Oh Poco!

Midwinter, 2005

The personable Poco, who delighted mariners from the Boston Harbor islands to midcoast Maine last summer and fall, may have died a natural death, according to marine mammal researchers who examined the beluga whale’s remains at The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI’s) Shore Laboratory last November. The eight-foot, 660-pound beluga was named after Pocologan, New Brunswick, Canada, where he was first spotted in fall 2003.

On Nov. 15, Poco’s remains were pulled from a mudflat in South Portland, Maine, by the Maine Marine Patrol and the Maine Department of Marine Resources, and transported by stranding response staff from Maine’s University of New England. He’d last been spotted alive Oct. 30 in Saco Bay. “There was no sign of human-caused trauma,” said Dana Hartley, coordinator for NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Regional Marine Mammal Stranding Network. “The tissues were in good condition, so we believe further testing of samples could tell us a lot more about Poco’s death, and perhaps more about physiological conditions that might have contributed to his unusual behavior.”

According to Mystic Aquarium, Poco was one of a handful of solitary, sociable belugas tracked in Canada and the United States in recent years; belugas typically live in groups in arctic and subarctic waters, not alone. “The lymph nodes we looked at were larger and wetter than normal,” said Mystic Aquarium’s Dr. Larry Dunn, who led the team examining the carcass, and tissues surrounding the esophagus were swollen and fluid-filled. “Although not conclusive, these changes were not inconsistent with infectious disease that could have caused the death,” Dunn added.

Dunn was aided by mammal specialists from New England Aquarium, the Cape Cod Stranding Network, WHOI, and the University of New England – all members of the NOAA Fisheries Northeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. “I saw nothing internally that suggested human interactions caused the death,” said Dunn, “and nothing externally that was new,” referring to well-healed wounds likely caused by boat propellers. “There was a good blubber coat,” he said, adding that stomach contents and the usual parasites indicated Poco was feeding and processing food well until a few days before his death.

After the late-spring and early-summer Poco reports, published in our Oct./Nov. issue, the sightings and joyful encounters continued until just before he died.

 

An evening visit in Harpswell

The Peters Family
Harpswell, Maine

On a late August night, I was working in my garden when my husband called from our boat too excited to speak clearly. “I am nose to nose with a dolphin off the back of our boat,” he said. “Come down quickly!”

We live in Harpswell, Maine, and our boat is on a mooring off High Head. My husband, John, had gone to the marina to disentangle the mooring line, expecting an ordinary evening of chores and a late dinner. I grabbed my camera and raced to the marina, anxious to see this playful dolphin.

To my surprise, as I rowed the dinghy out to join John on the boat, the “dolphin” surfaced beside me and sprayed me with water, clearly enjoying this sport of diving under the dinghy, making it rock, and then resurfacing to spray water on me again.

I managed to row to our boat without capsizing, which was no easy feat. We soon realized that this was not a dolphin but a young whale. It was Poco, the rascal who was charming boaters up and down the coast. And a charmer he was. He began to play with the dinghy motor, bouncing it up and down as though it were a beach ball. Then he’d swim along the side of the boat and inevitably spray us before diving again under the boats. Assuming he had gone off, we were continually surprised when he would return to repeat his routine. He teased and played with us until dusk.

We have many delightful memories of summer in Maine and boating on Casco Bay, but none equal to our evening with Poco. We felt much sadness that such a joyful, playful, and charming fellow would no longer surface to surprise and delight boaters.

A playful encounter off Seal Cove

Nick Elliot
Lynnfield, Mass.

On Sunday, Aug. 29, the last day of a week of cruising with my friend Phil on his 32-foot Endeavor yawl, Osprey, something remarkable happened: For two hours, we had Poco, the wayward young beluga whale, as a constant companion alongside our boat, surfacing for air and playfully swimming around us.

We’d heard about Poco from a couple we’d met at anchor one evening between Goose and Gosling islands. They said they’d encountered Poco when he played with the dinghy behind their sailboat, Namaste.

Our encounter started as we motored out from our anchorage in Seal Cove off the breakwater on the northeast side of Richmond Island, Maine. We first noticed Poco as we neared the “1” bell east of the island. I saw a large white shape close beside our boat, and first thought we’d snagged a large white plastic bag. A closer look made me jump in surprise when we realized it was small white whale.

We quickly decided it must be Poco, so we raised sail and cut our engines to avoid hurting him with our propeller. For the remainder of our sail to Biddeford, Poco swam up close beside us, beneath and in front of us, sometimes even swimming upside-down. Under water, he looked white, but upon surfacing, he appeared more grayish. He had a sizable notch in his left tail fin and propeller scars on his back.

I tried many times to reach out and touch him, without luck. Poco seemed to enjoy teasing us by getting close enough to touch, surfacing often, but then moving out of arm’s reach whenever I tried reaching out to him. It was as if we had a playful pet with us. I got my face and glasses covered with mist many times from air and spray coming out of his blowhole. One thing that surprised me was that Poco didn’t have bad smelling breath or spray. At one point, after many attempts, I finally succeeded in patting him lightly while we were sailing. Poco felt soft (probably because of a layer of fat) and slippery-smooth.

