Each fall the Quoddy Link whale-watching catamaran, based in St. Andrews, makes a special trip to where right whales are feeding. On September 13th, Captain John Eldridge delivered us to a spot about 40 miles from St. Andrews in the Grand Manan Basin, where we found ourselves surrounded by a very active group of at least 40 Northern rights, including several calves.

According to on-board naturalist Danielle Dion, the whales were what experts call a Surface Action Group, engaged in what she termed “courtship behavior.” Several males pushed and butted one another as they approached a female that prevented mating by reclining on its back. When the females rolled over to breathe, males moved in as if to mate. But this was only play and practice: actual mating happens only in the south, so births, which follow a full year of gestation, also happen in those warm waters.

Fin slapping, dramatic dives and blows of water vapor were accompanied by otherworldly pillow talk, a weird cacophony of groaning, chirping, whistling and hissing. This really was the right whales’ world, not ours. They seemed oblivious to our boat, often swimming directly toward us and drifting slowly past or diving only yards from us.

Although Dion, now in her eighth year working on this boat, is not a right whale specialist, she was able to identify some of the whales she was busy photographing. Whales are distinguished by the complex pattern of calluses on their hides. On nearly all these animals, she pointed out, their markings also included noticeable scars and torn flukes, resulting from efforts to break free from fishing gear in which they had been trapped.