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HAVING A WHALE OF A TIME ON THE HIGH SEAS

Sea World's killer whale shows are nothing compared to the awesome site of a humpback launching itself from the sea and splashing back into the ocean only a couple of hundred feet from your boat.

You would think these docile creatures -- weighing up to 45 tons and measuring 50 feet long -- are trained to perform just for the public. Not so. But their public "performances" are attracting more whale watchers every year to communities like Gloucester, one of the oldest cities in Massachusetts and the so-called whale-watching capital of the world.

Thousands of people descend upon this famous fishing center just 45 minutes north of Boston to whale watch. The picturesque narrow streets, old fishing wharves and historic buildings hold charm for many tourists, but the majority of them come for the reward of catching a glimpse of one of the largest animals on earth come up for air and dive back into the ocean.

It is hard to describe the feeling when you first witness these creatures swimming alongside the boat, diving to feed and resurfacing again to breath five to seven minutes later. Passengers on board scamper to the side at the first sighting, reciting the familiar oohs and aahhs, "Wow, are they big!" and, "Did you get that picture?"

Most whale tour operators guarantee -- and boast of -- 97 percent or better sighting records.

One of the most popular attractions are the whale-watch excursions offered from May through October by a dozen or so tour boat operators in and around Gloucester. Boats are 85 feet long and 20 feet wide. Tour operators suggest passengers bring a camera with a lot of film, a sweater or jacket since even on warm days temperatures drop 15 degrees out on the ocean, wear sneakers or rubber soled shoes, sun screen and sunglasses.

Most excursions are four hours and depart twice daily at 8 a.m. and 1 p.m.

This particular whale-watching trip with the Yankee Fleet took us 14 miles out to sea to Jeffrey's Ledge. What is best described as underwater plateaus that are one of the most fertile regions of the Continental Shelf (a great place for whales to find food). The Humpback whales migrate to these New England waters in May and stay through October feeding primarily on the tiny (4 to 6 inches) sand eel and herring.

The Yankee Fleet offers an educational trip with the aid of the Center for Oceanic Research and Education (CORE) based in Gloucester. The mission of CORE is to promote stewardship and conservation of cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) and their marine environment. CORE scientists are aboard each Yankee Whale Watch vessel, collecting data on each whale encountered during every trip. In turn, they share their knowledge and experience with the passengers on board.

One of 18 sighted Humpback whales on this trip was identified and given the name Exclaim because of a exclamation point marking on its tail. Such patterns can range from all white to all black and just like the fin whale, it is a pattern unique to the individual.

CORE scientists narrating the trip can only speculate that the whale is communicating in some way or trying to remove barnacles and parasites from its body when it breaches the surface. Most humpbacks jump only when there is a change in weather condition and they only jump into the wind.

Scientists have identified more than 200 different humpback whales in and around the waters of Jeffrey's Ledge and Stellwagen Bank.

Travel information

Excursions cost $24 for adults, $19 for seniors and $15 for children ages 1 to 16 and reservations are recommended. Yankee Fleet can be reached at 75 Essex Ave., Gloucester, MA 01930 or by (800) 942-5464, or on the Web, www.yankeefleet.com

Located 45 minutes north of Boston, Gloucester America's oldest seaport. Still a North Shore major fishing port, Gloucester has continued to depend upon the sea for a living for three centuries. Tourism is the second major industry in town.

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