Humpback whale

Humpback whale

This 35-foot humpback whale sighted aboard the Atlantis, part of the Cape May Whale Watcher fleet.

A few weeks ago, I found out I’d be traveling to Cape May, New Jersey at the end of June.

I’d never been there before, but had a good idea of what we should do while in town.

The very first thing I did was make a phone call to the Cape May Whale Watcher and book our family for a three-hour cruise on a weekday afternoon.

You see, I haven’t been on a whale watching trip in 15 years. I know it’s been exactly that long because my husband and I just celebrated our 15-year anniversary last month and the last time I went whale watching was when we were on our honeymoon in Santa Barbara, California and we took a boat excursion to the Channel Islands.

Truth be told, I can’t remember if we saw any whales or dolphins on that trip, probably because I was blinded by love at the time. This time, I didn’t get a chance to even look in the direction of my husband since we had all five kids with us.

The trip was a success from our standpoint. No one fell overboard and everyone got off the boat with all the body parts they boarded with.

I spent a lot of time with my eyes trained on the horizon, looking through my binoculars for signs of activity. The rest of my time was evenly divided between taking the kids to the bathroom and digging through my purse for money so they could buy snacks.

The cruise started off with a short ride down the Cape May Canal. We passed under a now-defunct railroad swing bridge and heard a brief history of the area. The ship came out into the Delaware Bay and within a few minutes we spied our first marine mammals of the day, a trio of bottlenose dolphins that were rolling on the surface. Those were the first of many dolphins we saw that day.

Capt. Jeff Stewart Sr. was manning the helm while his son, Capt. Jeff Stewart Jr. narrated the trip for the passengers.

Upon embarking, Jeff Jr. reminded the passengers that the Cape May Whale Watcher guarantees the sighting of marine mammals. We didn’t get a chance to ask exactly what that guarantee entails since we were busy looking through our binoculars most of the trip. But later I found out if the trip fails to turn up any dolphins or whales, the customer gets a free pass (which never expires) for a future trip. Not a bad deal at all.

The dolphins in Delaware Bay are used to boats being in the area. There are several whale watching outfitters in Cape May and boats are in the bay every day of the week. Many of the dolphins came right up to the ship to get a closer look at us. Bottlenose dolphins have good eyesight both in and out of the water. I think they were as interested in us as we were in them.

Then it was time to look for something bigger than a dolphin, a marine mammal that can grow even longer than a school bus: the humpback whale.

This species of whale travels from the Caribbean to their feeding grounds off the coast of New England or even further for the summer. Some of the whales that have been sighted in the Delaware Bay have been spotted as far away as the waters off Ireland.

Jeff Jr. explained that whale researchers know which whales are which by studying the underside of their flukes (tails). Each fluke is unique, kind of like a fingerprint.

We scanned the water looking for signs of a whale and it wasn’t very long until a spurt of water gave away one’s location. The different whale watching companies in that region work cooperatively to find marine mammals, so there’s a good chance one will be spotted.

Humpback whales are baleen feeders, and in the 26 years Jeff Sr. has been running the Cape May Whale Watcher, he’s primarily observed them feeding on bunker, which is also known as menhaden or alewife (depending on where you live). It’s been called the most important fish in the sea since menhaden are filter feeders and clean the water, while also being an integral part of the food chain. Sharks eat it. Bluefish eat it. Striped bass eat it. And humpback whales eat it, too, to the tune of 2,000 pounds per day.

“The schools are extending all the way down to the bottom of the bay,” Jeff Jr. said. Whales are out here feeding, literally swimming through their refrigerator and food is top to bottom, all around them, which is pretty important when you eat 2,000 pounds of fish every day.”

Menhaden are fished commercially and don’t fetch a high price since they are used for non-consumption uses such as in fertilizers and dietary supplements. However, they are critically important to the marine ecosystem. They represent a good chunk of the food pyramid.

As Jeff Jr. said, “You can’t put a price on it,” from an environmental point of view.

About half of the whale watching experience was feeling the excitement of seeing marine mammals up close and in their natural habitat. According to the captain, only 1% of the entire human population of the world has seen a whale in the wild. The other half of the experience was lessons in geography, biology, and history and what’s being done to conserve whale populations.

While the North Atlantic humpback whale population was once endangered and is now considered recovered, another species of whale that is sometimes seen in the Delaware Bay, the right whale, is still highly endangered.

Currently, there are about 440 right whales in the Atlantic Ocean and there are fewer every day. Heavy shipping traffic and entanglement in gear such as lobster traps, crab pots, and nets are a serious threat to whales 365 days a year.

The captains and crew of the Cape May Whale Watcher follow Whale SENSE guidelines (www.whalesense.org) while conducting their whale watching expeditions.

“We set an example on the water as a responsible whale watcher at all times and encourage stewardship and conservation,” Jeff Jr. said

My last trip to see whales was in California. They great thing about Cape May is that it’s relatively close to home.

If you find yourself in New Jersey or Delaware anytime soon, give the folks at Cape May Whale Watcher a call to book a trip at 609-884-5445. You can also make reservations online at www.capemaywhalewatcher.com.

Children are welcome. The ship has an upper and lower deck, spacious and clean restrooms and heated and air-conditioned cabins. Drinks, pizza, hot dogs and ice cream are sold at the snack bar.

My family and I learned a lot on this trip and enjoyed our time on the Delaware Bay. In fact, for the rest of our time in New Jersey, my 4-year-old daughter asked again and again to go back on the boat to see the whales. Fingers crossed that it won’t be another 15 years before we do.