boston Harbor Cruises tour guide, had warned us. "It will get quite windy out there," she'd said over the loudspeaker.

That was an understatement. I'd decided to sit at the bow of the catamaran taking us almost 20 miles outside Boston Harbor to search for whales, figuring that's where I'd get the best view. But once the boat started picking up speed, I realized my mistake.

It was a warm day, but out on the water, the wind dominated. All I could think was: Why hadn't I worn socks?

I struggled to put the sweater and rain jacket I'd shed at the start of the cruise back on. My dangling earrings were pummeling my face, so I took them off and threw them into my purse. I finally gave up on the fantastic view and ducked inside the cabin. By then, all the best tables by the windows had been taken. Annoyed at myself, I slunk into one of the auditorium-style chairs in the center of the cabin.

But soon enough it became clear that no one would be spared from the harshness of the water. We were rocking back and forth and hopping over waves. It felt like going over gigantic speed bumps, and we could see water splashing on the deck. A few rows ahead of me, a teenager buried his head in his hands. A crew member was handing out barf bags. I could hear people gagging.

"Motion sickness," said a German girl sitting behind me as she popped a pill.

"Wake me when you see whales," replied her male friend.

I got up when I spotted a seat by a window but almost fell getting to it. It was worse than being in a plane during turbulence.

Finally, an hour and a half later, we slowed down. We had arrived at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, an 842-square-mile stretch of open water at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay.

Pekarcik, a marine biologist and teacher, started her lecture. The whales usually arrive from the Caribbean in late March to search for food, she said, and stay until October or November. They'll only stay for as long as there's food in the New England waters, and the waters are never manipulated. That is, marine biologists don't throw fish into the water for the whales.

Pekarcik said she would let us know where the whales were based on the hands of a clock. I was near 12 o'clock, sitting beside a window and near a door, so I could easily run out if a whale appeared.

Suddenly, Pekarcik's voice boomed over the loudspeaker. She had spotted something. We rushed out to the railing, but I didn't see anything. Neither did anybody around me.

"I promise you, I've seen something," Pekarcik assured us. "Patience is definitely a virtue when you're out here watching whales."

So we waited. And waited.

Then Pekarcik spotted another whale, this one at 10 o'clock. A humpback whale had come up for a couple of breaths, she told us. Again, I'd missed it. There was no telling when he would return, she said, dashing our hopes (though we were promised a credit for another cruise if we didn't see anything on this one).

"Does anyone see anything?" asked a middle-aged woman wearing a sweat shirt with the word Maine emblazoned across it. No one did.

Then we heard Pekarcik again. She had seen a whale breaching, or jumping out of the water. "That's a rare behavior," she said.

I still didn't see anything. Pekarcik spotted another one. Go to the right, she instructed. I rushed over, joined by many others, and there it was, finally: A humpback whale in the midst of a leap. "Another breaching behavior," she said, as the whale performed a flip, for all the world like a gymnast.

We stood transfixed for a while, hoping that the creature would show up again. And it did.

The boat kept turning to give us a better view as we watched a total of four whales flipping around in pairs, delivering a fantastic show. We'd all forgotten about the barf bags.

We watched for about an hour, sometimes seeing only the whales' blowhole, other times their tails. But the wind was so biting that many of us eventually gave up and went back inside.

I came upon Jordan and Joy Oliver, who had traveled from Birmingham, Ala., to Boston for their anniversary trip. Joy, sick, had her head buried in Jordan's shoulder. She was bemoaning not having seen the whales. Jordan, though trying to be sympathetic, was obviously pleased that his stomach had cooperated and that he had gotten to see them.

"It's everything people always talk about," he said. "You only see it on TV. This was worth the cold, And it was worth the ride."

"It's all about luck out here," Pekarcik told me later. During the morning cruise, she said, she and her passengers had seen just one whale, a quarter of a mile away. "You picked the right cruise today," she assured me.

I couldn't believe my luck.

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