Over the weekend, Jeannette and I made a little escape to Cape Cod. I’ve been wanting to take this trip for many years, but our schedule rarely allows it. But thanks to Jeanne and Haley holding down the fort at the store, and the return of Zane to the hawkwatch, we felt we could make a run for it.
While Cape Cod is always great for birding, especially Race Point, from late winter into the middle of spring Race Point is even more famous for its whale-watching. From land. Of one of the rarest animals on the planet: the North Atlantic Right Whale.
While much to most of the world’s diminishing population arrives in Cape Cod Bay in February, the best time to see the whales is in late March and April of most years (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) when they frequent the waters immediately off of the very tip of Cape Cod. Here, a narrow and deep channel come in close proximity to land and its shallow shores, providing a rich area of upwelling and unrivaled proximity to rich feeding areas for whales and birds.
For some background reading on the phenomenon, you can start with this article from last spring from the NOAA Fisheries.
We arrived Friday afternoon and decided to get the lay of the land. I haven’t been to Race Point in over 20 years – sadly – and Jeannette had never been here, despite growing up a short ferry ride away. While we didn’t see any whales this afternoon in a brief visit, we got to know the viewing spot, a little of the strategy from another visiting couple, and got to spend some time with the birds. It’s really extraordinary how much birdlife is at this place!
100’s of Red-throated Loons, at least a dozen Iceland Gulls, Razorbills, a couple of newly-arrived Piping Plovers, and a local avian specialty – Pacific Loon! Arguably the best place in the Atlantic to see this – yes, you guess it- Pacific species, we found one fairly close to shore with a minimum amount of effort. This photo was the best that Jeannette can do, and while my phone-scoped photos are marginally better (or at least, more diagnostic, WordPress is being stupid with its photos uploading right now and I have given up!)
But with perfect afternoon light, Jeannette did much better with the “real” photography.
We were back early on Saturday morning, ready for the 1.5-2-mile slog over fairly soft sand. We would have been to the point much sooner were it not for all of the birds along the way once again. And the soft sand.
Our pace quickened markedly when we saw a North Atlantic Right Whale in the distance. Well, distant to us. It was clearly right off the point! We also spotted a Minke Whale moderately close to shore just as our walk began. We were getting excited now.
In position at the point by about 8:20 – after reassurances from the local expert – we began to wait. Flocks of Common Eiders were moving out of the bay, as were many of the dozens of Northern Gannets. A Northern Harrier did not even hesitate to head straight offshore, its bearings set for landfall in Nova Scotia.
And then there were the Razorbills! Singles, handfuls, small flocks; a steady stream heading out of Cape Cod Bay. I tallied 356 when not distracted by other things.
Like Right Whales. Close to shore. Like right there Right Whales. In the surf of the rips just off the point. First there was one who showed its fluke to announce its presence and departure. The next one (or the same that had circled around) was spotted off in the distance to the west, first by it’s v-shaped blow. It slowly but steadily came closer, feeding with shallow dives as it passed in front of us. Then, completely catching all of the photographers off-guard, a breach! Like right there. Right in front of us. It was absolutely breathtaking.
About when we realized it was almost noon and we forgot to pack snacks, two whales appeared in the rips nearby. We forgot about being hungry as we watched them feed for almost 45 minutes! We also forgot to continue to click Razorbills. But that’s OK.
I don’t know what to say. It was a moving experience. We were so close to something so special, so rare, and whose continued existence is so precarious. At least one tear escaped my ducts. It was amazing. I am so glad we finally did this.
The adrenaline and satisfaction, as well as the reflection of it all, powered us back to the car, passing another Glaucous Gull with more Iceland Gulls, another or the same Minke Whale, and just as we reached the parking lot, one more North Atlantic Right Whale fluke in the distance for good measure.
We did some casual birding and tourist-ing for the rest of the afternoon. The perfect weather of the day – light winds, fairly warm (we were most enthused about being overdressed!), gave way to some rain with an approaching cold front.
Said front made for a much cooler and windier morning on Sunday. We decided to forgo another trek to the point – with much reservation and consternation – and try our luck at Herring Cove after a leisurely breakfast. We were on vacation afterall, no matter how mini.
There weren’t nearly as many birds here as the day before, so we went back to Race Point. A series of blows from a North Atlantic Right Whale from the beach just beyond the parking lot made us ponder sucking it up and taking another walk, but the fact that we couldn’t see the massive animal at all because of the surf made us think twice. Again.
Our experience on Saturday – including the delightful weather – was something to savor and remember. We didn’t need a sand-blasted facial to sour our experience. So begrudgingly, we departed, working our way towards Providence for the night, to indulge in some Rhode Island birding and way too much divine Italian food. Seriously the spaghettoni alla carbonara at Ristorante Il Massimo might have been almost as memorable as the whales. Almost.
We’ll be back for the pasta. The question is, how much longer will we be able to see North Atlantic Right Whales? With less than 340 remaining on Earth, this is a trip we could no longer delay. And nor should you.