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Seals and Whales—Cape Cod’s Ancient Residents

09.05.2013    |    Posted by:
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Graceful, content and gliding thru the deep dark depths of the ocean, seals and whales go unnoticed until they surface to take their next life-giving breath of air. It is during this phase of their swim that we humans get to see these wondrous animals as they go about the business of surviving in the waters that surround Cape Cod.
As serene as seals and whales appear to be today it wasn’t always that way. Both of these animals were hunted extensively by early colonists as well as Native Americans. Whales give away their position by spouting white spumes on each exhaustive breath as they chase tiny plankton for their food. Seals love to haul out and rest on sandbars to sun themselves and then howl with contentment. These maneuvers made seals and whales easy to spot and hunt by early native peoples and also by the colonists. Native Americans would spy whales from the high hills of Cape Cod and chase after them in their canoes. Often when hunger would be at its worst mother nature would send a herd of pilot whale, also known as blackfish, shoreward and when the tide receded these animals were left high and dry. Blackfish Creek in Wellfleet earned its name from the sometimes hundreds of pilot whales that would strand as the tides of Cape Cod Bay roared out, emptying the narrow channels that the whales had wedged themselves into. Almost everything from the whale was used—oil from blubber for lighting, meat for food and bones for tools. It became so easy to hunt seals and whales along the near shore that they became scarce and harder to find. When local seal /whale populations declined the early settlers of Cape Cod built sturdy ships from native expanses of forest to chase the whales further from shore. Some ships were sailed all the way to the Pacific Ocean on three year voyages chasing whales and would not return until every wooden cask was filled with the valuable whale oil. Fortunes were made on a single trip and the large amount of stately homes built by Cape Cod sea captains testifies to that fact.
            Harbor and gray seals have been here for many centuries. Archeological digs reveal that Native Americans utilized this available resource as evidenced by the seal bones found in local digs. Some seals can weigh 800 pounds and this provided an abundance of food. The dense fur (which is actually hair) was quite insulating and waterproof-- a wonderful and welcome combination for clothing and blankets on those frigid winter nights. I’d wager that the man who brought home a fat seal solidified his stature in the home, tribe and community. It must have been quite something to see native people chasing seals and whales form dugout canoes.
            In the early twentieth century, seals to some degree had become a nuisance to the point that it was felt they were depleting the fish stocks that fed many Cape Cod families. As late as the 1960’s seals had a bounty on their heads. Out of work Cape Codder’s would be paid a few dollars for every seal nose brought into a local town hall to verify its kill. In 1972 the Marine Mammal Act provided seals and whales full protection under the law. No more hunting and no further reductions in their numbers. As a result seal populations have exploded; whales not so much due to low productivity in reproduction. However, many are cautiously optimistic about their ultimate survival.
            Today seals and whales have come full circle. Once hunted to near extinction by early colonists and Native Americans, the seal and whale populations have evolved from preferred food to summertime performers. Every summer seal tour operators and whale watch vessels “hunt” their prey and “shoot” them with reckless abandon with the latest in digital photography.
            Seals are often spotted by tour boats at the sandbars and shallow waters near ocean inlets. From these inlets and gazing out at the Atlantic, whale spouts are often seen merely a half mile offshore. The Cape’s vibrant sea life is making a resounding comeback. Cape Cod’s ancient residents—the seals and whales have become symbolic of the sandbar we call home and now are entertainers to the many curious tourists who flock to see them aboard local tour boats every summer. Local tour boat captains are all knowledgeable about these graceful animals, where to find them, and would be happy to take you out to see experience “the show”.
Captain Rob Wissmann owns and operates Blue Claw Boat Tours in Orleans with two sightseeing vessels. 
By Captain Rob Wissmann