PLYMOUTH — If you stare at the ocean long enough, it can play tricks on you. A sparkle there. A whitecap here. Nothing comes of it.
But today, there’s a ripple. A spout of mist. A flash of neon green. The ocean water pixelates with a horde of dancing, shimmering fish called menhaden.
Just then, out of the blue bay, emerges a mouth. A giant mouth, 10 feet wide, followed by a mammoth body, glistening like wet stone. A humpback whale lunges improbably into the air and slams back into a harbor more shallow than the leviathan is long.
“Whoa,” said Paula Burke. “For the 306th time this week and still, ‘whoa.’ ”
She sits on the front porch of a weather-worn oceanfront home on Manomet Point Road. In the 15 years she and her sisters — Penny Webster and Pat Boynton — have rented the property, there’s never been a scene quite like this one. Seals? Sure. But who cares about seals anymore, said Boynton.
It’s the summer of whales in Plymouth. Three whales, specifically, all between the ages of 1 and 4. They first began surfacing in the water near Manomet Point in mid-July and have been a daily fixture ever since, harkening back to the early Mayflower days when Pilgrims described whales playing near the stern as the vessel sailed into the bay.
The trio — not yet named or gendered, but likened in personality to preteen boys — have no idea they’ve chosen contentious real estate as their resident feeding grounds, putting the harbormaster on high alert, threatening the safety of boaters in the area, and igniting rows about parking and beach access.
They’re just really big, a little naive, and very, very hungry.
“They’ve recently weaned from their moms and are really in their first year or two of making it on their own. We have regularly seen whales like this along the Cape and coast of Maine. But what makes this an issue is the overlap with people,” said Jooke Robbins, director of the Humpback Whale Studies Program at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.
The town’s harbormaster, a jolly 42-year-old named Chad Hunter, grew up in Plymouth as the son of a whale-watching boat captain. The humpbacks’ arrival has again ignited a childlike wonder within him. But they have also made his job much more difficult.
“I had probably logged hundreds of hours aboard whale-watching boats by the time I was 13,” said Hunter, who has boats patrolling the water every day keeping boaters away from whales. “And still this is very unique. I’ve never seen this much whale activity this close to shore before. It’s both marvelous and stressful.”
His and Robbins’s worst fears came to pass in late July when one of the humpbacks lunged out of the water and landed smack on the bow of a boat carrying six people just a few dozen yards from shore. A video posted to TikTok by someone on board — but thankfully at the stern — garnered over 2.4 million views and kindled a media firestorm that drew more cameras and more boats to the area.
No one was injured in that episode, but staring out at the sea from Manomet Point, similar collisions seem imminent.
“I genuinely have concerns for human safety,” said Regina Asmutis-Silvia of the Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a charity group with an outpost in Plymouth, at a press conference last week.
A day prior, a whale had repeatedly breached next to a moored, unoccupied Boston whaler. One onlooker even called the harbormaster to report that the creature had swallowed the mooring’s white buoy. (It had not.) The town’s Facebook group has become a cache of humpback updates, filled with photos of the whales lunging out of the water near kayaks, paddle boards, and fishing boats. The comments oscillate between awe and annoyance with both the boaters and the photographers.
“I’m so sick of whales,” wrote one person.
Attracting both fisherman and whale to the stretch of water between White Horse Beach and Manomet Point is the menhaden, or pogie. The small, silver baitfish is high in protein and coveted by humpback whales, who have remarkably small, volleyball-sized throats. Fishermen, meanwhile, target another predator of the pogie: the striped bass. In a 10-minute span midday Friday, seven boats — and one kayak — all within 100 yards of one another were either reeling in or posing with a hefty catch.
The abundance of ocean life here is a rare glimmer of good news in an ecosystem that has been threatened by years of warming and ocean acidification.
But in the background of many of the whale portraits posted online, there is a stark windowless box of a building surrounded by white silos. There, at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station, 1 million gallons of radioactive waste water languishes in a pool just a few hundred yards from the ocean.
Closed in 2019, the plant once produced millions of dollars in tax revenue, hundreds of local jobs, and, of course, a lot of nuclear waste. Holtec, the company in charge of dismantling the site, has proposed dumping that waste water into Cape Cod Bay, home to the menhaden, striped bass, lobster, and, for now, this trio of humpbacks.
A public meeting last week on the issue devolved into shouting and name calling. But Holtec declined to rule out the idea, saying the concerns about the potential dangers to public health and the marine environment are overblown.
“The irony of these whales arriving the same week as that meeting isn’t lost on us,” said Connie Melahoures, a longtime Plymouth resident.
She leaned against a large boulder atop Manomet Point and looked out at a panoramic view of the Atlantic. The cliffside teemed with activity. A child ran by speaking German. A man with a walker navigated his way around a pothole. A couple attempted the Olympian task of snapping a selfie that also captured a whale breaching.
Some of these people were locals like Malhoures, staring out into the sea between errands as if to remind themselves what was wonderful about Plymouth. But most were tourists, eager to get a glimpse of one of the largest animals in the world.
Robbins, the humpback whale researcher, cannot wait for the day when the whales decide to leave Plymouth and the gnawing threat of collisions in the high-traffic area vanishes.
“But one silver lining of this situation is that the average person can see these whales from shore. You don’t have to be on a boat. And the less people on boats the better,” she said.
Nowadays, though, a legal spot to park on Manomet Point is about as elusive as Captain Ahab’s white whale. Cars without beach permits are slapped with $50 parking tickets. The Lobster Pound, a seafood joint perched atop the point, has requested visitors leave before 9 a.m. so as to not disrupt business. Orange traffic barrels dot the sandy shoulder of Manomet Point Road, blocking cars from pulling over and threatening tickets or towing for anyone who dares to park.
“A tale as old as time: humans ruining a good thing,” said one man walking White Horse Beach on Saturday. He declined to be named, in a rush and undercover, having parked illegally himself to take a quick dip in the ocean.