NEWBURYPORT — What began as a normal beach day for Natalya and Kenneth MacWilliams took an exciting turn when they spotted a humpback whale breaching right off the Plum Island shoreline.
The couple, who were visiting from their home in Portland, Maine, had just reached the entrance platform to the beach at Lot 1 of the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge at about noon Thursday when they saw the whale thrust about half of its body out of the water approximately 200 yards offshore.
“It was a stunning performance — we couldn’t believe it,” exclaimed Kenneth, a Newburyport native who said that in all his years spending time on Plum Island, he had never seen a whale there.
To get a better look, the MacWilliamses moved down onto the sand, where they were soon joined by a congregation of beachgoers who stood together to watch, transfixed by the whale’s majestic leaps.
Unfortunately, though, the whale was too quick and unpredictable for Kenneth or Natalya to capture with their cellphone cameras.
“What was really spectacular was how close it was,” Kenneth said, adding that the whale breached about six times over the course of 10 minutes before the crowd of onlookers dispersed.
“At first, I was worried because I’ve heard of whales getting stranded, but it wasn’t in any distress at all,” Kenneth said. “It was right there, blowing water out of its blowhole. It was really stunning.”
Adult humpback whales generally grow to about 50 feet in length and weigh about 30 tons. With a migratory pattern that spans polar and tropical waters, humpbacks frequent New England waters in the summer and are a popular sight for whale watchers.
David Larson, a science and education coordinator at Mass Audubon’s Joppa Flats Education Center who leads whale watches, said it’s unusual to see humpback whales in that area off Plum Island, especially as close to shore as the MacWilliamses described.
“Sometimes, you get them off Cape Ann because the water’s deeper or down in Rockport you can see some pretty good action,” Larson said. “They can cruise through there, but it’s not a usual feeding position. They might have just been muddling through.”
Larson said area humpbacks normally feed near Stellwagen Bank or Jeffrey’s Ledge, but they are known to “pop up” in unpredictable places along the coast.
And as for why this particular whale was breaching, Larson said there could be a number of reasons.
“We don’t really always know why humpbacks breach,” Larson said. “Sometimes when you have a young whale, they’re probably not doing anything except for playing. For adults, there are a bunch of theories. They could be trying to dislodge parasites or stun prey, or they could be communicating with other whales in the area.”