Travels with Poco

Chris Coose was returning to Portland after a one-month cruise on Victoria, his classic 19-foot catboat, when who should come along but Poco the whale to escort Victoria home.

October/November 2004

Last month’s cover photo by Steve Purdy of South Portland, Maine, was meant to inspire you to send us your tales of encounters with Poco, the wayward beluga whale. Boy, did it ever work. Everyone, it seems, has a Poco story to tell.

Poco, a 2-year-old who should have spent the summer with the rest of his pod in the St. Lawrence or the Arctic, decided instead to hang out in Maine. The experts advised boaters to leave Poco alone, but it was tough to resist this creature’s charming advances. Here are just a few of the stories submitted by you, our readers. Many thanks to all who responded

From Ann-Louise Rowe
Wolfeboro Falls, N.H.

We saw Poco in Rockland. We thought the harbormaster was kidding when we sailed into the town docks in Rockland after a week of sailing in July. He said he had been watching a whale swimming around the docks. Right! He had a digital camera with him, so then I thought maybe he was serious.

Sure enough! He had pictures. In a few minutes Poco came back again, seeking propeller blades and gray rubber rafts. People were jumping into the water, abandoning their children with their spouses for an opportunity to swim with a whale! Children were crying, wondering where their mothers had gone! They had gone off with the whale!

From Anne Verburg
s/v Apparition

Anne Verburg gets some assistance from Poco while she dives on the propeller from the stern of Apparition in Pickering Cove off Deer Isle, Maine. The whale spent hours with Verburg and her husband, Richard.

On Wednesday, July 14 our Tartan 40 sailboat, Apparition, was anchored in Pickering Cove, just off Deer Isle, Maine. It was here that my encounter with Poco, the 10-foot beluga whale, took place.

Now everyone knows that cruising is really just a series of boat repairs in the world’s most beautiful places. As Deer Isle perfectly fits that description, we were working on the dinghy motor when we kept hearing a strange whooshing sound.

I was just reaching from the boat to the dinghy to hand some tools over to my husband, Richard, when a friendly white face with a goofy grin popped up and lifted the ladder with his nose. Having been to Sea World, I recognized it as a beluga whale.

He swam around the dinghy with a very curious air. He seemed especially interested in the human in the dinghy. Richard reached down and petted him on the side, taking great care not to touch the blowhole. Poco, as we now know him, came back for more and more pets. He turned on his stomach and loved to be chucked under the chin. Like a 2- year-old, he seemed to love to show off. His favorite tricks were to push the ladder up with his nose and to take the dinghy for a ride with the painter. He spent hours with us. We still had our jobs to do, but when he wanted us back, he just blew very hard and very loud and out we would come to play. My last job was to get on my wet suit and snorkel gear to inspect Apparition’s propeller. I wasn’t afraid of our friendly visitor — I was afraid of the cold Maine water.

As I eased into the water, Poco took off. Oh well, I thought, at least I’ll get my job done. Sure enough, we had a rope caught around the propeller. I was busy trying to untangle it when that friendly face with the goofy grin popped up to see what I was doing.

Now it’s hard enough to untangle a rope in cold Maine water, but try doing it sometime with a baby beluga trying to help! We got our job done and soon we were swimming together around the boat eye to eye. I stopped to watch him and had my hands out to steady myself. Poco came up between my arms and I found myself dancing with a whale. Never once did I feel afraid; never once did he make an aggressive move; and never once will I forget my dance with a whale. The cold water finally drove me out and I said goodbye to my new friend.

We stayed in the cove for two more days and never saw him again. It was a magical moment never to be forgotten and never to be repeated. Perhaps he will remember the time he danced with a human.

From Tom & Lisa Anderson
C&C 32 Nonpareil
Marblehead, Mass.

We encountered Poco the beluga whale on Saturday, June 5, just at the mouth of Marblehead Harbor in Massachusetts, on the North Shore of Boston. He was quite a beautiful sight to see from about 20 feet away. But as we left the harbor around 8 a.m. on our way to the JFK Regatta off Boston, we noticed that we had a visitor following us!

