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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook 13 September to 19 September

We have people from all over the world come to whale watch with us.  Last week, the Dolphin Fleet was written up in an article in “The National”, a newspaper out of the United Arab Emirates.  Click on the link for the full story.

Several days of high winds and overall poor weather have decreased the number of trips that we have been able to send out over the past few weeks, but on 13 September the Dolphin Fleet ventured out of Provincetown Harbor.  On today’s trip, our naturalist Gwen writes,  “The weather today started out quite questionable but steadily cleared and the seas were calm.  As we rounded Race Point and headed east we found a single humpback whale flipper slapping.  We also got a great close approach from this animal.  Next we came up on a mother and calf humpback whale pair.  The calf seemed to be nursing.  Next, we spent a few moments with another mother and calf pair.  Finally, we ventured to a group of 7-10 humpback whales.  They were very surface active.  There were several juveniles within a 1/2 mile radius.  They were trumpeting and breaching too!”

On September 14 both the Dolphin VIII and the Dolphin VII headed out for morning trips and headed northeast at Race Point only to come across what is fast becoming our favorite group of humpbacks of the season.  Canopy, a ten-year-old female humpback is here this year with her first calf, and this pair has been accompanied by an entourage of between 3 and 5 other humpbacks over the last month or so.

Today, Canopy and her calf were joined by Pele, Draco, Milkweed, and, later, a fourth humpback named Lupine.  Because humpbacks tend to form small, unstable groups, group dynamics and composition are of particular interest to humpback whale researchers.  Although Pele’s age is unknown, we know that Canopy, Milkweed and Draco are approximately the same age.  Both Canopy and Draco are ten years old, while Milkweed is eight.  Minke whales have been known to associate with members of the population of similar age, and watching this group has caused some of us to wonder if humpbacks and other baleen whales might do the same thing. 

We also don’t know the sex of Draco or Milkweed.  Milkweed has a history of associating with mother and calf pairs for long periods of time.  Last year at around the same time period, Milkweed was frequently seen in the company of Hancock, Perseid, and their respective calves.  Male humpbacks that associate with mother and calf pairs tend to have better reproductive success, so perhaps Milkweed is accompanying these animals in hopes of successfully mating during the winter. 

The wind kicked up throughout the morning to the point where trips were cancelled until September 16th.  That morning, the Dolphin VII started its trip with a pair of humpback whales, travelling steadily in one direction.  One was a whale named Elephant, and the other was an unidentified individual.  Although we didn’t stay with them long, we got a chance to see the Elephant slightly roll over on its side, revealing the unique pattern on the underside of its fluke or tail. 

When we returned in the afternoon, we found that Milkweed had left Canopy and calf to join up with Whisk and her calf.  We watched group dynamics shift as Tracer and Ragweed came into the area and joined up with the trio, finally forming a group of five.  Just as we were getting ready to leave, one of these humpbacks surprised everybody by breaching right off the bow!

As it came time to head back to shore, we had to stop one more time once we came upon a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.  As we mostly see large baleen whales on our trips, seeing these dolphins was quite a treat!  Atlantic white-sided dolphins are approximately 8 feet long and are easily recognizable by the tan and white markings on their side.  Hoping to catch them riding the wake of our boat, we carefully drove the boat in a circle and watched as the dolphins started surfing along behind us!

On September 17th our group dynamics had shifted again and Whisk, Canopy, and their respective calves had joined up together again.  However, this time, Milkweed was nowhere in sight.  The calves were very active today, breaching occasionally, while Canopy and Whisk concentrated on finding food.  Humpback whales spend much of their lives foraging for food, and this is particularly critical for humpbacks that have calves.  While In the process of giving birth, nursing, and migrating north from their food-free winter mating grounds, they have been known to lose up to one-third of their body weight.  Therefore, it is critical that they spend the summer restoring their energy reserves in the form of blubber so that they can return to the mating grounds in the winter and possibly become pregnant again. 

In addition to the humpbacks, some passengers also got a chance to see a fin whale in the distance.  Although fin whales can be seen off of Cape Cod all year round, they have been scarce in recent weeks.  As the second largest animals on the planet, they are exciting to see, although their elusive behavior makes them a bit of a challenge for whale watchers.  John Conlon is the Dolphin Fleet’s resident fin whale expert.  See his fin whale update for more information on recent fin whale sightings. 

On September 18 high winds and rough seas made our morning trips very challenging.  As soon as we passed Race Point, we saw a big splash off the port side of the boat and many of us got a good look at a Minke whale breaching.  A trade-off of braving rough seas is that it often leads us to active whales.  Minke whales are less likely to breach than their humpback counterparts, but for some reason, windy days are sometimes best for watching these small, torpedo-shaped baleen whales launch themselves out of the water, finishing by landing belly first. 

Although we could see the spouts of a group of at least five humpbacks to the north of us, the strong northeasterly seas made it impossible to reach them in a timely manner.  Although some of passengers on the upper deck were able to see another humpback breach close to the boat, we had to head back to shore hoping that the following week would yield to calmer seas!

As we go out every day and experience these animals, sometimes in high numbers, in their natural habitat, it can be easy to forget that these whales are still facing a number of threats.  For an insightful and eloquent article on the history and current status of whale conservation, please follow this link