Whale Watching for Birds – Part III

See Parts I and II here and here.

I don’t remember if I slipped, slid, jumped, or flew to the other side of the boat, but in an instant I was along the rail with my parents and Brian, watching in disbelief as a Finback Whale, 70 feet long, surfaced a second time barely 75 feet from the boat, its body gray and smooth and its dorsal fin small in comparison to its massive back. It spouted high into the air, and my heart jumped into my throat.

I couldn’t completely focus on the whale at first. My brother and grandmother were still below, and my head whipped back and forth from the lower deck to the stairs, as I worried aloud if they had seen the whale surface. Had they come all this way just to miss the whale because they were inside for three minutes? My stomach twisted, knowing that if I saw the whale and they didn’t it would all be ruined, I would feel the worst.

After what seemed like a gazillion years they finally wobbled up the steps, having heard the commotion from below. They took their spaces along the railing, and instantly they brightened and looked as awed as I felt; they had seen the Finback.

All of us standing at the rail now, we waited. The whale had dived, and over the loudspeaker a crewman told us that on average a feeding whale would stay under for five minutes before surfacing again. We cut the engines, waiting for the spout amidst the silence of the sea. We listened. The wind blew and the waves rolled past us, a tiny island of humans amidst a vast ocean, craning our necks and squinting our eyes for another look at the massive, yet graceful creature that reminded us all that we humans shared this world.

finback, whale, nature, maine

At exactly five minutes we heard the burst of air, just ahead of us, and the motors gunned to life as we drew abreast of the Finback. For as long as I live, I hope I can close my eyes and remember the whale a clearly as I do now. The whale broke the surface, the water falling away as more and more of its body rose into view. It seems to extend forever until its dorsal fin emerged, and then it disappeared again, falling back into the watery world below. The Finback had surfaced less than fifty feet from where I was standing.

Finback whales can reach 20 yards long and weigh up to 80 tons, making them seven or eight times heavier than an elephant, the heaviest land mammal. We had no idea how old our whale was, but they have human-level life spans of over 80 years.

We saw the whale one more time before it swam away from us, perhaps satiating its curiosity, perhaps seeking to satiate its endless appetite. Either way, with our engines off we heard the great shoot of its spout one more time, and then it was gone, disappearing into the mist. We turned around shortly after seeing the whale, and the rest of the trip was a blur. All that watching and waiting had exhausted me, and I spaced out. We saw two more juvenile gannets far off in the fog, another harbor seal, gulls following in our wake hoping for scraps tossed back by us passengers, but too soon we were pulling back into Portland’s harbor.

Unfortunately, Finback Whales are becoming more difficult to see. Though they range throughout this earth, they are endangered, plagued by centuries of hunting. They now face collisions with boats, entanglement in fishing line; in the future they must contend with the looming threat of climate change. Whales across the world are declining. That just makes me sad.

I’m not sure how others felt, but I’m pretty sure it was the strong sense of awe that the Northern Gannett and of course the Finback Whale had inspired. It is good to be reminded of the awesomeness of the earth’s creatures, breaking away from the streets and lights and rules of humanity and taking to the endless ocean to see the creatures that call this massive, unbroken landscape their home.

Okay, so I only saw two pelagic species. Given that I had the opportunity to see at least blank more, perhaps my haul wasn’t too impressive. But the beauty of beginning birding is that every single species is exciting, and I could revel over them as we drove back up to the mountains of Maine.

Kudos to my brother, best birthday present ever.


Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.