Four local teachers spot whales breaching water off New London shore

September 6, 2018 GMT

New London — Four local high school teachers who regularly fish together saw two humpback whales jumping out of the water offshore Tuesday afternoon, an experience one of them called “very rare.”

Seth Yarish, who teaches oceanography, marine science and coastal studies at Norwich Free Academy, said he hadn’t seen a humpback whale in more than 30 years of fishing in “the Race,” or the area between Fishers and Little Gull islands that serves as an entrance to Long Island Sound.

“I’ve seen ocean sunfish, the occasional turtle, some dolphins ... but never humpbacks,” said Yarish, who pulled out his phone to capture the sight on video.

Yarish said he regularly teaches his students about the routines of local humpback whales, which typically range from 43 to 52 feet long. They head to the Caribbean during the winter because fewer predators live there but stock up on food here before leaving because food is scarce in the Caribbean.

They use a practice called bubble net feeding, Yarish said, blowing a “massive amount of bubbles” from underwater to push smaller fish to the surface, then coming up with their mouths wide open.

Yarish said he and his colleagues didn’t see any bubbles Tuesday but noticed small fish jumping and had a feeling they might see a humpback. Still, they were surprised when one breached the surface about 500 feet away and another did the same even closer.

“If you watch the videos, you can hear us,” he said. “We’re like, wow. We’re dorks. We’re all excited. The kids get a kick out of that.”

Yarish was with Bacon Academy teacher Joe Hage, Ledyard teacher David Bednarz and retired Bacon teacher Jeff Withey on Hage’s 32-foot fishing boat. He and the teachers fish together most Tuesday afternoons and have done so for about 25 years, he said.

Yarish said the excursions through the 3.5-mile-wide Race are partly fun but partly scholarly. During each trip, he analyzes where he wants to bring his students through Project Oceanology, a nonprofit education and research program that builds student and public interest in the marine sciences. Norwich Free Academy is a member.

When the tide changes, Yarish said, water rips through the Race, carrying small fish with it. Big fish often come to get the small fish, and fishermen come to get the big fish.

“There’s a lot of life out there,” Yarish said. “The kids don’t realize that and I think a lot of the public doesn’t, either. People say, ‘Why are you taking the kids fishing during school?’ But when the kids catch all these different species of fish — healthy fish — and see they all live (in the Sound), it helps show how important the Long Island Sound is to the economy of Connecticut.”

Yarish said he shared the whale videos with his students to help make their learning experience more realistic. He also hopes residents — especially those who are out on the water — take note of the whales’ presence in the Sound.

“Whales in coastal areas, most are getting injured and dying from accidents involving boats,” he said. “Their skin is dark. The only come up to breathe every few minutes. It would be easy to run one over.”

Federal regulations require boaters to stay at least 100 yards away from humpback whales, he said.

“If you’re out there, pay attention,” Yarish said.