Poco stayed with us all the way from Richmond Island to Biddeford, even staying with us as we sailed up between the breakwaters into the mouth of the Saco River.

Three Sabre 34s and Poco the beluga

Ed Berry
s/v Windquest

While sailing off Eagle Island in company with two other Sabre 34s, our friends Paul and Kym Cournoyer on board Kaper had this very close encounter with Poco, who stayed with us for several hours.

 

If only I had a camera

John Dailey
Richmond, Maine

Quite by chance, I happened to spot the September 2004 issue of Points East in a marine store and, lo and behold, there’s my summertime pal Poco the whale on the cover! Not only that, but it shows him up in the Mussel Ridges, in my cruising area. Here’s the story of my encounter with Poco. The worst part of it is that I didn’t have a camera.

I keep my 28-foot Bayliner power cruiser, Sea Venture, on a mooring in the south end of Rockland Harbor during the summer. I’ve been boating on Penobscot Bay all of my life (50 years) and have never had an experience with any sea creature like my encounter with Poco. Until the encounter, I knew nothing of him.

My wife and I had the unfortunate experience of having a water-cooled exhaust manifold fail on the boat engine, and it was a real downer. Replacement parts were on back order until October, and it looked like our boating season was a bust. I went alone to the boat on this particular Saturday (the only weekend of the summer that my wife hadn’t come with me) to remove the manifold so it could be reconditioned and put back on the engine, and I wasn’t looking forward to the dirty job. I unloaded my little Zodiac from my pickup, launched it, fired up the outboard, and proceeded to Venture.

Between me and Venture, there was a family of people in three small rowing boats. It appeared that the older generations were teaching the kids how to row. I slowed the engine and gave them a very wide berth so as not to disturb the rowing lessons. Suddenly, one of the women started pointing at me and shouting. I couldn’t hear her over the sound of the motor, so I shut it off.

As it turned out, she was shouting, “The whale! The whale! Watch out for the whale! “ My immediate thought was, “Is this woman off her rocker? Whales don’t come into Rockland Harbor.” When someone shouts, “Whale!” at me, I automatically look for something 40 to 80 feet long. Up until this summer, I knew little of the little beluga whale.

Suddenly, the bow of the dinghy rose a couple of inches and slid a little to starboard. I caught sight of something out of the corner of my left eye just under the surface – Poco’s tail. Shortly thereafter, a mass of gray flesh broke the surface beside the dinghy, and Poco blew. It took me a moment to realize exactly what I was experiencing.

Once I got my wits about me, I reached out and stroked his back, which didn’t seem to bother him. The dinghy was the same color as he was, and he seemed to like to snuggle against it. I could see several scars on his back indicating he’d perhaps been injured by boat propellers.

I paddled the rest of the way to Venture as Poco followed along like a puppy. I was afraid that my outboard propeller might put yet another wound on his back. I tied the dinghy to the stern of Venture and stepped onto the swim platform. Once the dinghy had floated back to the entire length of it’s 15-foot painter, Poco moved in and lay on his right side abeam of the stern. He rolled onto his right side looking up at me with his left eye about two feet under the surface.

The outdrive was in the down position, and the propeller seemed to fascinate him immensely. He repositioned himself, swam up to the propeller, and turned it with his nose, as the drive was in neutral. Then he swam away, and I went down into the cabin to have lunch.

About five minutes went by, and suddenly, on the starboard side of the boat, I heard a thunk. Maybe two minutes went by again, and on the port side of the boat I heard another thunk. I went out onto the swim platform to find Poco playing with the Zodiac as if it were a beach ball. He would push it all the way around the stern from one side of the boat as far as he could go, and then push it all of the way around the stern to the other side. He got tired of this after about 10 minutes or so and swam away.

That was the last that I saw of Poco except for the moment when I stuck my head out of the engine room of Venture when I heard a woman scream. She was sitting in a small fiberglass dinghy with her husband as they were motoring to the dock, and she looked over the side of the dinghy paralyzed with fear to see Poco, until she realized that he was just playing. I knew what was happening, and just smiled. Poco had struck again.

I sat there for a while after the manifold had been removed, thinking of how fortunate I had been to have had this close encounter of the best kind, and to have actually touched this wild creature that had come to that spot at that moment in time from hundreds, perhaps thousands of miles away. There are experiences on this planet to be had that are far, far more valuable than anything money can buy. The Poco encounter was one of them. It took me totally out of the humdrum routine of everyday life. I think of Poco often.

An encounter on the way home

George Fitch
Janan Hamm
s/v Cirrus

My wife Janan, sailing and skiing partner Chuck French, and I had the surprise pleasure of meeting Poco this past May. We’d just purchased a ’78 Ericson 35 in Jamestown, Rhode Island, and were sailing it to its new home at Handy Boat Services in Falmouth Foreside, Maine. We were taking our inflatable dinghy to shore for coffee and showers the morning after picking up a mooring at the Eastern Point Yacht Club in Gloucester, Massachusetts, and I noticed something odd about the wake from our little 3.5-horsepower outboard. There appeared to be a light green blob following us, but the bubbles from the outboard distorted it too much to make out what it was.

