The third time is the charm.
My wife and I had taken two previous boat trip excursions from the New Jersey shore to try and see a whale in the wild. Our first trip gave us views of dolphins, rays, gulls, and osprey. Our second trip… well, my wife spotted some really cool dolphins and birds, while I clung to the railing at the stern of the ship and fought a losing battle with a wicked case of sea sickness. Although our previous trips were memorable, we had not been fortunate enough to spot a whale.
If you are interested in observing these magnificent creatures in the ocean, the coast of New Jersey can be prime whale territory. Humpback whales, which grow from 35-50 feet long, and weigh 20-40 tons, can be spotted feeding off the coast. Fin whales, the second largest whale in the world, also find their way to the NJ coastline. Minke whales, the smallest of the baleen whales, have been reported in number off the shore as well (via
Save Coastal Wildlife). Our efforts, however, had been wholly unsuccessful, until we took another trip to the sea, and came face-to-face with one of the most amazing natural encounters either of us have ever experienced.
Come along, then, on a trip into the Atlantic Ocean, as we search for a chance encounter with some of the largest mammals on the planet. We’ll also pass a mileage marker, share some great dining experiences, and take a family member’s new car on a test drive.
“Admiral, There Be Whales Here!”
Our destination, about 45 minutes from our front door: the Seastreak Ferry terminal in Highlands, NJ. All of our previous whale watching experiences had been from the southern shore towns – this would be our first venture from the northern half of the state.
We arrived in Highlands about a half hour before boarding was scheduled to begin… enough time to pose the Accord for its mandatory glamour shot!
Usually transporting commuters to ports in New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, Seastreak Ferries began offering whale watching cruises this year out of New Jersey and New York.
We began our cruise by heading northward through Sandy Hook Bay, following the coastline of Sandy Hook, NJ. As I have shared during previous trips, Sandy Hook was once a major military base, and remnants of the US Army base still exist throughout the park. These bunkers once held dynamite for the base’s guns. Long since abandoned, they are now filled with strange artwork left by an anonymous artist (via weirdnj). The next time I’m in Sandy Hook, I’ll definitely stop by to take some photos!
We had a great view of the houses of Officer’s Row in Fort Hancock, along with Sandy Hook Light in the background.
We spotted numerous bottlenose dolphins as we proceeded through the bay.
Fun fact: bottlenose dolphins have the third-highest brain-to-body size ratio, only exceeded by humans and great apes. This is thought to account for their extraordinary intelligence levels. Did you know that some dolphins have been observed using tools? (via Wikipedia)
With temperatures in the 90’s and high humidity, there was quite a bit of haze as we turned into Lower Bay. Check out the barely visible New York skyline in the distance!
The open ocean ahead! Approximately forty-five minutes into our cruise, we were two miles off the NJ coastline when the captain slowed the boat to a crawl. We were told to keep our eyes open, as whales had been reported in the area.
“That’s bigger than a dolphin!” my wife exclaimed as a large form emerged from the deep.
After a few moments, we saw the characteristic spout of water as the whale surfaced. Fun fact: a lot about whales can be discerned from the “blow” that a whale exhales as it surfaces (what we call the “spout”). Collecting samples from whales has historically been an invasive process that stresses the animal. In 2021, we have a far better method – drones can be flown through the whale’s spout, collecting samples on a petri dish, all without disturbing the animal. The nickname for these drones? Snotbots! You can (and should) read more about them here.
We had discovered a juvenile humpback whale during its feeding time!
The whale was “lunge feeding.” During a lunge, the whale will rapidly rise to the surface with its mouth open, will take in over 18,000 gallons of water, filtering approximately 22 pounds of fish through its baleen in each lunge. During the process, the tissue around the whale’s buccal cavity (a scientific way of saying the inside of its mouth) will increase by over 130% from its original size! You can read more about this fascinating process in this excellent article from The American Scientist.
We saw several lunges, as the whale was actively feeding throughout our time near it. An adult humpback whale will need to eat between 4,000-5,000 pounds of food each day to survive.
As much as I would have liked to have been closer to the whale, Seastreak is a member of the Whale Sense program. Developed and sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Whale Sense creates standards for responsible whale watching, in order to allow humans to observe these magnificent creatures, while not further causing harm to endangered and threatened species. So when the whale would start to get too close to our boat, the captain would back us off. I guess I’m just going to have to go buy an even stronger zoom lens for next time!!
