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Make the Most out of Your Whalewatching Experience

by Dayle Sullivan-Taylor

Here are some tips that will make your whalewatching trip the most enjoyable experience possible.

Prepare yourself and your family
When cruising 10-20 miles off shore in the ocean it is better to be safe than sorry. If you are a first time whale watcher, you may want to consider motion sickness medications. These can usually be found in most convenience or drug stores. Prescription medications are also available through your doctor. Talk with your doctor to determine what might work best for you. Most medications must be taken a few hours prior to the trip. Be sure to check the label.Once your trip begins, it is too late to take anything.

A good breakfast is key! Very often people will go on their first whale watch fearing they may get sick. They will skip breakfast thinking that no food in their stomach means they won't get sick. In fact, the opposite is true. An empty stomach produces acids and, in turn, can actually make you sick. Eat a good carbohydrate breakfast. This includes things like bagels and cereal. Avoid fatty or fried foods. Keep munching on light snacks like crackers or ginger snaps during the trip! This reduces stomach acid build up and can prevent sea sickness.

Don't get dehydrated! When on the ocean it is recommended that you keep hydrated by drinking water, ginger ale, tea or even sports drinks. Avoid drinks that are high in sugars. Most boat companies will allow you to bring your own food and beverage on board. However, glass bottles and alcoholic beverages are usually not permitted on board. Check with the company beforehand.

Keep Warm! It is always colder on the ocean than on land. Dress in layers and bring extra clothes. Sometimes on choppy days people can get wet and chilled.

Don't forget the sunblock! Water reflects and magnifies the sun rays. Without protection, you can get severely sunburned during a 3-5 hour trip. Also, be sure to bring your sunglasses to protect your eyes from glare on the water.

A few helpful hints if you start to feel queasy
Remember sea sickness can sometimes be stopped if caught in time. Stay outside. The fresh air helps a lot. Take some nice deep breaths. Sometimes this is all that it takes. Go to the lowest deck. The closer you are to the water, the less motion is felt. Nibble on crackers and sip on ginger ale. It can really help to have something in your stomach. Look at the horizon. Looking at something that is not moving helps the equilibrium. Start looking for whales and other animals. This keeps your mind occupied. The excitement of seeing these beautiful, magnificent creatures is enough to make anyone feel better. Whales, dolphins, porpoises, seals and birds can usually be seen at anytime during a trip. You never know what you can see until you really start looking. Finally, strike up a conversation with a friend. Again, keep your mind occupied. Following these simple tips can really save the day.

The best place to see the whales
Everyone wants the best seat in the house. In fact, there is no one best place. Upper deck verses the lower deck. When on the lower deck one is closer to the whales, especially if the whale is in a curious mood and visits your boat. The upper deck allows you to see further out and may have better visibility. They are both good spots so you must decide on your own. Starboard (right side) verses the port (left side). Whales are extremely unpredictable. You can never really tell where they may pop back up. Sometimes they even swim around the vessel. Again, no best sides here.

The ability to move the ship is often based on the proximity of the whales and the industry-established guidelines for speed and distance. The Captain may not always be able to maneuver the boat the way you want them too. If a whale is traveling, then the Captain can parallel the course from beside or behind the animal at a distance greater than 100 feet. When a whale decides to check the boat out, the Captain should put the vessel in neutral and not maneuver until the whale is more than 100 feet away. Have a little patience. The Captains always do their best.

Things to bring
Here is a short list of things you may want to bring on your trip.

