It was coming on evening out on Stellwagen Bank, the red ball of the sun descending through the clouds. It had done its job, though- burning off the lingering fog banks out over the water. We were surrounded by whales- Humpback Whales- spouting and diving all around our boat.
We were on the fly bridge of the Dolphin 9: my job was two-fold: to narrate the trip, describing the whales’ locations relative to the boat and their various behaviors, and to photograph, and perhaps identify individual whales. I should explain: each Humpback Whale is born uniquely and permanently marked- a pigment pattern of black and white that exists relatively unchanged from birth and throughout its life, like a human fingerprint. It is a mark of its individuality. This pattern is on the underside of the tail, which the whale often- but not always- raises on a dive; a process called fluking.
As the forty-foot whales charged past our boat, I ticked off (most of) their names. I represented a partnership of over 40 years between the Center for Coastal Studies and the Dolphin Fleet, in which each whale watch goes out with a biologist who records all the sightings of the trip, with an emphasis on Humpback Whales. In these years, these 43 years, over 2,000 individual Humpback Whales have been photographed, named, and cataloged: one of the largest- if not the largest- databases of Humpback Whales in the world.
And so I named them: Reflection and her 2017 calf, Perseid and her 2017 calf, Nile, Toboggan, Sprinkles, Pivot, Pele, Aerospace…
It is important to note that Humpback Whales do not travel in pods. Instead, they exist in loose and temporary groups that shift- individuals moving from group to group, sometimes swimming on their own. These assemblages have been referred to as “fluid fission/fusion groups”. The only exception to this “fluidity” is the cow/calf pair- and even there, by late August the calves, now eight or nine months old, often stray far from their mothers.
So what is going on here? A few weeks ago, on two separate occasions, on different days, I saw Nile and her three-year-old son Sprinkles in the same group. I have to believe that Nile recognizes Sprinkles as her offspring. Researchers simply say “the mechanism for kin recognition remains unknown”. If there are individual preferences- and of course there are- then these whales know each other. It seems intuitive that that recognition would involve their primary sense: hearing and therefore, vocalizations of some sort. Do these whales have names- real names- like the signature whistles of Bottlenose Dolphins? Of course we call them Salt, Nile, and Perseid…but what are their real names? How much truer, sweeter, and more sensible are their individualities expressed -I suppose - in guttural octaves, low groans that only they can hear.
A whale spouts right off the boat and the light wind sweeps a spray of fine droplets over the passengers.
Now the air beside us is suddenly freighted with the airborne body of a whale. It is so quick the eye cannot gather its totality: there is-oddly-a bright eye, pink-rimmed throat pleats, masses of barnacles, the long white blade of a flipper- and then a massive explosion of white water.
The ocean expresses itself through the creatures it has created, the creatures it supports. We look on with questions, but mostly with a sense of wonder.