We had heard of Poco last fall up in Nova Scotia, but never connected that story to our current encounter. Instead we looked at him and tried to figure out the type of whale. He was blue-gray and not white, so we were not sure he was a beluga, though the shape of his head and body made us assume that he was a beluga, about 10 feet in length.

But why down so far south? We kept wondering why a whale that was accustomed to very cold waters would venture so far south of his natural habitat. I recalled my youth going to see a beluga at the Coney Island Aquarium back in the late ‘60s or early ‘70’s. Yup, same species, but not white. Why, I wondered?

He stayed with us for about an hour as we made our way to Pigs Rock Gong off Tinkers Island. Playful and very inquisitive, we were in awe as he seemed to draft off the hull of our 32-foot sailboat. If we moved away, he followed. We had a race to get to and he seemed to want to race with us, staying just a few feet under the water, mostly on the starboard side of the boat. He would come up for air every few minutes and then right back into his drafting motion he would go.

When he finally left us, we were concerned about impending motorboat traffic that would increase as the sunny day wore on. We marveled at his agility and his eagerness to stay with us, but we were concerned about his safety and about him following us.

When he did leave us, it was for a few small motorboats fishing in the area. It was as though he had found a better playmate. We talked about him for the rest of the delivery into Boston for our race. He was the topic of conversation before and after the race, and we looked longingly into the water to try and catch another glimpse of him as we made our way back home to Marblehead eight hours later.

We thought no one would believe us. We have no camera with photos for proof! Needless to say, when we returned to shore, we were surprised to find out that Poco had been hanging out in the harbor area for the past week or so, and that our encounter was not unique.

I contacted a friend at the New England Aquarium on Monday and she sent us an article about Poco with pictures of our friend. Yup, same whale, same scar markings. It was Poco. Only we learned a lot more about belugas after that. Belugas are a different color when they are younger and only turn white as they reach about the age of 6 years. We are guessing that Poco was at least 2 maybe 3.

We hope that somehow we can follow Poco’s journey while leaving him in his natural habitat away from boats. He may have spurts of quickness in his movement, but a fast-moving powerboat is much more quick.

From Bob Halpin
Concord, Mass. and
Chebeague Island, Maine

With the outboard tilted safely out of the way, Bob Halpin spends some quality time with Poco near Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. Photo courtesy of Lisa Halpin

My summer encounter with Poco occurred on the evening of Sunday, Aug. 8 off Indian Point (known locally as “the Hook”) on the west end of Chebeague Island in Casco Bay. Our family had been planning an early-evening cookout at the boathouse at the point around 6 p.m., but as ominous thunderclouds built to the west, I went down early to close hatches and secure our Bristol 35.5 sailboat Double Sunrise on its mooring as well as to check a newly installed bridle on my brother-in-law’s power boat.

Having started a small 2.5hp outboard on our inflatable, I traveled no more than 50 of the 200 feet out to Double Sunrise when suddenly I felt the entire inflatable lift – a sensation similar to surfing or planing on the crest of a wave. Instinctively, I killed the engine and shifted to the transom to check the engine and saw the long, slender and very white tail and fluke fin of a large dolphin or small whale complete its passage under the inflatable.

As I scampered to the bow for a closer look, I saw the very bluntly shaped face and head of what turned out to be a beluga whale. This had to be the same whale that had been reported off the Stone Pier on the east end of Chebeague Islalnd a few weeks earlier. I judged the length of the whale to be half again as long as my 8.5-foot inflatable. I also noticed that it had several scars from apparent contact with propeller blades. I do not believe they were caused by this encounter.

For the next five minutes, as I slowly paddled my way over the remaining distance to the sailboat, this white to light gray colored whale alternately nuzzled, lifted and generally caressed my equally light-gray Zodiac as if it were its mother. On at least two occasions it unexpectedly moved away from the inflatable, then turned, swam under it, and broached the surface as if to say, “follow me!”