I figured I must have hooked a large white sheet of plastic or something. Then it pulled alongside and I recognized it as a beluga whale. I couldn’t believe it. I excitedly started pounding my wife on the back and pointing. We shut off the outboard and watched as the whale put on a show for us. After displaying its ability to accelerate, surface, and dive, it would come alongside, roll on its side, and look right at us. It seemed to really enjoy going directly under the dinghy as if playing hide-and-seek. Except that a 10-foot whale under an eight-foot dinghy leaves quite a bit of tail exposed.

We eventually tied up at the dock and were gone for at least an hour. We didn’t see the whale when we first returned to the dinghy, but as soon as we started the outboard, he appeared again directly under us and followed us back to our mooring. Later, a friend found an article about Poco on the New England Aquarium website (www.neaq.org/special/beluga) It was then that we learned the little guy’s name and realized he was already a bit of a celebrity. The chance to meet Poco was a special gift of nature that we’ll always treasure.

A Poco-powered Zodiac ride

Win Pillsbury
Cape Elizabeth, Maine

We took some photos of Poco from my Island Gypsy 32 when getting under way from Centerboard Yacht Club to do a Coast Guard Auxiliary patrol, on August 3, 2004. Poco stayed around for a while, then headed for a smaller boat. Earlier that day (0600), he gave one of my sons a “ride” in his Zodiac at the mooring area at the Spring Point jetty, when he was going back to his boat, Lucky Witch. It seemed that Poco liked smaller boats.

Captain’s log entry: Poco sighted

Phil and Cindy Sargent
s/v Snow Goose

Log Entry: 7 July 2004, 0445 Eastern Standard Time

Great Cove, Bartlett Is., Blue Hill Bay

Snow Goose is rafted with Will & Irene Mulkern on Irene and Phil & Donna Maietta on Winds Will.

Awakened from a sound sleep by the sound of Fledgling, my dinghy, banging into the stern of Snow Goose. Three possible reasons enter my mind: 1. We are aground, 2. we are dragging anchor, 3. anchor rode has wrapped around a keel and we are hanging sideways to the current

Up on deck, I watch as my dinghy slides in between Snow Goose and Irene, Reverses, and then goes to my port side. Then Irene’s inflatable rushes up between us. I begin to think of Twilight Zone or a strange lunar whirlpool taking control. Then I hear the sound of a blow hole and see the beluga. I call Cindy to the cockpit and watch with amazement for 10 to 15 minutes as the whale romps beneath our three boats and plays with the dinghies.

After awakening our sleeping neighbors, we all marvel at the show. Then he slowly disappears, not to be seen again, we think. Suddenly, a mooring ball about 100 yards away begins to make movements reminiscent of the dance of the hippos in Fantasia. Phil Maietta and I drift in our dinghies as everyone else returns to their berths for 40 more winks. For the next two hours, Poco pushes our two dinghies around the cove. At one time, he is underneath us with his back braced against the hull for a short lift. Then he decides it’s more fun to place his snout against an oar and drive us hither and yon.

At approximately 0800, everyone arises, and the six of us continue to marvel at this sociable and obviously intelligent animal. We can hear him making those whale noises that only Jacques Cousteau is supposed to hear. Soon he decides he does not want Winds Will’s boarding ladder in the water, so he comes up underneath it and attempts to secure it to the stern by pushing it upwards out of the water. Several attempts convince him he will need to learn to tie a bowline before this can be done.

As we enjoy coffee and breakfast, he continues to slowly circle to be sure we are safe. The dinghies continue to entertain him. When we start the engines to charge our batteries, he slowly comes head up, standing on his tail, and showers his face beneath the exhaust of each boat. Mine was too hot, Phil’s was too cold – and Will’s was just right.

At 1100, the only other boat in the cove departs for Blue Hill, and our newfound fickle friend follows them. We later learn that his behavior, while unusual, is not unheard of with juvenile belugas. The biologist at College of the Atlantic explained that he will likely join a pod when he becomes sexually mature. We are then convinced that he was just practicing his lines on our poor unsuspecting dinghies with comments like, “Come to this cove often?” or “Haven’t I seen you in these waters before?”

We also learned that should we encounter him again, we should not encourage any interaction. While it’s difficult to ignore such an engaging animal, we now understand that it’s in his best interest to return to his pod and forget his dreams of romance with a dinghy. This was wonderful wildlife experience that the six of us shall remember forever.

He’s here, there, everywhere

Bill Freeman
s/v Defiance

Poco must be a reincarnation of Elvis; he’s been sighted everywhere!

A magical moment to last forever

Paul Cournoyer
s/v Kaper

Talk about one of those magical moments that stays with you for years to come! What a great cap off to a somewhat lackluster sailing season! What thrilled us the most about Poco’s visit with us was when he decided to depart our company, he swam about 10 feet off our transom, hung vertically in the water, and looked back at us, then swam off to thrill another passing sailboat’s crew, whose whoops and hollers we could hear as we nonchalantly drifted away to a safe enough distance to start our engine. One for the log book!