Wednesday, 25 July 2012

There She Blows!

We caught the first boat out from the harbour this morning and headed for out across the ocean towards the plankton rich Stellwagen Bank, home of migrating Humpback Whales. It took about an hour to reach the sanctuary, skimming along above the waves, leaving the skyscrapers of Boston as dots in the distance. Eventually we cut engines and made our way out on deck to look for water spouts, a tell tale indication that a whale is about to surface.

There were several boats out of Gloucester and Provincetown in the area already, all circling round looking for a sign and for twenty minutes or so you could have cut the tension with a knife and then ... suddenly... from nowhere, a cry. About 100 metres away, as clear as anything, a thin jet of spray rising high into the air. The engines flicked on again and off we sped.

I was amazed how close we could get. We arrived on the scene just as the majestic black back flowed in front of the boat. A perfect arc, cutting through the surface of the sea, running itself smoothly through the bright light of a sunny morning and ending with the flicked Y-shaped fluke of the tail as the great beast dived. It's hard to describe the feeling of being so close to such a magnificent creature. Several on the boat burst into tears. It was truly awesome.

The flukes of the whales are as individual as fingerprints and it didn't take our marine biologist guide long to flick through her data base of 2,500 whales to identify twenty two year old Rapier, who returns to these feeding grounds every year. She had a calf, as yet unnamed, with her. Rapier seemed totally unconcerned by our presence.The calf, more curious, came close to our bows.

For about an hour they came for air, dived, teasing us with her undetected movements underwater before spouting again. The boat twisted and turned, accelerated and reversed, trying to anticipate the next move. It was all over too quickly and long before we'd had enough we were heading back to shore.

Back in Boston, and buoyed by the morning's wonder, we decided to head back to the Common and trace the red bricked Freedom Trail, which takes visitors on a three mile walking tour past many of the key sites linked to the War of Independence.

We passed the impressive gold domed Massachusetts State House and followed Park Street into the Old Granary Burying Ground, home of departed patriots, brewer Sam Adams, bank rolling merchant John Hancock and silversmith Paul Revere, whose midnight ride to alert the coming of the Loyalist Redcoats was made famous by Longfellow's poem.

It's fascinating to realise that for the first 150 years of it's history America was essentially an outpost of England and that these men, the Sons of Liberty, were to all intents and purposes, English. The narrative of the journey to Independence is deeply ingrained in the American conscience, but it quickly becomes apparent that this was no Hollywood epic where the forces of good overcame the forces of evil, but rather a slow process of disillusionment with the Mother Country, and a growing belief that self-determination was the more profitable direction to go.

As if to reinforce the ambiguity the trail led us next to the King's Chapel and burial ground, the principal Anglican church in Puritan Boston. Over half the congregation fled at the outbreak of revolution. Winthrop is buried here and it's wine glass shaped pulpit, chandeliers and large vaulted windows, it's impossible to escape the sad whiff of repressed baroque. This was the Tories church and I began to see the parallels between the War of Independence and the English Civil War, a hundred and twenty years earlier. The patriots wanted to create a New England.

On we went to the South Street church, the meeting place, where Sam Adams encouraged the mob to march on Griffin's wharf and tip the tea into the harbour, and the Old State House, site of the Boston Massacre, where, in 1770, five colonists where killed by British troops, irritated by having snowballs thrown at them. Six years later the Declaration of Independence was read out to the citizens from a balcony overlooking the spot.

The historic sites were, by this time, beginning to close, so we decided we'd simply follow the route past Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market into the North End with its Italian restaurants, bursting into al fresco life. We found Paul Revere's house and the Old North Church, where the patriot sexton on the night of Revere's ride, secretly signalled to his colleagues across the water in Charlestown of the Westward departure of the Redcoats, by hanging two lanterns in the belfry.

With evening fast descending and the attractions thinning out we crossed the river ourselves to look from a distance at USS Constitution in the navel yard and climb Bunker Hill, where the first full scale battle of the revolution occurred. It's here that the Commander William Prescott, aware of the limited ammunition available to the militias in comparison with the well equipped redcoat forces instructed his men to avoid firing until they could see 'the whites of their eyes.'

Here we sat under the huge Obelisk, Prescott facing away from us looking out over peaceful Charlestown and began to realise just how fascinating and opportunistic the birth of America, as a nation, was.

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