With a final splash, the whale disappeared beneath the waves and we began our journey back to port. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, it was one of the most amazing experiences with nature I have ever had. I’ll take more of that, please!
So strong was the haze that we observed an optical illusion called a “fata morgana.” When a band of warm air exists directly above a band of cold air, a reflection forms, causing an inversion of objects on the horizon. In this case, the coastline of Brooklyn turned into something out of a Blade Runner movie. Fun fact: the name Fata Morgana (literally, Morgan the Fairy) comes from the ancient belief that these mirages were actually the castles of fairies, suspended in the sky (via Wikipedia).
Being a couple of lighthouse hounds, we added a new one to our list: Romer Shoals. Built in 1838, the 54-foot tall lighthouse is now on the National Register of Historic Places.
As we headed back, we passed our next destination: we had reservations to eat at One Willow, a waterfront restaurant only a quarter mile from the port.
After departing from the ship, we headed to the restaurant. Although eating indoors would have been cooler on a hot and humid day, we opted to sit on the deck… because how often can you have a view like this during dinner?
Our appetizer was an order of gluten-free fried calamari, which included fresh tomatoes and fried vinegar peppers. It was some of the best calamari I’ve ever tried.
While I had a burger for dinner (it definitely hit the spot), my wife had the better meal – pan-seared scallops with mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley. The potatoes and corn looked like something you would get on your tray in the middle school cafeteria, but its taste was absolutely out of this world. And the scallops were simply sublime. After a wonderful meal, we got back in the car to head home.
During our trip, we pulled to the side of the road to capture a significant mileage mark: 175,000 miles is now in the books! Only 25,000 left until the big 200k. Onward! The New Car Test Drive
I was recently in southern New Jersey, and ran some errands with my mom. She offered to let me use her car to give it a proper test drive, and although I’ve driven a few HR-Vs previously, I definitely wanted to see how her new ride handled.
If you have read my previous reviews of this vehicle, you’ll notice that the interior is instantly familiar. The leather seats were comfortable and supportive, offering enough side bolstering and lumbar support to keep me safely cosseted in place. The controls all fell easily to hand, and I didn’t have to spend much time hunting for where to find buttons and switches. Basically, it’s a typically well-designed Honda. My only criticism would be the touch-panel display for the climate control system. Without actual buttons, it’s easy to hit the wrong section of the control panel. It’s a minor point, and probably gets better with practice and daily use, but this was the only thing that felt like Honda could have used a little more time thinking through on the design board.
Although this is a subcompact vehicle, the rear seats offer decent leg room for passengers. The HR-V also comes with Honda’s “magic seat” – the rear seats fold completely flat, allowing for increased storage capacity – over 58.8 cubic feet of space!
For a small SUV, the HR-V handles very well. It is agile and poised, even during aggressive cornering. It handles more like a car than an SUV. The 4-cylinder engine won’t be setting any fastest laps at the Indy 500, but it’s peppy enough around town. I did find myself needing to turn off the economy mode setting of the engine when trying to merge onto a highway or get up to speed quickly, but the car never felt sluggish. It also soaked up the bumps and potholes quite well on the cracked and crumbling roads in southern NJ. Overall, I was pleased with the build quality and handling of this little SUV. Great buy, Mom! I hope it gives you many happy years and miles!
On the way back to her place, Mom and I stopped at one of our new favorites – Que Ricas, a restaurant in Haddon Township that focuses on Venezuelan and South American cuisine. My wife discovered it a few months back, and we’re enthusiastic customers!
Our favorite item is the empanadas. If you haven’t tried them before, empanadas are turnovers- dough that is folded over a filling, and then baked or fried. We’ve tried chicken, beef, and harvest (black beans, sweet potatoes, and kale) empanadas.
Beside the empanadas, the Yucca fries (bottom left) are excellent, and for dessert, you can’t go wrong with the apple empanadas, which are lightly coated in sugar. Best of all, almost everything on the menu is gluten free! Wrapping Up
I’ll be honest – when it comes to the Jersey shore, I’m a bit of a Cape May snob. In my brain, at least, everything is better in Cape May. So when my wife proposed taking a whale watching cruise from northern New Jersey, I may have turned an eyebrow upward at the thought. How wrong I was – the Seastreak whale watching cruise was excellent, and I finally came face to face with a real whale in the wild. The opportunity to spend almost an hour observing this magnificent creature in its natural environment is one of the coolest New Jersey experiences I’ve ever had.
Thank you for coming along on this whale of a good time down the open road ahead!
‘Til next time.