Here’s a little maritime-themed role playing exercise just for fun. So imagine you’re a whale. Could be a fin whale, a minke whale, a humpback. Your choice. It’s your job to find an ideal feeding place that you and your friends can visit in the summer months.
Keep in mind that you’re a member of the baleen whale group. So instead of teeth you have a massive mouth full of baleen plates to strain plankton and other protein-based foodstuffs. Which means you need a place where there’s a lot of baleen-friendly food in the water.
So, you and your friends head up the east coast of North America toward the Gulf of Maine. Which is a fantastic thing for folks in the island town of Eastport, Maine. Eastport is the easternmost point of the United States and famous for whale watching. But those aren’t the things it’s most famous for. Because twice a day, Eastport, Maine has some of the highest tides in the world.
Maine Sea Grant’s Natalie Springuel provided the science. “The eastern half of the Gulf of Maine is shaped like a funnel so it's wider and deeper at the mouth and then it gets narrower and shallower as you work your way up the coast through Eastport and into the Bay of Fundy. All of that incredible volume of water, that sloshing back and forth twice a day, creates a funnel effect and has nowhere to go but up. So, it creates these incredibly huge tides.”
On a typical day in mid-summer, we’ll see two or three finbacks, probably ten minkes (whales), hundreds of seals – because of the feed in the bay. We have krill and plankton and herring. That brings in all the wildlife.
Butch Harris, Owner/Captain Eastport Windjammers
Why is all that sloshing and rising water off Eastport important to whales? As the tide rises, it brings up the nutrients that fall to the bottom of the ocean. When the tide comes in and out every day, it flushes all those nutrients up, which drives the plankton blooms. Zooplankton is the primary food source for many of the big baleen whales that hang out in the area, just waiting for the dinner bell.
The high tides of Eastport also create a physical phenomenon called Old Sow whirlpool. It’s the largest tidal whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere. Twice a day, as that incredible volume of water works its way up into the Bay of Fundy, the series of islands and bays in the area trigger currents that intersect and create spins and gyres. The result is the mother of all whirlpools, Old Sow. Plus the many smaller whirlpools known as – and we’re not making this up – “piglets.”
Another form of turbulence in the waters of Eastport occurred, quite famously, in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. “The border between Maine and Canada was fuzzy for a long time,” Natalie Springuel reflected. “So Eastport and the surrounding islands was a place where contraband could come into the country.”
In other words, there was a whole lot of smuggling going on. “Smugglers could get away with it because the area wasn’t controlled by either the British, the Americans or the French,” Natalie continued. “They weren’t under the eyes of authorities because the area was so remote.”
The area is a whole lot more user-friendly today. And visitors are rewarded with unforgettable memories. They say a rising tide floats all boats. In Eastport, Maine, it also attracts highly intelligent mammals of all kinds.
Take a deeper dive into Maine’s maritime culture with “Salts & Water” a podcast series featuring stories from the Maine coast. Set sail with the maritime Mainers who continue to discover new adventures and fascinating history. Visit Experience Maritime Maine to learn more about the series.