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Beached, Whales

August 6, 2013

This is why you ask the locals for advice. Monday was spent almost entirely following the advice of people who have been there before, and it’s no wonder that the day worked out so well.

The plan was to head back into Massachusetts and spend most of the day in Gloucester before finish up with an evening in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We’ve been mostly hugging the East Coast this whole time, partly because that’s where a lot of the fun stuff is and partly because the Hamster and I both love the beach. Of course, that hasn’t worked out so well, but today we decided to take another crack at it. On the advice of friend and Boston native Amy, we hit up Good Harbor Beach in Gloucester, which made Amy three-for-three so far on this trip. The beach was exactly as she described it: soft sand met by water that was mostly calm, perfectly clear, and FREEZING!

Good Harbor Beach

We didn’t do much swimming because the water was so cold, but it was so clear and nice that we ended up just standing knee-deep for a while and watching the sand formations change under the tiny waves. The beach was more crowded than I have ever seen any beach, but everyone was pretty well behaved and everything was so pleasant that the crowds didn’t really detract. The only negative, besides the $20 parking fee, was that we weren’t able to spend more time there. That we blame squarely on the Massachusetts DOT, which shut down a lane of the highway so that they could mow the grass on the shoulder. I’d never seen lane closures for landscaping before, but we got delayed by half an hour on the way to the beach for about 200 yards worth of mowing of grass that nobody even cares about. We would’ve just stayed at the beach longer, but we had an appointment with some whales.

When I first started planning this trip I figured we would do some whale watching when we got to Maine. But the more research I did, the more signs pointed to Gloucester, which is consistently named one of the best places in the world for whale watching and whose whale watching companies all get good reviews. Then an old friend told me he went whale watching in Gloucester just a couple of weeks ago and had a great time, so Gloucester it would be. We went with Capt. Bill & Sons, which works hand in hand with a whale conservation organization and had a naturalist from the organization on the boat with us explaining all sorts of things about whales and telling us which whales we were seeing. I don’t just mean which types of whales we were seeing (one minke whale, one fin whale, and four humpbacks), but also the name of each individual whale. Humpbacks especially tend to be pretty loyal to their feeding grounds, and they each have a slightly different pattern of black and/or white splotches on the underside of their tales, so the naturalists know all the whales by sight. For example, this humpback is named Pinball because of the little black pinball-shaped spots on her otherwise white tail:

Pinball

We also saw a female humpback named Nile and two others, Geometry and Etch-A-Sketch, who were travelling together today. In fact, although we saw mostly dorsal fins and tails all afternoon, Geometry and Etch-A-Sketch gave us a little show when they simultaneously popped their ugly faces up.

Geometry and Etch-A-Sketch

Sam and I saw several humpback whales a couple of years ago when we were in Hawaii, but that was more accidental and so the sightings tended to be brief and somewhat distant. This time the whales were the goal, so we lingered and we got very close at times. Just as the naturalist was explaining that fin whales, at 60-80 feet long, are the second-largest creatures on earth (behind only blue whales, which grow up to 90 feet long), a fin whale showed itself just 20 yards or so from our boat:

Fin Whale

Watching the whales was lots of fun, especially because we saw so many tails. It is an established fact in our family that the tails are the coolest part because they look like upside down mustaches. But if you catch one at just the right moment, it actually looks like a right-side-up mustache.

Whale Mustache

Unfortunately, the whales were feeding much further off the coast than usual today, which meant much more time spent traveling to and from whale-ville than usual. Sam got bored and hungry, but I was perfectly happy to occupy the time by noticing the scenery, which included a distant view of Boston …

Boston

… a cute lighthouse …

East Something-or-Other Lighthouse

… and one weirdo on our boat who was making absolutely sure he didn’t get any sun today.

Where the Sun Don't Shine

When someone tells you to stick something where the sun don’t shine, just give it to this guy.

Anyway, the problem with the extra travel time was that our 3.5-hour cruise turned into a 5-hour cruise and we didn’t get back to the dock until 7, which meant we lost the rest of the day. We were originally planning to get to a particular state park in New Hampshire by around 6:30 and then grill dinner there and check out the park’s lighthouse, but it was after eight before we even got close. Sam was ravenous and it was getting dark, so the Seabrook Rest Area and Welcome Center off of I-95 near the MA/NH border became our new dinner spot.

To make up for the lack of ambience I decided to skip the hot dogs and burgers and I pulled out all the stops. A couple of steaks I had kept frozen in the bottom of the cooler since we left home matched up perfectly with some mushrooms, and voila: a special dinner to end a special day.

Steak with mushrooms  Medium rare

Look at those grill marks! That perfect degree of doneness! Not bad for a portable grill at a highway rest stop in the dark, eh?

Today could have gone horribly wrong before it even started. There was rain in the forecast for a day we would spend at the beach and on the water. Meanwhile we had debated whether to take the morning whale cruise or the afternoon one, and high winds caused them to cancel the morning cruise but the wind and the waves died down for us and we set sail in perfect weather. Even dinner ended up working out pretty well, all things considered. We’re a little behind schedule now, but I think we can make it up over the next couple of days.

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