©Bert Gildart: Whales make a sound that is so unique that when you hear it up close and personal, you don’t need any one to tell you what it is.
That’s the way it was for us at any rate when we heard a whale expelling an immense amount of air through its blowhole. Immediately, we knew the source, for there was absolutely nothing else that makes a similar sound, particularly when you are riding an ocean wave.
We heard the sound yesterday while on Captain Mark’s Whale-watch Tour out of Pleasant Bay, Nova Scotia, and, just as Captain Mark Timmons had guaranteed, we found pilot whales.
Because the species exhibits such curiosity, we not only heard these large mammals but saw them over and over, and generally from a distance of about 100 feet, for pilot whales are an extraordinarily curious animal, made so in part by a powerful intellect. What’s more, we not only saw them singly, but we saw them in pods that varied at times from 4 to 12.
The sighting fulfills a long-time ambition for both Janie and me.
Most recently, in fact, we had studied the ocean waters from overlooks here in Cape Breton Highlands National Park, and though we thought we saw whales, they were certainly distant sightings.Whales, of course, are the largest of all mammalian species with the blue whale weighing the most at 150 tons.
That species, however, is a whale of the Pacific, and is not one of the dozen or more cetaceans (the biological order of whales) sometimes found in Nova Scotia’s Pleasant Bay. However, next in size is the sperm whale, and though it weighs less than half that of the blue, it still tops the scales at 60 tons, and sometimes, whale watchers see it in the same waters that Captain Mark’s Double Ook Up was now plying.
But Mark had cautioned us that the whales we were most likely to see would include the minke, humpback, pilot and finback whales. In fact, Mark was even more specific, saying that in late September the list could be refined yet further, for several of the summer species had departed for warmer climes, leaving only the humpback and pilot whale as the possible candidates for sightings.
He added yet another caveat, saying that although his clients often saw humpback whales that at the moment these whales were waiting for an appropriate food source and that the source was much different from that of the pilot whale. Humpback whales he said are a baleen whale, and this group filters its food from masses of copepods, krill and shrimp. Toothed whales, however, such as the pilot whale, feed singly on squid, fish and sometimes even small seals—and that such foods were now available in Pleasant Bay.
That meant, then, that only one species remained in Pleasant Bay, possibly limiting our chances to see whales. Sensing concern, Captain Mark assured us that pilot whales were still around, and that his tours were still producing satisfied customers, and that before our tour was over that he guaranteed we’d be among them.
We never once doubted him, and the day proved him correct.
Mark sets forth between early May and mid October. In fact, Pleasant Bay may be one of the best locations in the Maritimes for sighting whales, and the situation is one on which Timmons has created his ecologically oriented “Captain Mark’s Whale Watch Tours.”
If you want, you can insert the word guaranteed, as this good captain really does guarantees that you’ll see whales—“or your money back.”
Appropriately, Mark’s business is located within a stone’s throw of the Whale Interpretive Center, a museum dedicated to the interpretation of Cetaceans. Here, is an ideal place to learn about the rise of whales over the course of the past 58 million years. Here, you can also learn about their fall during the past 200 years.
The tragic fall of these highly social and family oriented mammals resulted from the uncontrolled hunting that began in the 1850s, and it has taken more then a century to restore some of the populations from near extinction.
Today, scientists have learned much about them—and are now learning more. All agree whales are extremely intelligent creatures that care for their young and have deep emotions. In fact, Captain Mark told me that he’d recently seen a form of grief exhibited by pilot whales.
According to Mark, several years ago he was conducting a tour when he discovered a female pilot whale whose young had perished. “She was so grief struck over the death of its young,” said Mark, “that she kept lifting it back to the water’s surface. She wasn’t trying to restore her young to life; rather I believe she was simply reluctant to let it go from out of her life.”
According to Captain Mark, pilot whales got their name as they would “pilot” commercial fishermen to fish. Here, when pilot whales find the schools, they surround them and then begin pounding the schools with fins and tails. The stunned or dead fish then become food not only for the whales but for other species such as the herring gulls.
Feeding and social orders aside, pilot whales are obviously curious creatures, and I knew that individuals will sometimes power themselves into the air with mighty thrusts of their tails in a maneuver biologist refer to as “Spy hopping.” In more laymen’s terms, these whales are simply curious, trying to see what manner of creature might be gazing at them in wonder. Spy hopping elevates them so they can see the world over their watery home.
All photographers, of course, hope whales will spy hop in their presence, but nothing like that happened during our two-hour cruise. However, pods did swim close to our boat, but photographing them as the boat tittered left and right, up and down, was an extraordinary challenge.
To further complicate matters, whales would pop out of the water in unpredictable locations, and then submerge before I could swing—much less focus—my camera. To compensate, I shot over 200 digital images, and then later deleted about 180. Janie did about the same.
Nevertheless, for whale-watching enthusiasts—and photographers—the tour provides sightings that were indeed up-close and personal.
It was a marvelous opportunity to learn more about the animal that has the largest brain of any living species, and begin to understand how they use it. It also made me realize that with the pollution of oceans that our fate may be closely linked to the welfare of whales!
Speaking for Janie and me, we intend to become more dedicated whale watchers, hoping we will be celebrating the continued prosperity of these closely related intellectual cousins.