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Humpback whale seen splashing around in R.I.’s Narragansett Bay

A humpback whale breached the surface near the Mount Hope Bridge in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay.Ed Hughes/AP

The humpback whale that jumped and splashed its way deep into Narragansett Bay on Monday probably was doing what juveniles of most species do — following the food trail and having fun along the way.

But seeing its gravity-defying acrobatics in late December, two miles north of the Jamestown and Newport bridges, was a rare Rhode Island spectacle. The Mystic Aquarium in nearby Connecticut last recorded a December humpback in 1987 — and that was off Nantucket.

No confirmation of age or gender was possible for the latest visitor, but marine specialists said Tuesday that the humpback probably was a youngster that remained in New England waters for weeks after its elders left to breed in the Caribbean.

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Although the Latin name for the species — Megaptera novaeangliae — can be loosely translated as “big-winged New Englander,” the rationale for the humpback’s foray into Narragansett Bay might be no rationale at all.

"They can be like teenage drivers, they're all over the place," said Tony LaCasse, a spokesman for the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Indeed, this humpback might be the same curious — and hungry — whale that ventured into New Bedford Harbor a couple of weeks ago.

"It's heading in the right direction" — that would be south — said Carol "Krill" Carson, a marine biologist and president of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance. "It's not that unusual for juveniles to wander into areas that are not always used by the main population."

With temperatures pushing well into the 60s this month, maybe the whale felt no rush to reach the mid-Atlantic grounds, off Virginia and the Carolinas, where many juvenile humpbacks congregate for the winter.

"They're not mature enough to mate, so why head to the Caribbean?" Carson said.

LaCasse said about 100 to 150 juvenile humpbacks are believed to stay off New England for the winter.

Ed Hughes, the harbormaster in North Kingstown, R.I., thought a boat was in distress when he spotted a commotion at 9:30 a.m. Monday.

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"It was kind of rough out. The next thing I know, I saw a humpback whale completely out of the water," Hughes said. The whale splashed around for 45 minutes.

"It was breaching, and it was tail-flapping. With its fin, it was slapping the water. It was having a great ol' time," he said. "I was absolutely, seriously stunned."

Childlike carousing is one way to explain a humpback whale in Narragansett Bay this late in the year. But higher water temperatures might be another.

LaCasse said that Cape Cod Bay, for example, has been stuck at 49 degrees for more than a week. Normally, readings there are in the low 40s at this time.

In the Gulf of Maine, a favorite summer ground for the humpbacks, the mean surface temperature rose 4 degrees between 2004 and 2013.

Whatever the reason, one particular humpback appears to be partying well past closing time along the New England coast.


Globe correspondent J.D. Capelouto contributed to this report. Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at brian.macquarrie@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeMacQuarrie.