In Plymouth, a summer like no other as whales and hordes of watchers converge
At this moment, from the blue berry, emerges a mouth. A giant mouth, 10 feet wide, followed by a mammoth body, glistening like wet stone. A humpback whale improbably hurtles through the air and slams into a shallower harbor than the leviathan is long.
“Wow,” said Paula Burke. “For the 306th time this week and still, ‘whoa.’ ”
She’s sitting on the porch of a weather-worn beach house on Manomet Point Road. In the 15 years that she and her sisters – Penny Webster and Pat Boynton – have rented the property, there has never been a scene quite like this. Sealed? Sure. But who cares about the seals anymore, Boynton said.
It’s whale summer in Plymouth. Three whales, in particular, all between 1 and 4 years old. They began surfacing in the water near Manomet Point in mid-July and have been a daily fixture ever since, reminiscent of the early Mayflower days when Pilgrims described whales playing near the stern as the ship was sailing in the bay.
The trio – yet to be named or gendered, but whose personalities are on par with pre-teens – have no idea they’ve chosen the disputed Cape Town real estate as their resident feeding ground, putting the harbor master in alert, threatening the safety of boaters in the area, and sparking disputes over parking and beach access.
They are really fat, a bit naive and very, very hungry.
“They recently weaned from their mother and are really in their first year or two of fending for themselves. We have regularly seen whales like this along the Cape and Maine coast. But what makes it a problem is the overlap with people,” said Jooke Robbins, director of the humpback whale studies program at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.
The town’s harbor master, a jolly 42-year-old named Chad Hunter, grew up in Plymouth as the son of a whale-watching boat captain. The arrival of the humpback whales once again awakened a childlike wonder in him. But they also made his job much more difficult.
“I had probably spent hundreds of hours on whale-watching boats by the time I was 13,” said Hunter, who has boats that patrol the water every day to ward off boaters. whales. “And yet, it’s very unique. I’ve never seen so much whale activity so close to shore before. It’s both wonderful and stressful.
His and Robbins’ worst fears came true in late July when one of the humpback whales rushed out of the water and landed right on the bow of a boat carrying six people a few dozen meters from the shore. shore. A video posted to TikTok by someone on board – but thankfully aft – garnered more than 2.4 million views and sparked a media storm that drew more cameras and more boats to the area.
No one was injured in this episode, but looking out to sea from Manomet Point, similar collisions seem imminent.
“I really have concerns for human safety,” Regina Asmutis-Silvia of Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a charity group with an outpost in Plymouth, told a news conference last week.
The day before, a whale had repeatedly pierced next to a moored and unoccupied Boston whaler. An onlooker even called the harbor master’s office to report that the creature had swallowed the white mooring buoy. (It wasn’t.) The town’s Facebook group has become a cache of humpback whale updates, filled with photos of the whales emerging from the water near kayaks, paddleboards and paddleboards. fishing boats. The comments oscillate between admiration and annoyance both among boaters and photographers.
“I’m so sick of the whales,” one person wrote.
The menhaden, or pogie, attracts both anglers and whales to the stretch of water between White Horse Beach and Manomet Point. The small, silvery baitfish is high in protein and coveted by humpback whales, which have remarkably small throats the size of a volleyball. Fishermen, meanwhile, target another pogie predator: the striped bass. In the space of 10 minutes at noon on Friday, seven boats – and a kayak – all within 100 yards of each other were rolling in or laying down with a big catch.
The abundance of ocean life here is a rare glimmer of good news in an ecosystem that has been threatened by years of ocean warming and acidification.
But in the background of many whale portraits posted online is a windowless box of a building surrounded by white silos. There, at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, 1 million gallons of radioactive sewage languish in a pool a few hundred yards from the ocean.
Closed in 2019, the plant once generated millions of dollars in tax revenue, hundreds of local jobs and, of course, lots of nuclear waste. Holtec, the company tasked with dismantling the site, has proposed dumping the sewage into Cape Cod Bay, home to menhaden, striped bass, lobster and, for now, this trio of humpback whales.
A public meeting last week on the issue turned into shouting and name-calling. But Holtec declined to rule out the idea, saying concerns about potential dangers to public health and the marine environment are overblown.
“The irony of these whales arriving the same week as this meeting does not escape us,” said Connie Melahoures, a longtime resident of Plymouth.
She leaned against a large rock at the top of Manomet Point and looked out at a panoramic view of the Atlantic. The cliff was teeming with activity. A child ran speaking German. A man with a walker made his way around a pothole. A couple attempted the Olympic task of taking a selfie which also captured a breaching whale.
Some of these people were locals like Malhoures, gazing out to sea between races as if to remember what was wonderful in Plymouth. But most were tourists, eager to get a glimpse of one of the world’s largest animals.
Robbins, the humpback whale researcher, cannot wait for the day when the whales decide to leave Plymouth and the nagging threat of collisions in the high-traffic area disappears.
“But a silver lining to this situation is that the average person can see these whales from shore. You don’t have to be on a boat. And the fewer people on the boats the better” , she said.
These days, however, a legal place to park on Manomet Point is about as elusive as Captain Ahab’s white whale. Cars without a beach permit are slapped with $50 parking tickets. The Lobster Pound, a seafood restaurant perched atop the point, asked visitors to leave by 9 a.m. so as not to disrupt business. Orange signal barrels dot the sandy shoulder of Manomet Point Road, preventing cars from stopping and threatening tickets or towing for anyone who dares to park.
“A story as old as time: Humans ruining a good thing,” a man walking at White Horse Beach said on Saturday. He declined to be named, rushed and undercover, having illegally parked for a quick dip in the ocean.