ELLSWORTH — A sailing visit to the coast of Downeast Maine can be a wonderful adventure.
Sailors can enjoy glorious vistas of towering mountains, steep shorelines and rugged islands, when they are not obscured by choking fog. Picturesque anchorages abound and, until the pandemic changed thing this summer, there was always the chance for visiting sailors to come ashore for sightseeing and a good lobster dinner in some fishing harbor town.
And the wildlife. Crossing Penobscot Bay, sailing through the islands of Merchant Row and lower Blue Hill Bay or, farther east around Schoodic and beyond, marine wildlife abounds. Countless seabirds. Harbor porpoises. Seals. Right whales. Wait. What?
However vigorous the arguments about how frequently, if ever, right whales appear in Maine state waters, there can be no doubt that at least one of them, identified by scientists from the New England Aquarium as a young male, recently paid a visit to the waters off Long Island, a few miles south of Mount Desert Island. The visit was recorded in a spectacular video posted on Facebook by the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life.
According to Amy Knowlton, a senior scientist at the center, a supporter of the center was in a boat anchored off the eastern shore of Long Island on Sunday, Aug. 9, and took a video of a young whale playfully breaching — leaping out of the water — no more than a few hundred feet from the shore. There was also another report of a right whale sighting in the same location that day. Both sightings are now shown on the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries Right Whale Sighting Advisory website.
“The second sighting was from a different vessel,” Knowlton said. “There’s no doubt it’s real.”
Though they may look the same to the uninitiated, right whales are readily identifiable to the scientists who study them. The distinctive markings of the right whale sighted off Frenchboro allowed New England Aquarium researchers to identify it as the 2019-born male calf of a whale known as Boomerang. This same whale was reportedly seen by researchers off the Georgia coast in January and then near the shore in Cape Cod Bay in late March by a beachgoer.
According to Zack Klyver, a Bar Harbor marine scientist, educator and longtime naturalist aboard Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. boats, the sightings aren’t all that surprising. While the whales are found “typically 20 miles offshore in 300 feet of water,” he said, “they do wander.”
“Sightings near shore do happen, probably more than we know,” Knowlton said. “There are a lot of near shore sightings throughout the range. We never know where they are.”
Just a few weeks ago, on July 28, one of them spent a good part of the day exploring the waters of the Head Harbor Passage off Campobello Island and coasting along the shore of Eastport where, according to Anderson Center researcher Moira Brown, she swam alongside the cruise ship docked indefinitely as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic at the municipal pier. Identified as a young female about the same age as the right whale spotted off Frenchboro, the young whale “entertained the quarantined crew members” and local residents as hit explored the waters as far south of the city as Estes Head.