Column: Our bays are alive with fish — and whales

If you looked at the empty mooring field in Dering Harbor last week, you would conclude the boating season was over; our bays and sounds are quiet.

You would be wrong.

While the boats are gone, the waters were roiling with fish in plenitudes I have not witnessed in almost four decades on Shelter Island.

What’s going on? Bunker, also known as menhaden, are in such abundance this year that they are attracting humpback whales, who have come close to our shores looking for a meal. 

You might think this is a fish story, but your intrepid reporter interviewed an eyewitness, Wade Kotula. Last Sunday he and Lucy Nystrom were delivering a boat to Connecticut when in Gardiner’s Bay just off Orient Beach, Lucy, spotted a large black object in the water just a few feet off the bow.

“It was moving sideways to us and then we saw a frenzy of bunker fleeing ahead of it. After it surfaced we realized it was a humpback whale,” Wade said. “The shape of its back was unmistakable. We turned the motor down and watched it feed for an hour. The plume of spray from its blowhole was awesome. It must have surfaced 40 times. We were in only 20 feet of water, so it was on or near the surface for long periods of time.”

A humpback getting close. (Credit: Lucy Nystrom)

While that sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime experience, Wade wasn’t done yet. “It gets even more amazing,” he said. “The next day we were coming back on the Cross Sound Ferry and we saw two humpbacks breeching. When they leapt into the air, their flukes were out of the water. The seas were really rough, so it was quite dramatic.”

Whale watchers, Wade Kotula and Lucy Nystrom.

My aquatic witnessing is less majestic, but also remarkable. My wife Deborah and I were getting in some last-of-the-season, early November sailing in our small Etchell’s.

From the moment we left the mooring we were sharing the water with limitless numbers of bunker. They swim so close to the surface that their back fins stick out of the water. When the sunlight catches the fins, it looks like millions of sparkling diamonds on a blue background.   

Schools were everywhere we went. Fish leapt in front of us creating an audible wave and turning the water into a white cloud as we caught up to them. As they moved in unison before us, they churned the water in wave after wave of motion. This went on for hours each time we went out, creating our own personal, thrilling episode of “The Blue Planet.” (We heard David Attenborough’s distinctive narration in our heads.)

One of the most memorable books I’ve read is “Sea of Slaughter,” by Farley Mowat. First published in 1984, the author describes what animal life was like on the eastern seaboard before the arrival of Europeans. In meticulous detail, he tells of the infinite abundance of fish, birds, whales and mammals.

The fecundity of animal life was more like science fiction than reality: cod so thick you could walk across them; lobsters by the billions crawling on the bay bottom; birds so numerous they darkened the sky for hours as they flew over; whales so abundant they could be hunted from canoes 100 feet offshore.

No one from the Old World had ever seen anything like it, so New World adventurers’ reports sounded implausible.

Sailing among the bunker gave us a tiny glimpse into this lost world, right here in our island’s waters.

It would have been nice, however, to have seen a whale.