Puffins and Seabirds and Whales (Oh My!)

As we plan an end of summer road trip up to New England, I am reminiscing about the many times I have been there before. I have experienced the area’s gorgeous hikes, cute towns, delicious food, serene lakes, historical landmarks, scenic roads… and yes, even puffins and whales!

One of our summer trips to the Bar Harbor area of Maine was a couples’ trip with Chris’s close friend and his now-wife. On one day of the trip our friends were tied up with other plans, so Chris and I decided to book a whale watching tour and couldn’t have been more pleased with our decision.

It was a bit windy on the bow!

It was a bit windy on the bow!

However, our day didn’t get off to the best start. We underestimated the commute from our rental house to the dock and hardly made it on time. Also, we were told that the temperature out on the water can be nearly thirty degrees cooler than the temperature on land, so even though it was July we knew we might get a chill- and I hadn’t brought a jacket on the trip. At first this left me panicked, but on a whim right before we left I grabbed a huge green parka that was hanging in one of the bedroom closets of our rental house. Lucky I did, because our late arrival meant that every single seat in the enclosed cabin was taken. We sat down on a bench right on the bow that had a great, unobstructed view of our direct forward movement. We were moving at a very quick clip and the wind was incredibly invigorating, especially for 8:30am. But the big green jacket kept me nice and warm until we got out into the Gulf of Maine near the Petit Manan Wildlife Preserve, where the puffins were soon surrounding our boat.

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Some were flying overhead, circling us. Others floated complacently on the water, bobbing with the tide. The last of them were perched on their teeny tiny feet atop the rocky shoreline. My little Nikon point-and-shoot did its best to capture them, but photos don’t do it justice. Here in Maine you will only see the Atlantic puffin, as the horned puffin and tufted puffin are only found near the Pacific Ocean. They are best known for their colorful beaks that actually shed after the breeding season. We learned quite a bit about puffins from the naturalist who provided a commentary as we viewed the puffins, including what they eat (mostly small fish), how they gather their food (by diving underwater for swims that last anywhere from ten to fifty seconds), and how long they live (usually around 20 years).

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I really enjoyed the puffins, but before I knew it, we were on our way to the whales! We quickly realized that being outside was paramount to good viewing of the whales as at the first sight of a whale’s blow other guests were scrambling out of the cabin and infiltrating our once nearly empty space.

The guide and naturalist walked us through the different surface maneuvers, many of which we were able to spot. First and foremost, we saw many “blows”, when a burst of air comes out of a whale’s blowhole and clears any nearby seawater, creating a geyser effect.

We also saw many peduncle arches, when the whale prepares for a deep descent by arching its body, causing an area of its back to pop out of the water.

These were normally followed by a fluke dive, where the whale lifts its tail (each half of which is called a fluke) completely out of the water.

Without a doubt, the best thing we saw was a breach- when a whale propels almost its entire body out of the water, possibly twisting or turning in the air and landing with a huge splash. We didn’t just see one though, the same whale put on a show for us and we saw over a dozen breaches! Some were incredibly high, and it seemed like the entire body was out of the water, while with others he seemed to stay a little closer to the water. The naturalist explained that while whales have been known to breach a few times in a row, it was a really special phenomenon to see it as many times as we did. Apparently, there are a few different explanations as to why whales breach at all. One of them is simply for play, while other theories include to rid the skin of parasites, attract mates, or communicate in some way with nearby whales.

He was breaching so much that our time was running short and we had to turn around and head back to the dock, leaving the whale behind still breaching. We managed to catch about three more breaches as the ship pulled away from the area.

We got back to Bar Harbor just in time for lunch, having had a wonderful morning with not only the whales and puffins but also the various seabirds and porpoises that the naturalist pointed out. Be sure to add this to your Maine itinerary! Check out http://www.barharborwhales.com before your next trip.

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