My husband, who grew up here on Long Island, enjoying voyages on the small wooden boat his grandfather built, turned to me two weeks ago and said, “I want us to get out on the water more often this summer”. A few minutes and some clicks later on his computer, he declared, “I’m booking us on a whale watch trip for July 24.”
Perfect, I thought, visions filling my head of educational sidenotes about cetaceans (whales and dolphins) acompanied by a glorious photograph of a breaching humpback.
Instead, we all got a lesson in patience, ecology, and the elusiveness of the natural world.
My kids have seen beluga whales at Mystic Seaport Aquarium…
…and orcas at Seaworld…
…but this was to be the first time they had seen whales in their natural habitat.
When I was in 5th grade, we went on a whale watch trip and saw quite a few whales. I was hoping my kids would get the same opportunity.
On the way out, the guide (a marine biologist) caught a glimpse of a pod of dolphins. We headed towards them to get a better look and the pod vanished.
No matter. We were all confident that we would have many exciting spottings on the trip.
Well, we saw plenty of sea birds. And we saw a sad amount of mylar balloons. The guide explained that balloons released as far away as Chicago have been known to wind up in the Atlantic. These balloons can injure and even kill the marine life and he asked us to spread the word, “Please do not release helium balloons.”
The most exciting sighting came from my kids, who called, “Shark” when they noticed two shark fins (most likely blue sharks) sailing alongside the ship.
What we did learn:
- There are two basic classes of extant cetaceans: toothed whales (Odontoceti) and balleen whales (Mysticeti)
- Balleen is made of keratin, the same material as our hair and nails (actually, the kids already knew this…but it really reinforced it to touch a piece of balleen while on a whale watch ship out in the middle of the ocean)
- Whale oil once powered the beacon of the lighthouse
- Starboard = Right, Port = Left, Bow = Front, Stern = Back
- Mommy’s stomach is not quite as cast-iron as it used to be
- People release a lot of helium balloons and way too many of them end up in the ocean
- Some species of whale are native to New York waters whereas others are just passing through
- Nature does not always cooperate
- Many species of whale are endangered
At the docks, my daughter was able to practice reading the names of the ships…a fun way to sneak in a little literacy during our field trip.
We also showed the kids where we were on the map and they were very excited to be on the Atlantic Ocean (we are usually on the Long Island Sound). On the way back, we stopped at one of the public beaches so the kids could see how sandy it is (as opposed to the rocky North Shore beaches near us).
At the beach, we also saw driftwood and seabird webbed footprints.
My husband does a great job of instilling the kids with a positive attitude and emphasizing the journey over the destination. He told them that we were taking a “water coaster” on a quest–but that our quest might not meet with success. As a result, they had a wonderful time on our trip and it was a great beginning to our water-friendly week.