Rare fin whale breaches in Gulf of Maine

M/V Granite State naturalist is thrilled to see the fin whale

Beth Boucher

Aboard the M/V Granite State, we conduct whale watches out of Rye Harbor twice daily, everyday.  The day started as usual, but ended like no other. We had returned from our morning whale watch, disappointed that we were unsuccessful in finding whales. The wind had picked up speed during the trip and the sea conditions were less than perfect. With this in mind, after boarding passengers for our afternoon trip, the captain, Pete Reynolds, spoke over the microphone warning passengers that it was going to be a bumpy ride and that we would try our best to find whales. After all, there’s no guarantee when you work with wild animals. Our passengers seemed up for the challenge and we departed Rye, bound for Jeffrey’s Ledge.

Jeffrey’s Ledge is a whale feeding ground located in the Gulf of Maine, about 20 miles from Rye Harbor. It is 33 miles long and extends form Cape Ann, Mass. to Cape Elizabeth, Maine. We were headed towards a deep-water area above an eastern edge of Jeffrey’s Ledge, trying our luck again in hopes of finding whales. After a couple of hours of searching, another whale watch vessel called us to let us know that they had found a fin whale. Fin whales are the second largest animal in the world and can grow to be over 70 feet long.  We were only a few miles away and headed towards the reported activity. When we arrived, to our surprise, there were actually 5 different fin whales in the area, not just one.  There appeared to be two pairs and a single whale circling through the area. All the whales were surfacing frequently, but getting a look proved to be a difficult task given the sea conditions.
On most occasions, patience pays off. Since we had found whales, we were going to do our best to stay with them. After a short time, we were able to get nice looks at one of the whales that surfaced off our left side. Two distinct features identify fin whales: one is called a chevron, which is a silvery/white-shading pattern on the back; the other is the dorsal fin. The dorsal fin was very distinct and I knew I had seen this whale in the past. It surfaced for two breathes off our left side, started to roll on one side and disappeared under water. We were waiting for it to resurface, when out of nowhere, the whale flew out of the water like a dolphin. To our amazement and shock, this 70-foot whale was able to propel itself out of the water straight across the surface. I tried to reach for my camera but before I was able to get it out of the case, the fin whale came straight out of the water like a rocket. In another attempt to remove the lens cap to have my camera ready, it happened again. For a third time, the fin whale breached and crashed down on the surface. I was not able to capture it on film, and the whale took one more breath before diving. In general, breaching is a rare behavior, and it’s difficult for people to understand that. Trying to explain it with a fin whale was nearly impossible.  

The reason for this behavior in not known, but the fin whale is not a species that normally exhibits this behavior. If you are lucky enough to see a breach, on most occasions it’s with a humpback whale. Pete Reynolds, captain and owner, has been working on the M/V Granite State for 14 years and I have been a naturalist for the last 8 years.   We both have been on almost every trip and neither of us have ever seen a breach from a fin whale and it’s something I have dreamed of seeing since I started. As we headed back to Rye Harbor, expressing my shock to all the passengers was not difficult. I could not reiterate enough to all of them how lucky they were to witness such an event. I also was asking if anyone aboard had taken any photos, since I was unable to do so. One of our passengers did get photos and sent them to Pete a couple of days later. His name is Yuan Chiao Kuo and he was able to capture the breaching display as well as a great ID shot.  This fin whale was first seen in 2003 and returned to Jeffrey’s Ledge for yet another feeding season. Words cannot express how thankful I am to him for capturing such a rare event on film. Now, one month after that trip, I remember it like it was yesterday. I will probably never see a breach from another fin whale and to think we almost didn’t go out that afternoon! I have some of my best memories from working on the boat, and that trip will stand out forever. The fact that I was witness to the second largest animal in the world breaching is, in a way, indescribable. It really does prove that you never know what you’re going to see when spending time on the ocean.    

In general, the last few days leading up to that day had been a little bit slower for whale sightings. We were still finding great whales; the numbers were down, which can happen sometimes due to food distribution. However, two days prior, on August 1st, was another surprising day. We ended up seeing two North Atlantic right whales, during one of our trips. There are only about 325 of these whales left in the world, so seeing one is a great achievement. I have only seen a few right whales, and sometimes you can go many years without seeing one. I worked on a boat for four years before I saw one. They normally spend most of their time feeding in the Bay of Fundy on a type of zooplankton called copepods. When the feeding conditions are just right on Jeffrey‘s Ledge, on occasion you will see one. However, it’s such a rarity, that I never expect to actually see one. That day was particularly special because we saw a mother and her new calf that was born this past winter in Florida. The female was later identified as a whale that was first seen in 1986, and this was her fourth known calf. To know that they had both survived the long winter in Florida and made it all the way back to the Gulf of Maine was incredible to see. During a week where finding whales was difficult, we had two of the most memorable trips of the season, and of my career.

All photos: Yuan Chiao Kuo

Editor's note: Beth Boucher is naturalist aboard the M/V Granite State.

September, 2007