  • Binoculars -- Usually the whales are close enough to see better without binoculars. They may, however, be useful if bird watching is also on your agenda.
  • Rubbersoled shoes -- A moving vessel is not usually the best place for high heels. Sneakers have much better traction. Remember that sometime the decks get wet and slippery.
  • Picnic Lunch -- It is nice to have your favorite foods while out for the day. If it is not convienent for you to pack and lug a picnic, check to see if the boat company sells food. Usually they do. Also, you may want to check if bringing your own food or a cooler is allowed.
  • Warm clothes or even a blanket -- You may want to consider a heavy winter coat or a blanket if your trip is in the colder months of spring or fall.
  • Sunscreen and Sunglasses -- On sunny days you can get quite a sunburn on a three hour trip. Sunglasses will help protect your eyes from glare off the water as you scan the horizon for whales.
  • Camera or Camcorder (see below tips on photographing or videotaping whales and special pages in this web site) -- Bring plenty of film, tapes, digital storage media and batteries.
  • A book or playing cards -- It usually takes a bit of time to reach the whales. Travel times average between 30 minutes to 2 hours. This time will depend on where the whales are located at the time of your whalewatch trip and the speed of your boat. Sometimes they are near shore and sometimes far offshore. You just never know until you actually find them. A good book or a game can help pass the time.

Photo tips
Batteries and film always tend to run out just before the perfect shot. Be sure to have plenty of film, or digital storage media. Also, if you can't remember when you last changed your batteries, you may want to bring along some extras just in case. Film may be available onboard, however batteries and digital camera supplies are usually hard to come by. 400 speed film is recommended, but 200 works well too. a 70-300 zoom lens works best. It is difficult to take pictures without a zoom -- usually the photograph comes back with mostly ocean and very little whale. Sometime, however, the whale does come over to peek at you. Don't use all your film on far-away whales. Patience is a virtue. Watch the sun direction. Photos do not come out well when the whales are in the sun. A polarised lens will sometimes help with sun glare. When a whale comes over to your boat, the polarised lens allows you to see the whale's body below the surface of the water. You can get some amazing shots.

Video tips
Make sure your batteries are fully charged. The average time spent watching the whales is between 45 minutes to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Start your recording at wide angle not zoom. When fully zoomed in on an animal the recording can look jerky due to the movement of the boat.

The perfect shot
After a whale dives, do not concentrate on the exact area it went down. They rarely come back up in this spot. Instead, try to determine the direction it was moving in and have your camera pointed in the same direction. In other words, think like a whale. When humpback whales go on a deep dive, they first arch their backs. Be focused, centered and ready to snap your shot. A photograph of the fluke as it is first coming up with water streaming off the trailing edge can be a very beautiful picture. Researchers usually wait a few seconds later, when the tail is completely out of the water and the underside is visible. You will notice a black and white pattern, called a fluke print. This is unique to every whale and is how we can identify individuals. It is kind of fun to take these pictures. You may be able to later identify your shots by contacting the boat company you went with. If they can't identify the whale for you, they may be able to get you in contact with someone who can. Everyone hopes to get the ultimate picture- the breach. This behavior is as unpredictable as the animals themselves. Sometimes they breach for hours (this is your best chance) and sometimes they breach just once (to tease you). The perfect shot is pure luck. You must look in the right place at the right time and snapping the shot at the precise moment.

Children on boats!
Children tend to get bored easily, especially on the trip out. Plan ahead by bringing crayons and coloring books for the young ones, sketch pads and journals for older ones. Cards and travel games are a good idea as well. Be sure to bring their favorite snack and plenty of it. Eating always takes up a little time. You may want to call ahead to see if your boat company has special activities for kids. For safety reasons do not allow your children to run around the boat. Boats are made of metals and sometimes have nonskid surfaces. A fall can lead to an extremely painful injury. It is also not a good idea for them to stand on benches. One wrong movement from the boat can send a kid flying. Please ask your children to refrain from screaming. Loud noises will put the crew on alert. Lastly, do not hold your child in your arms while standing or have them sit on your shoulders to get a better view. This is extremely dangerous for both you and your child. If your child is having trouble seeing or getting to a railing ask a crew member to help. By thinking ahead and preparing yourself you should get the most out of your trip. Make it safe, make it fun.

Dayle Sullivan-Taylor has many years of experience as a whalewatch naturalist and licensed boat captain; many of those hours have been in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.



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