TODAY MARKS THE END of Tom and Julie’s first week with us on the Cape. This is the first time that they have been away from home for so long. We want to do something special to celebrate, so we’ve decided to go on a whale watch. We got up early in the morning and drove from our house in Orleans to Provincetown, a place at the very tip of Cape Cod that’s almost surrounded by water. On this map of Cape Cod, you can see the way from Orleans to Provincetown.

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As you drive into Provincetown, you see a big tower on a hill in the middle of the village. It was built to celebrate the Pilgrims’ landing here back in the year 1620, after they crossed the Atlantic on the Mayflower and before they sailed on to Plymouth. Julie and Tom both spotted it at the same time, and we all got excited—almost there! Then we came down the hill into the town, all the way to the harbor, where fishing boats and whale-watching boats are tied up at a long wharf. Captain Jake welcomed us aboard the Dolphin.

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Our Whale-Watching Trip from Provincetown
The Provincetown Monument rises above the town and the harbor.
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The dock where we boarded our whale-watching boat. The big wharf in the center of town is home to hundreds of boats, big and small.
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The decks of the Dolphin VIII are packed with passengers eager to see whales and other marine animals.

WE’VE BEEN MOTORING OVER THE OCEAN for about an hour. There are lots of other people on the boat, and we’re all in an excited, happy mood, hoping to see whales. The sea around us is calm, and the air is a little foggy—the land behind us soon vanishes in the mist. All we can see in any direction is water, with some seagulls flying by now and then.

The Dolphin rolls gently over the waves as we motor along. Suddenly we hear a shout from Captain Jake: “Whale up ahead!” He asks us all not to rush to the same side of the boat, because that will make it tip too much. “Everybody will get a good look, I promise!” he says.

Then another voice comes on the loudspeaker. Jane introduces herself as the ship’s naturalist, which means she’s a whale expert. “I’ll be explaining what the whales are doing and what to look for,” she tells us.

As we get closer to the whale, we start to notice swarms of little fish in the water, probably thousands of them. “Maybe that’s why the whale is here,” Tom thinks aloud. Then Captain Jake calls out, “There she is—just ahead of the boat, but she’s still under water.” Right at the front (the bow) of the boat, Julie and Tom are holding on to a railing, looking down into the water.

“Over there, at eleven o’clock!” Jane announces excitedly. We see something whitish green coming up through the water just off the port bow (port means “left” on a boat)—and there is the whale! Not just one but two whales, one really big and the other quite little.

“They must be a mother and a baby!” Tom guesses. We can see the mother’s big eye as she looks up at us and then rolls over on her side, right on the surface. “Look, she’s waving at us!” Julie squeals, as the mother whale flaps her huge flipper in the air.

Jane has some information about the mother whale and her baby. “This kind of whale is called a humpback,” she tells us. “Each whale has different markings on its tail, so we can tell one from another by looking at those markings. I can tell you that this mother is named Chrystal. And we’ve just named her new baby—her name is Etch-a-Sketch.”

Just then Chrystal and Etch-a-Sketch dip their heads and arch their backs, then slide smoothly down into the deep water, out of sight. Jane explains that Chrystal is the daughter of a very famous whale named Salt, who has returned to the waters off Cape Cod every summer for more than thirty years. “Salt has many children now, including Chrystal,” she tells us, “and Etch-a-Sketch is just one of her grandchildren.”

Humpback Whale and Her Baby
Video courtesy of Justin Edwards via Vimeo

A few minutes later we see a big circle of bubbling white water off to the right (or starboard). Captain Jake steers us over for a closer look. Inside the circle are thousands of little fish. Bursting through the crowds of little fish are bigger fish, grabbing and eating the little ones. The air is full of seagulls, screeching and diving into the water to catch fish for themselves. “Those bigger fish are striped bass,” Jane says over her loudspeaker. “The little fish are herring—they are food for the bass and the whales too. Watch what happens next.”

