At Sea with the Great Whales

Explore Your Archive is a joint campaign delivered by The National Archives and the Archives and Records Association across the UK and Ireland. It aims to showcase the unique potential of archives to excite people, bring communities together, and tell amazing stories. We’re blogging all week to show off Mary Gillham’s archive…

Laura, project volunteer and future marine mammalogist.

Today, one of the project’s volunteers, Laura, tells the tail of a journey she unwittingly shared with Mary though a few years later...

Mary visited Cape Cod, Massachusetts on the 15th October 1988. She set off with the Whale Watch Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown, the first ever whale-watching company to be established in Cape Cod. I visited the same area in August 2012, 24 years on and it seems we had some very similar encounters. I want to take you through the journey and share some photos I took on my trip to hopefully inspire you to get out and see them for yourselves!

Mary sailed out from the very north tip of the Cape, 6 miles to Stellwagan Bank, a well-known feeding area for whales. The cold upwelling of nutrients from the Labrador Current makes Cape Cod a hotspot for whales.Mary noted the sea being calm, like rippling sand, the perfect conditions to spot a whale.


It wasn’t long before gulls were seen swarming above the water; a good indicator of a nearby whale, and to Mary’s delight, there appeared a Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) . Below you will see a picture of one of the many humpbacks that I encountered on my trip. You can see the trace of its big blow as it came up to surface, just arching it takes another dive, the white underside of its huge pectoral fins visible. Their flippers can be a third of the size of their bodies, larger than any other whale.

A humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Onboard marine biologists had named 280 humpback whales in the area; Mary came across a well-known female called ‘Old Salt’. With her were three males; all feeding together, That day Mary witnessed a cooperative behaviour that is still baffling scientists; a behaviour that few had ever seen.

The whales worked together, blowing huge bubbles from below a bait ball of sand eels to cast a ‘bubble net’ from which the fish could not escape. When the time was right all the whales rose through the middle in synchrony, their knobbly noses protruding from the surface and their mouths wide open. Their baleen plates hung like curtains from their upper jaw as they cruised through the surface, jaws agape, catching hundreds of sand eels before eventually clamping their jaws shut, trapping the struggling little fish, a tasty snack for the whales.

Seagulls also played their part in this feeding frenzy. Perching near the blowhole of the whale’s back, they would feed off the damaged scraps missed by the giant lunge of the whale’s mouth. One of the whales tried to make a show of it, cruising alongside the lower deck of the boat, displaying his magnificent baleen plates, nearly close enough for Mary to reach out and touch. Considering these animals can reach 53ft, this must have been a thrilling experience for Mary.

Eventually the whales dipped under the surface, arching vertically with grace, bringing up their tail flukes and dived beneath the surface, into the abyss. Not all whales will lift their flukes out of the water upon diving, humpback are one of the more charismatic species and love to show off. I caught the moment one displayed her magnificent flukes to me as she went beneath the blue.

So long, and thanks for all the fish…

Mary was so lucky to have seen this bubble net behaviour, work has only just begun on understanding how whales coordinate with each other so synchronously, they will never stop surprising us.

As one whale disappeared, another appeared from the blue. This time it was a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), the second largest animal on the planet. Mary described them as submarines, and from my experience I would have to agree! They lack the hump of the humpback whales; they are more streamlined, looking so graceful as they glide across the surface and take a breath, leaving a giant ‘footprint’ on the water as they continue on. Unlike the humpbacks, fin whales rarely emerge any part of their body from the water. I was very lucky to witness one surface so closely, catching the moment it took a large breath, presenting a glimpse of its long back and mouth.

A fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus)

Mary encountered quite an unusual whale, the entirety of the left side of his fluke was missing, a cut so clean it must have been from a boat propeller, highlighting the detrimental impact that humans can still have upon such a large animal.

After spending some time taking in the beauty of the fin whale, Mary and team left it in peace and set off to find one of the more elusive species present in the cape, the minke whale (Balaenoptera acutorostrata). They are the smallest of the baleen whales and were a little more shy and distant. My personal experience was similar, they were very hesitant to come close and quickly swam away as the boat approached, though I did catch a glimpse. Mary, however, managed to note the huge numbers of barnacles present on one Minke whale’s skin, which gives them a white speckled appearance. This individual was identified as Freski. Little was known about minke whales at the time, and there are still many questions to be answered. However this male was known to have been living in Cape Cod for more than 70 years, and we don’t even know if this is old for a whale!

Cape cod was at the peak of whaling in the 1700’s, most were hunted to near extinction. However, it seems that these great whales have made a staggering recovery and we are so lucky to still have them roaming these waters for us to enjoy, and hopefully they will thrive for future generations to see. I am so lucky to have visited Cape Cod myself and to have followed in Mary’s footsteps, and would encourage anyone to get on a boat, wherever whales can be found, and go see for yourselves how magnificent these giants are, it truly puts everything in perspective.


The Mary Gillham Archive Project is funded by HLF and managed by SEWBReC
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One thought on “At Sea with the Great Whales

  1. Pingback: The March of Mary Gillham – Mary Gillham Archive Project

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