They Came to the Surface

Portella caught the humpback’s launch, slow roll with its long, white pectoral fins spread wide, and its awesome splashdown
On an offshore trip with Sea Turtle Dive Charters out of Montauk, a humpback whale launched itself out of the water, then returned, white pectoral fins spread wide, for an awesome splashdown. Dalton Portella

    It’s likely we were put on this earth, or, depending on your point of view, we evolved on this earth, for no other reason than to bear witness. Homo sapiens seem to have no other meaningful purpose. From a global point of view, we tend to muddle things up when we act. Best to just keep our hands in our pockets and watch and, as a few East End witnesses did this past week, marvel.
    “You know, I look out at the ocean all the time from here and think about the whales and all the fish out there, but that day, they all came to greet me. Everything came to the surface,” Dalton Portella said on Monday afternoon from his lawn across Old Montauk Highway from the sea, still excited for having “eaten the marrow” out of July 17.
    Portella, a surfer, photographer, paint­er, and musician, went on a shark-cage dive on July 17 with Chuck Wade of Sea Turtle Dive Charters, which operates out of the West Lake Marina in Montauk. It was one of the final days of the seven-day heat wave. The temperature on land was in the 90s. Offshore was a bit cooler, but still tropical. The charter boat drove 25 miles south of Montauk Point on a flat sea that does not get any calmer.
    “First we saw fin whales and lots of dolphins that came and rode the bow wave. Chuck Wade said fishermen had seen humpback whales breaching left and right off Shinnecock. I was in the cabin of the boat and had just finished a cage dive.” He was about to witness something amazing.
    The shark dive had been a success. The cage, firmly attached to the boat, accommodates two divers at a time and is equipped with air tanks for breathing. Three large blue sharks circled the cage and Portella, using a waterproof GoPro camera, documented their sinuous passes for a series of watercolors he’s been working on. “I had just finished the dive, looked out the window and saw a humpback breaching. I grabbed my camera, went out on the deck and yelled, ‘Do that again!’ ”
    “And it did. Absolutely spectacular. I was in heaven. There were two out there, frolicking, slapping the surface, mating I think.” Portella caught the humpback’s launch, slow roll with its long, white pectoral fins spread wide, and its awesome splashdown. A large shark, probably a mako, was also seen flying out of the water during the trip.
    Montauk’s Viking Fleet of party boats, in cooperation with the Coastal Research and Education Society of Long Island, or CRESLI, has been running whale watch trips on Sundays, and whale witnesses have not been disappointed. 
    Closer to shore the next day, Nick Adams was paddling his standup board in the ocean off Wiborg Beach in East Hampton, looked down and witnessed a stingray at least six feet long and later another he estimated to be longer than his paddleboard, over nine feet. “They seemed happy basking on the sandy bottom in about four feet of water. I’m no fish expert, but I think they were roughtail stingrays,” Adams reported.
     Big manta-like rays are known to visit this area right about now and have been seen in Fort Pond Bay in Montauk this time of year. The roughtails grow to over 600 pounds.
    Also in the look-but-don’t-touch department, a reminder that the SharkEye two-day, no-kill tournament and festival will get under way from the Montauk Marine Basin on Saturday. Brooks and Sean Paxton, known as the Shark Brothers, will be on and will hold a number of educational forums under the tent. Scott Curatola-Wegemann, a scientist with Cornell Cooperative Extension and a shark-attack victim, will talk about why protecting sharks is so important.
    Four of the sharks caught within a proscribed area will be outfitted with GPS tags so they can be tracked via satellite on home computers.
    As Portella said, they all “came to the surface” last week, including a l86-pound bluefin tuna caught aboard Capt. Harry Garrecht’s Breakwater boat. Bill Parmenter angled the fish. It was weighed at the Star Island Marina. 
    Feeding bluefin and feeding whales are often seen together, as happened last week from here to Nantucket. This season’s profusion of sand eels, high on the menus of whales, tuna, dolphin, and a glut of other species, could be the reason for the offshore feast. As this reporter has speculated before, the constant west winds during late spring and early summer, winds that push nutrients out to sea from coastal rivers, could explain the gathering of species including the inhabitants of Gulf Stream eddies and meanders.
    Striped bass continue to be caught on clam baits along Napeague and Amagansett beaches, porgies are getting fatter and fatter in Gardiner’s Bay, the snapper blues are growing in Accabonac Harbor, and there has been a school of very large bluefish around the Ruins on the north side of Gardiner’s Island. Buoy number two has been a hot spot for fluke of late, according to Harvey Bennett of the Tackle Shop in Amagansett. Can I get a witness?