Just then the head of a big whale comes shooting up through all the other fish, its giant mouth wide open! It gulps in both the little fish and even a few of the bigger ones. Startled by this feeding frenzy and the screeches of the circling, diving birds, Tom and Julie jump back from the rail. “Wowee,” Tom gasps. “That is one BIG mouth!” Soon the mouth closes and the whale sinks silently under the water.

But that’s just the beginning. For the next hour we watch enthralled while eight or nine whales, including three baby calves, feed on the herring. They don’t seem to mind all these people nearby, laughing and clapping as the whales eat and play. Several of the whales are curious and swim over to get a closer look at us. One even comes shooting all the way out of the water close to the boat, and everyone aboard cheers loudly.

After this incredible show, it’s time to turn around and head back into Provincetown harbor. It’s lunchtime and we’re hungry from the sea air and excitement, so we buy hot dogs and sodas at the snack bar. Sitting at a table inside the boat’s cabin, we talk about the morning’s adventure. Everyone wants to talk at once.

Julie: “It’s amazing how much is happening underwater! We saw seals in the bay the other day, and I’ve seen little minnows and crabs and things lots of times before. But this was like being able to see right into the ocean.”

Tom: “It was cool to see the bigger fish eating the little fish. And then the bigger fish being eaten by the even bigger whales!”

Grandpa: “That’s called a food chain. Imagine a long chain that’s hanging down. The big fish are at the top of the food chain, and the little fish are lower down.” I take a few bites of hot dog and turn to Julie. “Julie, you’re the Water Woman. Can you say more about what’s happening under the surface of the ocean?”

Julie thinks for a moment. “Well, we know that most of the Earth is covered with oceans, right? And the ocean is really deep in most places. So there’s really a lot of water for animals and plants and things to live in. But it’s so hard to imagine all the things that live in the ocean because we can’t see most of them. We can’t see through the water like we see through the air.”

Whales and Dolphins

A curious whale calf looks at us, protected by its mother.

Whales and Dolphins

These whales have made a net of bubbles and are eating the small fish caught in it.

Whales and Dolphins

Six whales eating fish in the middle of a bubble net.

Whales and Dolphins

Notice the whale’s big gray tongue, which can weigh thousands of pounds.

Whales and Dolphins

This humpback whale has a filter called baleen in its mouth. The baleen (made of keratin, like our fingernails) keeps the food in but allows all the water to flow back out.

Whales and Dolphins

After the water has drained out, the whale uses its big tongue to swallow these little sand eels.

Whales and Dolphins

The lines on the whale’s head are called pleats. They help the whale’s skin stretch when its mouth opens wide to gulp food.

Whales and Dolphins

Below this mother dolphin you can see her baby calf.

Whales and Dolphins

Minke whales like this one are smaller and sleeker than humpback whales.

Whales and Dolphins

When whales leap out of the water, it’s called breaching. This whale fell back in the water with a huge splash!

Whales and Dolphins

This breaching whale is going to land right on its back!

Whales and Dolphins

A diving whale waves goodbye with a great flip of its tail.

“It’s so hard to imagine all the things in the ocean because we can’t see most of them.”

Tom: “I read in school that life on Earth actually began in the oceans, millions of years ago. Things were living in the oceans for millions of years before any animal crawled up on land.”

Julie looks out the window as we motor along. “Imagine if the ocean was a giant glass aquarium, and we could look in from the sides and watch everything swimming around and growing and eating other things,” she says quietly. “That would be so cool.

“The oceans are just as important as the land, as a place for things to live,” she goes on. “And Tom’s right, for once”—she shoots him a grin—“there were plants and animals in the ocean first, and some of those animals can get the oxygen they need from sea water. The only thing is, we humans can’t get oxygen from the water like fish and crabs do. That’s why we need to live on the land.”

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

The greater shearwater is a summer visitor. In the winter these large seabirds fly south to islands between South America and Africa.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

Blue sharks are quite common in the waters where we saw whales.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

This flat fish is called a flounder. Notice that both eyes are on the same side of its body, so it can rest and feed on the bottom yet still see clearly.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

We saw several Atlantic white-sided dolphins during our whale-watching trip.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

Atlantic bluefin tuna pass through the waters off Cape Cod on their way north to their summer feeding grounds.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

This American lobster has lost one claw. But it will grow a new one quite quickly.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

Long-finned squid swim in large schools during the day. At night they may rest on the sandy bottom.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

The moon jellyfish is one of several jellyfish often found in these waters.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

This sea scallop has more than a hundred blue eyes. It can swim by flapping the two parts of its shell.

