2018-08-02 / Nature

The Leviathans Just Offshore

By Charles Avenengo

Artist and Owner Brian Kiracofe at work at his gallery Scrimshanders on Bowen’s Wharf. (Photos by Charles Avenengo) Artist and Owner Brian Kiracofe at work at his gallery Scrimshanders on Bowen’s Wharf. (Photos by Charles Avenengo) If you sail south out of Newport past Block Island for about 25 miles, then take a right and head west for another 15 miles, you will be over Block Channel.

In 1993, this deep-water channel is where an amazing event occurred on a calm and hazy late-summer day. It was during the last scheduled whale-watch of the season; the boat was idle with passengers leaning over the portside railing in hopes of getting another glimpse of a large shark that had just swum by, when, suddenly, out of nowhere, a few hundred yards off the starboard side, a male sperm whale breached completely out of the water.

Stunned, the captain engaged the engines and steamed over to investigate. The massive whale breached again and again for a total of four times. The passengers were ecstatic; not only had they seen a massive bull sperm whale, but they had seen it vault out of the water.

Works of scrimshaw on display at Kiracofe’s gallery . Works of scrimshaw on display at Kiracofe’s gallery . I looked behind the boat, and to my surprise I saw a half dozen more sperm whales lolling at the surface of the water. The vessel turned around to investigate, and likewise, the bull whale turned around and joined the others. For the next 30 minutes, the people onboard and the whales eyed one another.

It was concluded, as is the habit of the world’s largest carnivores, that the whales were resting after hunting underwater for a lengthy spell. Additionally, it was surmised that the aerobatic show was an attempt by the bull to lead us away from his family. Sperm whales are social animals that live in permanent matrilineal groups. However, male sperm whales can have a harem and are twice the size of the females.

Besides the obvious, what made this sighting so unique is that sperm whales worldwide are generally found in deep water. This pod of whales, still in sight of Block Island, was in relatively shallow water.

According to a survey released in 1982, along the continental shelf break of the Eastern Seaboard, from the Carolinas to Nova Scotia, including the waters south of Rhode Island, sperm whales are relatively common. The study was overseen by researchers primarily from the University of Rhode Island, and it enlisted aerial surveys to count marine mammals. During the three-year survey period, 341 sightings of sperm whales were recorded, and the study deemed that sperm whales were the fifth most common cetacean offshore at the shelf edge.

Sperm whales occur in all the world’s oceans, although they are rarely found in shallow waters. However, Block Channel is an underwater valley in the shallow continental shelf that cuts north into Rhode Island waters. A report speculated that the combination of our inshore sperm whale sighting and a few others from Block Channel correspond with movements of spawning squid.

The study stated that this is one of the few places in the world where sperm whales occur in such shallow waters.

The life history of sperm whales is one of the most remarkable of all mammals. It is said that a sperm whale is 60 feet long and dives for 60 minutes to 60 meters. In reality, the whales can dive much deeper, to thousands of feet underwater. In this abyss, where there is no light and the underwater pressure is unimaginable, they use echolocation to seek out their prey, which is squid.

Their favorite are giant squid, those mysterious 40-foot long monsters that lurk in the inky depths. Once located, life-and-death battles transpire between the two behemoths. Should the squid prevail, the air-breathing whale will drown.

Only a handful of humans have ever seen a giant squid, also known in legend as kraken. However, scientists were able to determine that these giant squid were one of the whale’s primary prey by the undigested squid’s beaks found in the whale’s stomachs. The scars from the suckers of the squid’s tentacles on the whales’ bodies also bear testimony to these clashes.

Whale-watching is a massive business. In Massachusetts, it represents a $25 million annual industry. While the main attraction is the charismatic humpback whale, it is unlikely they will ever see sperm whales in Massachusetts Bay. Conversely, in Rhode Island waters, although there is only a remote possibility of spying them, they can be seen.

This is a fascinating notion, that as the crow flies just offshore to the southwest, the same distance of approximately Newport to Pawtucket, some of Earth’s most legendary and dramatic animals are around.

Naturalist Charles Avenengo has been chasing Aquidneck Island wildlife for more than 40 years.

Return to top