A Whale of a Story! – 2018

This summer has been amazing for whale viewing for my husband, Brian Doherty, and I on our 25 foot boat Blue Sky — despite the times we’ve gone out for hours and seen nothing. The fact that these massive, gentle creatures are right outside our inlets on Long Island is a natural wonder.

My personal love of whales started two falls ago when Brian, our Whale Whisperer friend Mary Ann Maier, and I were looking for whales in the distance off Long Beach. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw something BIG, and it was a humpback spy hopping feet from the boat. Silently and without a splash he had risen from the water taller than I am, and was looking right at us. If I wasn’t so dumbstruck, I could have literally reached out and touched him. It left me giddy, grinning, and unable to put words together for quite a while.

That was our first close encounter.

We do not crowd, stress, or bother them. We are respectful of the whales and dolphin and drive the boat very slowly and try to stay 500’ away as we follow the direction they’re going as they feed. Brian will go up ahead in the direction we think they might surface, turn off the engine, and wait making sure we are not in the direct path of where we think they will surface. Sometimes we are lucky and they surface closer than we expected and sometimes much further. It’s not all luck, we spend a lot of hours on the water going short distances, stopping to look around, scanning the horizon with binoculars, moving ahead a mile, stopping and looking around, and so on for hours. We’ve spent whole days seeing nothing.

That being said, the first whale we saw this season surfaced about fifty feet from the boat to take a breath and we nearly missed seeing him.  He was going in the same direction we were and if I hadn’t looked out the side window at that moment, we would have totally missed him.

That whale was definitely curious. After watching him for a while, stopping the boat at a distance, he made a beeline towards us. I was sitting on the bow as he came around the front of the boat under my feet, turned sideways, and curved around the side to take a look at us. All I got was a photo of his blowhole, he was that close. We also learned what whale breath smells like. To me, it’s a not unpleasant, sweet pickle relish and bait mix. It’s like nothing else and I love being close enough to breathe in their exhales, which go quite a distance in the wind. That was our second close encounter.

Earlier this summer, we spent time with a pair of whales who just swam along together off Jones Beach and gave us a view of their dorsal fins and great tail shots. Several weeks ago, we saw “my friends” again, swimming side by side so closely they were touching most of the time we saw them. One of this pair has an all black tail and the other a very white underside of his tail.  They were definitely feeding, swimming horizontally through schools of bunker on the surface. We started looking for schools of bunker, going ahead of the menhaden, and waiting with the engine off. We watched them pick up speed, then dive, and were blessed with a double lunge feed and, amazingly, we had our cameras ready. We were both speechless and laughing at the gift we had just been given. We also learned what a face full of whale breath feels like on your skin.

This past weekend, we watched a pod of about a hundred bottlenose dolphin for two hours.

They were around us in all directions feeding, playing and mating. There were young ones and pregnant ones jumping. Far off, we saw a blow and went in that direction.

While we were still maybe a quarter-mile away, this single humpback started slapping his tail on the water, something I had never seen. We watched him for maybe a half hour as he was feeding lazily. We went ahead and offshore of him, turned off the engine, and waited for him to pass by again.

What we got instead was an explosive breach as he rose out of the water, turned his body around in midair and crashed back into the water. We were recovering from seeing that and not getting a picture, when only a few seconds later he breached again much, much closer — and he was falling towards us. As I sat on the bow with my mouth open, Brian yelled for me to hold on as the whale was heading under the boat.

The best pictures of our lives (so far) were shot with him exploding out of the water and landing roughly twenty feet from us.

He rolled, crashed back into the water, and breached again heading away from us. He then lay on the surface and crashed his giant pectoral fins over and over again.

He wasn’t feeding; he chose to come straight at us, could he just have been messing with us? The sound of the breaches and fin slapping was thunderously loud and I’ll remember his visit forever. We thanked him and headed home because there was no way to top that third close encounter experience.

-Kathie

This post was adapted from a blog, read the original here

Kathie Rokita and Brian Doherty posted some incredible images from a close encounter with a Humpback Whale off Jones Beach on the Long Island Wildlife Photography page.

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