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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – 31 July to 6 August

On July 31st, our naturalist, Gwen, reported that during our mid-day trip, “We ventured off to the triangle again today. We spent our first moments with a couple of finbacks then promptly headed to whale central. We found ourselves surrounded by approx 12-15 Humpbacks. There was an absolute feeding frenzy. A couple of finners and 6 Minkes were thrown in for good measure too. Cajun and calf, Ventisca, Nile, and Giraffe were in the mix.


“During the afternoon trip, we returned to roughly the same spot in the triangle. We had approximately 12 humpback whales, including Salt and Zelle, Alphorn, Ventisca, as well as many others. The feeding frenzy was over and they were much more lethargic tonight on a nice quiet trip.”

August 1st began with a great look at two individual humpbacks feeding east of Stellwagen Bank.  While humpback whales will sometimes feed cooperatively, they can usually manage the foraging process just fine on their own.  So while these humpbacks were feeding in the same vicinity, we did not see them associating with one another.  They spent the morning kickfeeding, a behavior used by humpbacks to stun sand lance so they can more easily capture large quantities of them.


By the morning of August 2nd, it seemed as though the sand lance, the primary food source for Stellwagen Bank humpbacks, had moved deeper in the water column.  Fish and plankton may move up and down in the water column throughout the day, and the whales will go after them anywhere, whether they are at the ocean floor or the water’s surface.  We suspected that these whales were feeding deep due to their slightly longer dive times and the huge breaths they seemed to take while at the surface.

As the day went on, it seemed as though the sand lance were driven to the surface.  Passengers aboard the Portuguese Princess in the afternoon watched as a humpback named Glo kicked and blew bubbles to trap and corral these small fish.  Glo is easily recognizable by the fact that she has a part of her fluke missing.  Apparently, this hasn’t diminished her ability to kick-feed!


Winds increased throughout the evening and by August 3rd the seas were choppy and rough.  Although this can make for a slightly more challenging whale watch, veteran whale watchers know that it can be worth the bumpy ride, as humpbacks often respond to high winds by breaching.  Sure enough, the day was filled with acrobatic humpbacks.  Nile, a female born in 1987 breached throughout the afternoon.  She was breaching for such a long time that we ran out of time and had to leave the area.  As we headed back to shore, we could still see the huge wall of white water she created every time she landed.


Gusty wind and more breaching continued into August 4th when we watched a humpback named Causeway perform what we call a full spinning head breach, leaping out of the water and spinning around before landing again.  Lots of breaching, flippering and tail breaching was observed from the decks of the Dolphin VIII.

Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VII we came across Cajun and her calf, who, as seems to be the trend this summer, were accompanied by Pele, Milkweed and Alphorn.  While the adult whales fed at the surface by blowing rings of bubbles to capture their prey, the calf floated near the periphery.  At this time of year, calves are starting to learn how to feed on solid food, and it’s likely that Cajun’s calf is watching carefully, learning the tricks of the trade.


On August 5th the wind had died down substantially but Stellwagen Bank was covered in fog.  Despite our limited visibility, we still managed to locate a humpback whale named Bat who was rolling and flippering next to the boat.  By the afternoon, the fog had cleared and more humpbacks could be seen in the area.   Today, Cajun and the calf were accompanied by only two other whales, Milkweed and Jabiru, while Alphorn and Pele were nowhere to be seen.  After we left this group of 4, two more humpbacks, including a whale named Pumba, started to head right towards the boat.  We thought we were in for a close approach, but at the last minute, these whales turned away.  At this point, almost out of time, the Portuguese Princess II made a turn and started to head for Provincetown.  As soon as we made a turn, Pumba immediately breached behind us, while the other whale began to lobtail.  As we continued to head for home, we could still see these whales jumping and flipper slapping for the next five minutes!


On August 6th we had a very exciting sighting early on when we saw a fin emerging from the water near Race Point Light.  With all the recent press about great whites in recent days, images from “Jaws” immediately came to mind. When we got a better look, we realized that it was no great white, but in fact, a blue shark.  Blue sharks can reach lengths of up to 12 feet, and yes, they really do appear to be blue-ish in color.

As several whale watch boats continued to skirt Race Point throughout the day, many fin whales were observed and photographed.  One was swimming in circles, indicating that it had found a patch of food.  Although they feed on similar prey items, feeding fin whales are not as obvious as the humpbacks, who blow rings of bubbles to catch their prey.  Fin whales will swim in circles around their prey before lunging through the school.


The many scars we see on the bodies of our whale populations tell the story of our impact on the oceans.  Notice the scar on the fin whale pictured above, which is likely from a ship strike.