Tuesday, July 29, 2008

PRISE Wet'n Wild: II

If you're looking for THE quintessential all-PRISE social event, then whale watch has to be the one. Though extant for only three years, PRISE has adopted whale watch as its built-in activity. When you hear about PRISE, you must associate it with the sea and humpback whales (after of course making its obvious association with scientific research).

Besides colonizing two thirds of the entire boat, the PRISE delegation gets to visit the aquarium and Boston harbor, both of which are top hot spots for local tourism. The event is so popular that all 50 or so pre-ordered tickets are quickly claimed within a few days. This year, the generous program also subsidized the entrance fee for the aquarium, thus allowing us to kill two birds with one stone at minimal personal expense.

Though the moody Boston weather is known to be spiteful, weather that day was superb. I won't use fancy imagery to portray it - you must be tired of that - but let me just say that I couldn't conceive of a more ideal day to venture into the great open sea.

The whale watch itself started at 2:30PM, but separate groups started out in the morning to explore the New England Aquarium. I was in the 10:00AM group, with the blatantly touristy bunch armed with an arsenal of digital cameras.

Arriving there, we exited Government Center subway station and ambled our way across government plaza towards the harbor. Boston harbor strikingly resembled Baltimore city harbor, with banners and flags unfurling in the salty breeze, clusters of restaurants dotting public squares, and an iconic aquarium perching on the edge of the water.

The most noticeable difference (at least to me) between the two harbors is the ubiquity of jellyfish in Boston harbor's waters. If you lean over the edge of the banks, you can glimpse at what looks like white plastic bags floating haphazardly around. Upon closer inspection however, you can make out the distinctive domic top of the jellyfish, with its four circular gonads and streaming appendages.

Before entering the aquarium, we had to observe our unbreakable ritual of taking a group picture. We should have chosen a better place for the group picture, a spot from which the words "New England Aquarium" were clearly visible, in addition to the inscrutable building itself. Out of context, I think few people can tell we were actually visiting the aquarium. Well, at least no one was headless.

Having frequented many aquariums over the course of my long-lived life, I had grown jaded of the fish-in-a-tank concept. The colorful, interactive, and diverse displays in the aquarium however, did offer me fresh excitement in observing the sea's biological endowments. Some creatures I have never seen in my life. I particularly remember the walnut jellyfish - a small, beige-colored organism (really resembling a walnut) boasting rippling navigational fringes that refracted light into its kaleidoscopic constituents. Also eye-opening was the jellyfish with extremely long tentacles (> 3 feet I presume) that carelessly floated in the water like strands of seaweed.

The aquarium was not a big complex. Basically, it was a tall continuous building with a giant conical tank in the center, around which ascending levels of exhibits spiraled to the top.

At the bottom were the penguin enclosures. We stayed for a brief talk about the three species of penguin that are kept in the aquarium. Instead of focusing on the aquarium worker, most of the audience was fascinated with a little penguin that was particularly fond of the worker, as it kept bumping onto his hips with great affection (as interpreted from its constantly fluttering tail feathers). As other penguins zoomed through the water with liquid grace, we could see the traces of yellow nitrogenous waste they nonchalantly left behind. The poor aquarium workers were, at the very moment, cleaning the pool floor with their own feet.

After marveling at the penguins, we ascended the levels that wrapped around the enormous conical fish tank and witnessed the feeding of sharks and other bigger-than-life fishes. A giant turtle (Murtle) kept following the divers carrying the plankton in want of some of its share. Amusingly, whenever it inched its thick neck into the food basket, the worker thwarted its pilfering attempt by blocking its mouth with the palm of her hand. Poor creature!

Finally, our last stop was the sea lion exhibit outside and the tank where we could put our hands in the water and touch sting rays and mini-sharks.

After our aquarium excursion, we scurried to the Quincy Market for some quick food, but not before frolicking in the water-sprout plaza, where countless children were cooling themselves off. Of course, we couldn't let them hog all the fun.

In retrospect, gulping down food less than an hour before whale watch was rather unwise for my normal digestive function, which could have gone into overdrive on the swaying boat and spilled its fabulous content into the grand exterior. Thankfully, I didn't.

At around 2:00PM we boarded the boat, which had just unloaded the previous flock of whale watchers. While at first snickering at those who brought jackets in 80+ degree weather, I quickly swallowed my own uprighteousness as the incessant wind and briny spray chilled my body to the bones. Standing on the third level was like standing in the mouth of a gigantic blow drier that relentlessly hurled cold, salty air onto our faces. Pretty soon, keeping balance on the boat also became a great challenge.

A naïve adventurer, I went downstairs and joined the group at the prow, the location at which the up-down motions were the most prominent. Breaking the assailing waves in the open sea was indeed like riding on a roller coaster. We even screamed and raised our hands as the tip of the boat rose and dipped accordingly!

The trip to the whale sanctuary took a good hour-and-a-half. By the time we were able to spot hunchback whales, I was already exhausted. I did get good glimpses of the aquatic mammoths however, and could feel their sheer power even many feet away. According to our guide, we were lucky that day to have spotted 5 hunchback whales.

We first followed a mother, her calf, and an escort as they languidly milled around in the frigid waters. Water around them turned aquamarine from all the bubbles and spray. Momentously, one of them dived into the aquatic abyss, and in the process lifted its immense fluke (tail) above water for all the whale watchers to document in their digital cameras.

After taking a satisfactory good picture of the fluke, I plopped down onto a nearby chair and amazingly fell asleep in the midst of all the commotion. I don’t know what happened while I slept, but when I woke up, we were tracking a different set of whales, this time a pair of hunchbacks named Nile and Pepper. Later I learned through a conversation with the guide that hunchbacks are named by the patterns on their flukes. Nile had a pattern that resembled the Nile River. I don’t know about Pepper – maybe a dotted pattern on its fluke resembled pepper sprinkles? There is apparently a naming convention during which all the whale experts from New England gather for an entire day to submit, vote, and officially christen newly spotted whales. Our guide had a whole album of them. Among them were Sushi (with its fluke partly cut off), Wasabi (notice the theme), and Giraffe (I can only imagine the implications).

After both Nile and Pepper dove into the depths and flaunted their flukes, we headed back. The ride back was much faster and smoother, and more pleasant to those dealing with miscreant stomachs. After stepping onto firm ground, a few of us decided to revisit Quincy Market and grab grub for dinner.

After thoroughly enjoying the first whale watching experience in my life, I would definitely do it again.

Next time, I promise to stay awake for the entire duration of the trip :)