March 1, 2004 — The whale gracefully broke the surface of the uncharacteristically placid waters off the north side of Jost Van Dyke, and all aboard the catamaran Allura watched in wonder as the 35-ton animal continued to breach vertically, exposing 30 feet of its massive grey-and-black body to the hushed onlookers before smashing back down into the sea. Displacing 60,000 pounds of ocean water in a foaming rush, the whale once again disappeared below the surface.
At least that's what everyone aboard the Allura was hoping to see. The reality on Sunday was a little different.
When Captain Jameson called out from the cockpit to see if anyone on the vessel wanted to keep up the search for whales, it was just after 1 p.m., and a chill wind was lashing rain across the decks. The 35 souls aboard the Allura, participants in one of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas/St. John's annual whale-watching expeditions, were huddled together for warmth in the catamaran's partially protected common area as they listened to St. Thomas naturalist Andre Weber discuss the migratory habits of the humpback. Nobody had spotted a whale yet, and with the weather continuing to worsen, the chances were growing as bleak as the overcast sky.
But the mood was still light as the Allura turned back toward St. Thomas. Maybe we'd spot one on the way back, who knows. The whales, Weber assured the group, are definitely out there.
In fact, during EAST 's Saturday whale-watching adventure, a whale was not only spotted and "watched," it was positively performing for the two-dozen lucky spectators who'd gone on the trip.
According to Allura crew members who had been present during Saturday's trip, the 40-foot whale breached and sprayed water from its blowhole. The whale also displayed a playful behavior known as lobtailing, in which the whale slaps its massive tail against the ocean surface, splashing water and generally thrilling the crowd. Capt. Jameson said that the whale then followed alongside the Allura for more than an hour.
Not so the following day, despite high hopes spawned by the story of Saturday's whale
Earlier Sunday morning, when the sun was still shining and the seas were calm, Weber explained to the assembled EAST members and guests that certain species of whale — particularly Magaptera novaeangliea, or the humpback — spend the winter months in the warm waters of the Caribbean.
According to Weber, the whales swim here every season from as far away as Greenland and Nova Scotia and other areas of the western Atlantic, where they their spend summer months feasting in the colder waters, which are richer in the marine life they depend upon for food.
"A single humpback will eat as much as a ton of krill or herring in a day," Weber said, going on to explain that the whales eat as much as they can up north. Once they arrive in the warmer waters here, Weber says, the whales stop eating altogether, relying instead upon reserves of stored fat for the nutrition they require during the months they spend in the Caribbean.
"The waters of the Caribbean don't have the same kind or quantity of fish and other sea life that the whales eat," Weber explained. "The males come here to mate, and the females come here to have their babies and nurse them through the first months of life, but they don't eat."
Weber said that scientists believe the females come here to have their calves because the warmer, calmer waters of the Caribbean provide a safe environment for the newborns, who rely entirely on their mother's milk and her protection to sustain them until they head north in the spring.
Despite the rain and wind, many aboard the Allura Sunday continued to stand along the rails, scanning the gray horizon for any sign of whales as the boat sailed back toward St. Thomas.
Jashae Joseph, a fifth grader at Antilles school, was among the hearty few who didn't give up. "I've never seen a whale before, except on TV. I really want to see one," he said from his perch on a wooden bench at the front of the boat, simultaneously pointing toward a dark shape in the water off the starboard bow.
"A turtle!" came the cry from Joseph as the others turned to look. And sure enough, a huge sea turtle had just surfaced beside the boat. As it paddled away from us into the sea, Joseph mused aloud, "I wonder if he's looking for whales, too."
For those interested in whales, EAST will be heading out to look again on March 13 and 14. Tickets are available at Dockside Books in Havensight Mall, East End Secretarial Services in Red Hook shopping center, and at Connections in St. John. Call 774-8816 or 774-1837 for more information and leave a message.
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