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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – 28 August to 2 September

On August 28, our naturalist, Gwen, writes, “A beautiful crisp day today.  Perfect visibility and calm seas.  At race Point there were lots of common terns working the water, feeding on small fish being pushed up by larger prey.  At the triangle, we had between 20 and 25 humpbacks.  They were spending most of their time below feeding with about five minutes worth of breaths between dives.  Perseid’s calf proved to be very entertaining with several full breaches, then continuing to spin in the water like a torpedo, also approaching the boat several times.  Among the humpbacks, we saw Perseid and calf, Cajun and calf, Pele, Milkweed and Ventisca.   We saw we also had one minke and one fin whale.  There was also a random bat that was flying around out there.  Very interesting trip.”


In the afternoon, “We repeated our course to the triangle this trip.  15 to 20 humpbacks were still contiuing to make frequent dives but with less urgency than the last trip.  We did see two seals this trip too.  Three humpbacks did excessive flipper slapping behavior and there were 2-3 breaches too.   A fine trip overall!”

Lots of humpbacks both familiar and new to the area graced the waters on August 29th.  Wingspan, Reflection, Echo, Ganesh, Soot, Shuffleboard, Evolution and Epee were among the humpbacks making appearances.  The morning trip aboard the Dolphin VII took us to Firefly, a whale with an almost all black fluke, who was rolling on her side slapping her flipper.  This behavior is not very well understood but is thought to serve some a communication function among humpbacks.  Humpbacks have the longest flipper of any other cetacean relative to their body size, and they use them for many other purposes, including steering and thermoregulating.


By midday, many of the animals had started to feed, and naturalists observed large flocks of birds swooping down to grab the small schooling fish driven to the surface by the feeding humpbacks.  All the activity seemed to attract additional animals to the area.  As the afternoon went on, more humpbacks, as well as fin whales and Minkes, were seen honing in on their prey.


The excitement continued into August 30th where we had great looks at humpbacks, fin whales, and Minke whales throughout the day.  In the morning, we were all excited to see Nile, a female humpback born in 1987.   Nile has a very distinct hook-shaped dorsal fin and a marking on her fluke that resembles the Nile River. Nile was accompanied by Apex, Scratch, and Freefall, and we watched this quartet surface for multiple breaths before going on fluking dives.


As the day went on, we had more and more active humpbacks.  On our 10am trip, our first sighting was of a humpback named Starburst, who surprised us all with a full breach!


Later in the evening, great looks at an unidentified humpback who spent at least 20 minutes rolling around next to the boat, slapping its flipper and looking up at the passengers.  Although we were not able to figure out the identity of this whale, we noticed a very distinct feature–a white patch by the eye.  Approximately 10% of humpback whales in the western North Atlantic display this trait.


August 31st was flat calm and as we made our way out to the Triangle, east of Stellwagen Bank, we noticed a stretch of water where a huge mass of seaweed had amassed.  Often, when two currents or water bodies converge, all sorts of debris will accumulate.  In addition to that which is visible at the surface, nutrients, plankton, and small fish may also get pushed together, making this an ideal spot to look for whales.  Sure enough, the seaweed had attracted the attention of two curious humpback whale calves, and we watched as they rolled and played in the seaweed.


On our mid-day trip we had a particularly spectacular close boat approach from an unidentified humpback whale.  This whale was on the smaller side, and we could not determine whether it was a calf whose mother had embarked on a longer dive, or whether this was a juvenile.  This young whale swam back and forth underneath the Dolphin VII, at one point emerging belly-first, with its bright white flippers outstretched.  It pumped its flippers up and down as it rose to the surface, as if it were doing jumping jacks!   Eventually, we saw a breach in the distance, and this small whale immediately began making its way toward the splash.  As they joined, it appeared from a distance to be a mother and calf pair, reuniting.  However, until we pore over the photos in the lab, we will not be sure.

September 1st started out bright and hazy with a light breeze blowing from the northwest.  Amidst foreboding predictions about Hurricane Earl’s trajectory, we could feel that the swells from the east growing larger througout the day. We began the day with Firefly and her calf, accompanied by Aerospace, Blackhole and Percussion.  Later, and unknown humpback whale approached the Dolphin VII, and although we saw more spouts in the distance, we waited until this whale had left our side before we steamed eastward.

On the early afternoon trip, we had an excellent look at a Mola mola just  north of Race Point.  Mola molas, or ocean sunfish are extremely bizarre looking fish who often will bask in the sun, lying at an angle so their dorsal fin points askance.  Mola molas can weigh several hundred pounds, but they are mostly planktivorous, feeding largely on salp, jellyfish and other small creatures.  Molas themselves are considered planktonic in some circles, as they spend much of their time traveling up and down in the water column, drifting along with the currents.

Mola mola
Mola mola

On September 2nd, with news of Hurricane Earl’s destruction on the North Carolina coast, we decided to move the Dolphin Fleet boats to protected harbor to ride out the storm the following day.  However, we were able to get a few more trips in during the morning before the boats headed to Fairhaven, MA.  It was well worth it!   We got spectacular looks at a young humpback who was lying belly up, flipper slapping, tail breaching, and lobtailing.


As the trip went on, we counted between 22 and 27 different humpback whales, including Astronomy, Scratch, Apex and Broomball, as well as our regular entourage of Pele, Percussion, Milkweed, Cajun and the calf.  As we prepared for the approaching storm, we wondered how the churning seas will change the conditions while we wait out the weather on shore.