Anthony Erbetta and Nick Venezia of Marblehead arrived for work around 8 a.m. Friday at the house they are renovating on High Rock Terrace, atop the cliffs that form the southern end of Long Beach.
Little did they know their morning would include some majestic marine choreography, courtesy of perhaps up to a dozen North Atlantic right whales feeding off the rocky cliffs that divide Long and Good Harbor beaches.
The whales, which might be among those spotted earlier this week in the waters off Marblehead, came as close as 20 to 25 feet from the rocks as they made slow looping passes while feeding on plankton.
“We were setting up and we saw what we thought was a rock, and then it moved,” Venezia said.
“There was one really close to the rocks and another one sort of following off in the distance,” said Erbetta. “I saw at least two at once.”
The men, who work for the Kennedy Company, stood on an outside deck and watched the whales perform their aquatic ballet with the glee reserved for those moments when nature, wild and in-person, comes calling.
“I was standing over here,” Venezia said, pointing to an area of the deck that curved back toward Long Beach. “And one of the whales was within 20, 25 feet of the rocks. He made a big pass, in a big loop, and kept circling back.”
Sometimes the whales would disappear around the point, lazily heading back south, only to reverse course and make additional feeding passes right below Erbetta and Venezia.
Venezia said it was the first time he’s seen a whale in person since he went whale watching out of Gloucester as a kid.
There have been a number of sightings of right whales in the past two weeks, starting around Cape Cod and the South Shore and moving northward. Their presence so close to the shoreline is unusual, but not unheard of, according to Tony Lacasse of the New England Aquarium, because they go where the plankton is.
Marine researchers estimate that between a third and a half of the total population of about 430 right whales currently are feeding in waters off the coast of Massachusetts. The whales are highly imperiled, not only because of their declining population — often due to ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear — but also because of the alarming lack of calving — as in none — in the past year.
The Coast Guard prohibits boats of any size from getting within 500 yards of a right whale from any direction. The prohibition applies to kayaks, paddleboards and any other water conveyance.
On Friday, the Coast Guard radioed an alert to all boaters and fishermen to stay clear of the whales as they feed in the local waters, as well as voluntarily mitigating their vessel speed in the waters off Gloucester and Rockport.
“They really are way close to the shore,” said Gloucester Harbormaster T.J. Ciarametaro.
On Tuesday, the Coast Guard and NOAA Fisheries Law Enforcement said they are increasing the focus on enforcing the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan “to detect and deter illegally placed fishing gear and reduce the likelihood of fatal whale entanglements from occurring.”
The federal agencies said they will marshal their resources to run increased operations from May 1 to June 30, including more air and sea patrols in areas with seasonal gear closures. They also will increase at-sea inspections of unattended lobster and gillnet gear.
Contact Sean Horgan at 978-675-2714, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT.