A 40-foot humpback whale had a whale of a time Sunday, when he turned the tables on a boatload of whale watchers, watching the watchers for 45 minutes, while cavorting about the boat.
By all accounts, he appeared as fascinated by the humans as they are about the normally far-more-elusive mammal.
It was the first whale watch of the Environmental Association of St. Thomas-St. John (EAST) for 2011. And, according to those aboard, one they will never forget.
"It was absolutely one of the most moving parts of my life," said EAST President Jason Budsan, a veteran of years of whale watches. "People were in tears," he said. "The whale just wanted to be with us. He was a showoff, sapping up the camera and the attention."
Pausing to find the right words, Dalma Simon, EAST vice president and activities chairman, said, "It would just blow your mind. We’ve seen them before, but just for a few minutes, never like this. He put on a show, back flipping so you could see the underneath fluke, jumping straight into the air."
Speaking Tuesday, Simon, also a veteran of much-less-rewarding watches, expressed the wonder he is still experiencing. "What really stood out was how curious he was. It was obvious he was looking at us, checking us out," Simon said. "It was incredible."
Captain Ryan Witbeck, of the 50-foot catamaran, Kekoa, was equally in awe of the experience.
"She put on such a great show," he said. "It was all up to her."
Witbeck said they saw three whales in the distance, "and then one departed from the others and headed right for us. We were in Pillsbury Sound at the time."
Witbeck was careful to mention the marine rules of keeping a certain distance. "However," he said, "it was all up to her. She came to us. That was her intention. We, obviously, weren’t going to discourage her. I’ve never heard of a whale doing that for so long."
After the theatrical mammal took such a liking to the 25 or so watchers aboard his catamaran, Witbeck said, "I shut the engines down, and we just drifted. There was a very light wind. She came close, never more than 30 feet from the boat. She was so calm. People were crying and cheering, taking pictures, and she seemed to enjoy that. I got into the dingy I trail behind the cat, to get some underwater pictures. They didn’t turn out, but that didn’t matter. She simply looked at me.
"We had visitors and locals aboard," Witbeck said. "We all had such appreciation. It gave a new meaning to the kind of marine life we have in our waters."
Now, as to the gender. Witbeck said he thinks it was a friend, a midwife, staying with the new mother and calf. "When we first saw them, there were three, a calf and two large whales. I asked [UVI Biology Chair] Paul Jobsis so many questions: ‘Was she just curious? Was she enjoying our company?’"
Witbeck said Jobsis, also a veteran whale watcher, answered "all of the above."
Simon said, "I think he enjoyed the pitter-patter of our feet and our yelping each time we ran across the deck as she/he circled the boat."
Simon and Budsan referred to their special guest as male, while Witbeck stuck to the midwife theory. Budsan decided the mammal was the dad of the three seen earlier. Nobody really knows, and nobody seems to care. Witbeck said they saw about five or six whales in all Sunday, some could be seen far off, breaching.
No matter what, Sunday’s trip will be a hard act to follow, but tickets are still available for two more watches, Feb. 27 and March 6 aboard the Kekoa. They are $55 for members, $65 for nonmembers, and can be purchased at: Dockside Bookstore, Havensight Mall; Barefoot Buddha Café; and Red Hook Plaza.
Participants are to meet at the Red Hook Ferry Dock at 8:30 a.m. the day of the sail for the all-day excursion.
Eco-guides will be aboard to educate participants about whales, dolphin, sea birds and other marine life. There will be a snorkel and swimming stop, as well as a discussion of what the public can do to help stop the spread of the lionfish in V.I. waters.
For details, call 774-1837 or 777-7190.
St. John residents can reserve tickets at http://eastvi.org/mission.html