Thar she blows! Megaptera novaeangliae.
We were off the Atlantic Highlands of New Jersey on board the Whale and Dolphin cruise of the American Princess out of Riis Landing at Fort Tilden on the Rockaways. And we saw a humpback whale spouting and rounding its bulk through the water. Whoa! A whale within sight of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge and the skyscrapers of the city. The whale, which was thought to be about 30-35 feet long, and hence a juvenile, started slapping the water with its tail. The slapping, which continued for several minutes, was an incredible sight. It isn’t at all a typical whale-watch thing, evidently. There seemed to be a consensus on the boat that the slapping was a feeding strategy, but further research reveals we don’t actually know why they do it. Some think it’s communicative since the vibrations from the slaps travel a good distance. Maybe we were too close … although awed by the experience, I have some reservations about whale-watching: I’m suspicious about wild animals as a form of entertainment, and I wonder what all the boat noises — our 90-foot boat attracted several smaller boats at one point around the animal — and crowding do to the whales. (The plentiful floating trash also darkened my mood, along with the stunning two full barrels of garbage my fellow passengers somehow managed to fill during the 4-hour trip.) I went out to see Wilson’s Storm-petrels (Oceanites oceanicus), reportedly out in force this time of year. They are, sometimes hanging around sport fishing boats because of the bait and scraps available. These small pelagic (ocean-going) birds are dark with white rumps and squarish tails; as pelagics, they spend their lives at sea except for nesting, and are adapted to drinking salt water. Sometimes they will pitter-patter along the top of the waves, looking like they’re water-walking. We’re unlikely to see them from shore. Meanwhile, I thought the chances of seeing whales or dolphins 50-50 at best, but we seemed to have lucked out.
And then I remembered my camera can take short movies:
Oceanites oceanicus. Megaptera novaeangliae. Some lovely scientific names, no? The storm-petrel speaks for itself, I think, as a wanderer on Okeanos, the great world sea. Humpbacks have distinctive wing-like flippers, so Megaptera should remind you of insect order names like Diptera, Hymenoptera, and Lepidoptera. For “ptera” means “wings” in Greek. Although we often say “Latin names,” the binomial system regularly mixes up Greek and Latin. “Novaeangliae”? That’s right, it means “New England.” Big-winged New Englander.
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