Finally, secure aboard my sailboat, I watched in amazement for the next 10 to 15 minutes as the beluga repeatedly spun, lifted and playfully attempted to get some response out of the now empty Zodiac tied to the stern. With everything secure aboard the boat, severe thunderstorms quickly approaching from the west, and my only means of transit back to shore being buffeted by a marine mammal twice my size, I faced a real quandary: Do I actually get back into the inflatable and risk paddling back over the 200 foot distance to the dock? I had left my cell phone at the house and somehow it seemed that there were far too many cocktail hours remaining in the summer season to be broadcasting my unusual predicament over VHF radio. I opted to paddle.

As I paddled for shore, my new friend was clearly pleased and energized to finally have generated some response from the previously lifeless inflatable. It resumed its affectionate nuzzling and playfully broached the surface twice before I was back on the dock. I pulled the inflatable onto the float as a precaution and returned home to an audience of extended family and several guests.

When we returned to the boathouse for the family cookout a half hour later, the return of the inflatable to the water was all it took to attract Poco once again. For the next 10 minutes Poco the whale playfully entertained nieces, nephews, and other fascinated family members before we once again pulled the inflatable and said goodbye once and for all.

The following Tuesday, the Portland Press Herald reported an encounter with Poco at Handy Boat Service on Falmouth Foreside and several weeks later, on Sept. 1, the Eagle Tribune newspaper in Massachusetts reported that a solitary beluga whale was in the Merrimack River off Newburyport, Mass.

From David Worthington
Spruce Head Island, Maine

I believe I saw Poco about 8 a.m. on the morning of Sunday, Aug. 22. I was sitting on my front porch on Muscle Ridge Channel next to Target, or White, or Steamboat Rock, when I heard a whale blow. It blew another time or two and then did a slow roll and swam off. It was within 50 feet of the shoreline, and I would say closer to 25 feet.

 

From Helen Filmore

Windham, Maine

On Aug. 5 we were out sailing. It was a beautiful day, with light winds, to be out with my family on the water. We motored up from Portland Harbor to Portland Head Light then decided to sail downwind to Chebeague Island. Not minutes after turning off the engine, we heard a “pooooof”sort of a sound.

“What was that?” exclaimed my husband, so we looked over the side. There, swimming next to the hull, was a mammal. Was it a baby whale? Was it a strange sort of dolphin? I did not know, since the media had not yet broadcast information on Poco. The mammal was swimming and coasting alongside the hull of our 41-foot ketch. Every three minutes or so he would come up to breathe.

My two sons (6 and 7 years old) held onto the stanchions, lying down on the deck and poking their heads over the rail. The mammal would then come right up to the boys and squirt water into their faces. The mammal squirted water every three minutes as it breathed and the boys squealed with delight. We proceeded to sail that way for two hours. The boys were giggling the whole way, and named the animal “Squirt.” I am sure that Squirt (Poco) was enjoying the boys’ company as much as the boys were his.

It was a surreal and National Geographic-like experience. We were able to study the animal, and I sketched a picture of him so that we could do research about him later. It was sad to see all the scars and damage.

Once we arrived at the marina we anchored under sail, since I was concerned the motor might hurt him. Squirt (Poco) came to the bow and my husband yelled out, “Go check the anchor is set, will you?” while motioning to the sea creature. Sure enough, Poco followed the rode all the way down to the anchor and back again.

Where is he from, Sea World? Understanding that we had stopped sailing for the day, Poco squeaked and purred at us then headed on his way.

From Michael Guerra
Brookline, Mass.

Poco hitches a ride in the slipstream alongside Michael Guerra and Linda Marinello’s Bristol 35.5 Apparition near Vinalhaven. Photo courtesy of Linda Marinello and Michael Guerra

We were leaving Carvers Harbor on Vinalhaven one rare sunny day this past July and, having just hoisted the main, were paying our requisite battery charging/motor sailing dues as the summer southwesterly was slowly freshening.

“Did you hear that?” my wife, Linda, asked. “That breath sound?”