Ocean Animals Around Cape Cod

“There are nine northern pink shrimp in this picture. Eight of them surround a pink animal in the middle called an anemone (ah-NEM-o-nee). The shrimp sometimes hide from predators in larger anemones.

Julie’s right. The oceans are huge, and filled with living things that we mostly can’t see. As our whale-watching boat chugs back toward Provincetown, I think about all the things she has learned about the oceans in just the past few days. “Water Woman,” I ask, “what do you think are the most important ways the oceans help keep us alive and healthy?”

Julie’s gaze shifts back from the window. “Well,” she starts off, after thinking for another minute, “for one thing, the oceans help cool Earth down by acting like a sponge. They suck up heat from the sun and carbon from the atmosphere.”

Tom can’t resist teasing her a little. “So, the oceans suck … but they aren’t sucky!” Julie rolls her eyes at him, sighs deeply, and forges on. “Then there’s the water cycle,” she reminds us. “The fresh water we drink, and that waters our trees and flowers, comes up from the ocean when the sun heats it. Then the rain falls and runs into our rivers and streams, and that returns the water to the ocean.”

“Okay, so the oceans work with the atmosphere to help cool the Earth, and bring fresh water to everything that lives on land,” I say. “That’s a really big deal.”

But Julie isn’t finished. “And that’s not all the oceans do,” she says. “They’re a great big watery world full of fish and plants and crabs and lots of other things. Everything that lives in the ocean is food for something else there—and a lot of it is food for us too.”

“Good points!” I exclaim. “You’ve discovered three really important things the oceans do for us. One, they cool the Earth by absorbing heat from the sun and carbon out of the atmosphere. Two, the oceans begin the water cycle by sending water vapor up into the atmosphere. Three, they provide a world for a huge number of living things that the whole Earth depends on.”

Tom has finished his Coke and is spinning the last bits of ice around in his cup. He looks over at Julie and nods, clearly impressed by how she’s fitting things together. “I always thought the ocean was just a place to go fishing and boogie boarding,” he says softly. “Now I see how the oceans and the atmosphere work together to keep us alive.

“They’re a team. Like in the water cycle—the water comes up out of the oceans, but it’s clouds and winds in the atmosphere that carry the water vapor over the land, so it can fall as rain and water the plants.”
I like Tom’s idea of teamwork. “That’s the whole idea of Gaia,” I remind him. “Gaia is the whole living Earth. The atmosphere and the oceans are two of Gaia’s organs. They team up to keep everything on the planet alive, both on land and in the water. Remember, it’s like our heart and our lungs working together to keep our bodies alive. The lungs breathe in oxygen and the heart pumps it around our bodies, in our blood.”

I look back and forth between Tom and Julie. “Atmosphere and oceans,” I say. “Gas Guy and Water Woman. Do you two ever work as a team to get things done?”

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We humans get a lot of our food from the oceans. This boat is fishing for bluefin tuna.

Julie looks at Tom, who grins at her and shrugs. “Sometimes,” he answers. “Like, we might want to stay up late to watch a program on TV, so we both work on Mom and Dad to let us.”

“Or if Dad asks me to take the trash can down to the street and it’s too heavy, Tom will help me carry it,” says Julie graciously.

Just then we notice some other boats passing by outside the window, and realize we’re about to arrive at the dock. Tom and Julie wiggle into their daypacks and dash out on deck to watch the landing. Soon the crew lays out the gangplank and we join the crowd filing off the boat.

All the fresh salt air and excitement of the whale watch have made Julie and Tom sleepy. As we drive back to Orleans, they start talking about which kinds of whales eat plankton and krill and which kinds eat fish. Right in the middle of the discussion, they fall asleep in the back seat.