The Whales That Wanted to Fly

"Unbelievable!" the naturalist shouted as we clung to the boat's rail. Trident, a humpback whale, surged out of the ocean, flippers flapping as she spiraled gracefully and landed with a mighty spray.

For someone who can't even do a somersault, there is nothing so incredible as watching a 100,000-pound whale pirouette in the air like a giant ballerina.

"Did you get it?" I asked my friend Jen, who had quickly fumbled for her camera.

"I don't know," she said, wiping water off the lens. "There wasn't time to aim. I just held the camera in the air and pushed the button."

Every whale-watcher dreams of seeing a humpback breach - jump completely out of the water, defying gravity and all human expectations. I've been on three other whale-watches and never saw one. That day by the Stellwagen Banks in the Gulf of Maine, we saw eight.

Marine biologists aren't sure why humpbacks breach. The naturalist on our ship said it may be a way to communicate, and that breaching may mean different things at different times. For example, when a mother whale does it, she may be calling her baby. As soon as Trident hit the water, her calf came zooming over to mamma as fast as he could swim.

Another theory is that humpbacks are trying to rid themselves of barnacles. A full-grown whale can be covered in almost 500 pounds of them.

Or they may just be playing.

Calves leap, adults eat

Calves are much more likely to breach than adults. Naturalists think it may be the same idea as when puppies play: They're having a great time, but they're also learning behaviors that will help them when they grow up.

Breaching is also great exercise, which is the last thing adult humpback whales want when they're summering in the Gulf of Maine. The whales' objective is to gain as much weight as possible for their winter in the Caribbean. They are trying to add another 10,000 pounds or so. (That may sound like a lot, but it would be like an adult woman trying to gain 12 to 15 pounds. No problem!)

To do that, whales spend about 90 percent of their time eating. They scoop up huge mouthfuls of ocean and strain them through their baleen (plates that hang down from the roofs of their mouths), spitting out the water and swallowing the fish.

Humpbacks can do so many neat tricks because they are the only whales with long flippers. These appendages are one-third as long as their bodies and weigh about a ton apiece. The flippers have the same bones as a human hand and arm, and help the whales balance in the water. In fact, the whales' Latin name Megaptera novaeangliae means "big-winged New Englander."

Getting back to my story....

If Trident was a ballerina, her calf was an acrobat. Shamu and Keiko (the "Free Willy" movie star) have nothing on this guy. When we met up again with the pair after cruising for other humpbacks, the calf twirled high in the air and then breached again almost before he had time to land. We spent 45 minutes watching the calf energetically playing - slapping his tail against the water's surface, rolling over like a puppy, and diving.

Jumping for the fun of it

What made it even more spectacular was that he didn't have a trainer telling him what to do or bribing him with fish. He was just reveling in the fun of it.

Finally, it was time to return to shore. As the boat turned away, the calf rolled on his side and waved a long white flipper. Then he dove so only his flukes (tail fins) were sticking up and flapped them back and forth. We strained to watch him as long as we could. Then, as everybody returned to their seats, he breached again. The last thing we saw as we headed back to port was the calf, leaping into the sky and glittering in the late afternoon sun.

I can't prove it, but I'm sure he was saying goodbye.

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