I thought that I had heard something, but scanning the horizon I couldn’t see anything breaking the water. In fact, there was barely a ripple other than the advancing cats paws. Not long afterward, we heard it again, and this time it sounded very close by.

“You’ve got to see this!” Linda exclaimed leaning over our port side.

Swimming along, nudged up against our port quarter, was an 8-foot long … dolphin? But this one was pale gray in color, almost white, gliding gently along in our slipstream; occasionally bounding forward, taking a breath and then settling back into its comfortable position alongside our belly. At first I wondered if it was hooked on something, but then I realized that it just seemed to enjoy the company.

Coming abeam of Brimstone Island and with the wind filling in, we unfurled the jib and shut down our noisy diesel. I wondered what he would do as the boat heeled and began to pick up speed. Unfazed, our companion stayed with us.

Catching the attention of a passing lobsterman, Linda motioned for him to look down toward our port quarter. He drew closer and then, slowing down, flashed a big grin.

“Wow! That’s a beluga whale!” he hollered over the noise of his engine “I heard they’d seen him up in Brooksville the other day. In fact, someone supposedly jumped in and was swimming with him.”

“Well, he just sort of found us this morning,” I replied, as he waved and motored off.

Not long afterward, we broke out into east Penobscot Bay, reaching along toward Merchant’s Row at about 6 knots while the whale stayed right alongside. At one point we spotted a minke whale breaking about 30 yards ahead of us, and we wondered if “our” whale would rather go off and swim with one of its own. To our surprise, it chose to remain with us. Charging clear across the bay, snaking through the little passage between Pell and Burnt Island, he matched us turn for turn right out into Jericho Bay.

By this time we began thinking about naming him, (he hadn’t presented himself as Poco just then) and started to wonder what our friends on Swan’s Island would think when we arrived, pet whale in tow.

But then, as often happens mid-summer in Maine, the wind slowly began to fail, and, loath to turn a propeller in the intricate web of lobster gear that is Jericho Bay, we tried to ghost along on the dying breeze, our boat speed gradually dropping — 4 knots, 3.5, 3…

Poco began bounding toward the bow more often as the boat slowed, as if to say, “Come on, come on, I know you can go faster than this.”

Then, while trimming the jib for that last fraction of boat speed, I heard one final breath sound and, looking over the side, realized he had gone. He must have had somewhere else to go, I suppose, but all in all he stayed with us for four hours, surely an omen of good fortune for any cruise.

A sparkling day, a fair breeze and a beluga whale as an erstwhile traveling companion. What could be finer on the coast of Maine?

Michael Guerra and his wife, Linda Marinello, have spent the last 10 years cruising the coasts of Maine and Nova Scotia with their Bristol 35.5 Saranac. She is based in Robinhood, Maine. Theye live in Brookline, Mass.

From Beth & Buzz Billik
Address unknown

On Thursday, Aug. 19 I paddled out of Round Pond Harbor with my son Britton (15) for a final kayak trip. We were set to leave our rental the next day and say goodbye to Maine for another year. With overcast skies and light winds, we decided on a short trip directly across Muscongus Bay to the shores of Louds Island.

After a leisurely crossing we stopped to drift and observe the construction of a small cottage close to the beach on Louds. As we rested, we began to review the memorable two weeks our family had spent in Maine this year, along with the three weeks my son had spent kayaking the Maine coast with the Chewonki Foundation.

As we talked and drifted, I suddenly looked down. A rock seemed to come out of nowhere, and I gestured to paddle around it. My son spotted the same light color in the water and before he could speak a whale surfaced between us. It was so close and swam so leisurely that we both were able to reach out and pet its forehead.

The encounter lasted just a few minutes as the whale swam along side of us, under us and around the two of us. Several times it came right alongside our kayaks. Then off it went. When we recovered enough to catch our breaths, we paddled like mad back to Round Pond. The rest of the family was in awe over our story.

Britton phoned the Coast Guard in Rockland. He was directed to a special phone line set up for “whale sightings” and relayed what we had seen. He was informed that without a doubt we had just had an encounter with Poco!

