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Crowds visit Cape for a whale watch

A crowd gathered yesterday on Provincetown's Race Point Beach hoping to catch a glimpse of the whales recently seen nearby. A crowd gathered yesterday on Provincetown's Race Point Beach hoping to catch a glimpse of the whales recently seen nearby. (Vincent Dewitt for the Boston Globe)
By Eric Moskowitz
Globe Staff / March 29, 2009
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PROVINCETOWN - Scores of people flocked to the Cape yesterday to glimpse the dozens of massive right whales that have been frolicking in the bay the past week, a mere stone-skipping distance from shore. But the whales played it coy.

Standing on the sand at Herring Cove Beach, Paul Harrington of Braintree scanned the blue-gray water with a substantial pair of binoculars. Next to him, his 6-year-old daughter, Paige, did the same with a tiny red pair.

"Do you see anything?" Peg Harrington asked, awaiting a turn with her husband's binoculars. They saw seabirds, a boat, a distant kayaker. Whales? Unclear.

"What I'm looking at might just be waves," Paul said.

They had driven two hours, remembering the thrill of a successful family whale-watch trip last summer ("It was awesome," Paul said. "We saw a ton that day") and attracted by the news that about one-fifth of the world's 375 known North Atlantic right whales were surfacing, playing, thrashing, and maybe mating in the waters near Provincetown.

Under cloudy, slate-gray skies, a few dozen people watched from the beach and scores more watched from the warmth of the cars that lined the long, narrow lot overlooking the beach.

John Harrington, 8, held an unused digital camera, its memory card ready for whales.

"Even knowing they're out there is good," Peg Harrington said. "Even that's powerful."

And then - tiny slivers of blue-black in the distance. "I see them!" Paul said.

Nearby, Laurie Poklop of Cambridge leaned against the hood of her BMW, watching through binoculars and calling out excitedly. "I can see them way out!" Her daughter, Zoe, 4, was less enthusiastic; inside the car, she watched a portable DVD player.

"My binoculars aren't good enough," said Sue Ritchie, speaking from the next hood over. She and her husband, Randy Whittle, had driven from Hingham to see the whales, and now they studied the ocean from the hood of their Honda, with his-and-hers binoculars. "I can't see it."

"Oh, there it is!" Poklop said. "So far away."

They were the lucky ones.

A mile or two off, separated by the dunes and the occasional buzz of planes lifting off from Provincetown Municipal Airport, dozens of people stood on the sandy hills above Race Point Beach facing the open ocean. Scores more watched from the sand below.

It was almost silent, but for the soft crunch of footsteps on stiff sand, the lapping of waves, and occasional whispers. One boy hit a tennis ball with a plastic bat. Nearly everyone watched the water and waited, like the cast of a giant Samuel Beckett production.

Sightings of the 40-ton, 45-foot right whales - named because they were historically considered to be the right whale to hunt - can't be timed, said Charles "Stormy" Mayo, senior scientist at Provincetown's Center for Coastal Studies, which has been conducting aerial and ship surveys of the whales for more than two decades.

Last year about half the population appeared off the Cape in April, part of their regular journey from Florida to Georgia to Maine, but this is the largest group the scientists have seen this early in the year.

"You have to be sharp-eyed," Mayo said. "You have to look from the right and from the left and just keep sweeping."

For a moment, Rose Ciesla turned her gaze from the ocean and photographed the crowd, unusually large for a March day. It would be a souvenir: "Yes, I was here, put in some time," said Ciesla, who drove three hours from Hampton, N.H.

An avid whale fan, Ciesla takes five whale watches a year out of Gloucester. When she heard about the right whale sightings, "I knew I had to come down and try to see them. It's a wonderful thing to think there are 75 to 100 out there."

Ciesla, who teaches at the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, was in good spirits, as most on the dunes seemed to be, despite the lack of visible whales.

"You're not here if you're not hopeful," she said.

Back in town, Philip Hoare biked through the narrow streets of Provincetown marveling at all the people who had come to see the whales.

"Sadly, the whales have moved off," said Hoare, a volunteer at the Center for Coastal Studies who has a "Save the Whales" bumper sticker on his bicycle. "But it's great for the town."

Hoare, who lives in London but regularly visits Provincetown, has made a documentary about whales for the BBC and written a book about the cultural history of whaling. He remarked about the irony of admiring whales in a former whaling capital. "It's an amazing example of the way history turns around so quickly," he said.

Just the other day, Hoare said, he saw 30 right whales and a couple of finbacks close to shore. But the whales had apparently dispersed, chasing the microscopic zooplankton that they continually consume, 4,000 pounds a day, with scarcely a thought about the throngs of people who had come to Provincetown looking for them.

"Sadly, they're not going to get the show, probably not this weekend," Hoare said. "But they'll be back."

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