That same evening we were dining with friends in Christmas Cove and had a chance to relay our breathtaking experience with Poco. Again, everyone was amazed and sorry to have missed such an experience. Then, just recently, I received an email from one of the dinner guests who from that night had her own Poco story to tell.

It seems Poco wandered into Christmas Cove a few days after our encounter and someone there was fortunate enough to have a camera aboard and take photos. Our family is thrilled to be part of the Poco phenomenon of 2004!

From George and Claire Sherman
Scituate, Mass.

We are George and Claire Sherman and we were cruising on our 32-foot Maxi 95 sailboat on Monday, Aug. 23, 2004 when we encountered Poco. We were on the last week of a three-week trip and were heading back to our homeport of Scituate, Mass.

We had seen posters at some of the marinas about a beluga whale that had become separated from its pod, with instructions on what to do if we saw it. We were leaving the New Meadows River on our way to Portland when Poco came alongside and decided to visit us.

We met him at around 10 a.m. and he stayed with us until 12:30 p.m. We contacted the Coast Guard, which took our phone number. A little while later the New England Aquarium called us on our cell phone and asked us questions about the whale, which was still with us at the time. We gave them our email address so that we could correspond and send them pictures.

From Norman and Jean Doelling
Hinckley 38 Windborne

In August, while my wife and I were sailing from Brewer’s South Freeport Marine in Maine towards the Goslings, we heard a strange noise that turned out to be a small white whale cruising under our port quarter. Periodically it would swim forward towards our bow, surface for one or two blows, and drop back under our quarter.

After perhaps 15 minutes, I thought it wise to report this to the powers that be and called the Coast Guard and told them that we had a baby whale that apparently thought we were its mother, cruising with us.

After a few exchanges with them, we learned that it was Poco, who had a habit of following boats and was attracted to propellers. They also warned he was dangerous to swim with.

He followed us into the Goslings, where we grabbed a mooring. Poco circled us and poked under our inflatable dinghy, lifting the bow out of the water several times. A neighboring sailboat dropped off its mooring and Poco abandoned us for a frolic with them.

Though we’re in our early 70s, we were as excited as children by our encounter with the white whale.

We regret none of our grandchildren were aboard.

From Denise Nystrom
Merrimack, N.H.

We had quite a bit of excitement at the Goslings in Harpswell, Maine, this weekend (Sept. 25-26). I happened to look up and noticed a large boil in the water indicative of a large disturbance under the water. A few moments later I noticed a mooring ball moving around like a scene from “Jaws.” A little nervous, I called for others to come see what was happening.

From then on all eyes where glued to the area. Then up came the nose of the beluga whale. There was a family on a boat near us that were on the back of their boat getting ready to get into their dinghy. The whale came up right behind them and started pushing the motor of the dinghy out of the water. They would put it down and the whale would push it right back up again (Fortunately, it was not on.) This went on for quite awhile.

They decided to row out away from their boat. The whale would grab their oar and take them for a ride. Another dinghy came by and the whale grabbed on to the bow line and towed them around for a few moments. It was exciting to watch. Every time someone new would arrive with a dinghy with a motor the whale would go right over to them. All would turn off their motors and the whale would proceed to push the motor out of the water. Do you think he was trying to tell us something?

He spent more than three and one-half hours playing with passing dinghies and mooring balls. All present were very respectful of the whale. I don’t know who was having more fun, the whale or us enjoying the scene. I know I can speak for most there – this was an experience none of us will soon forget.

From Cal Cloutier
Harpswell, Maine

I can’t believe I saw Poco the day after picking up a copy of your latest issue! Is it true that the consensus is that there is only one Poco? That would suggest that my chances of seeing (him?) was somewhere on the order of a million to one!

Sighting was Friday Sept. 24 off the end of Lookout Point Road, Harpswell, Maine, in Middle Bay.

What a thrill.

Cal: Indeed, there is but one Poco, and if those are the odds of seeing him then a lot of people should have been buying lottery tickets this summer. Many thanks to all who contributed stories and photos.