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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – April 17 to

April 17– strong winds, high seas. All trips cancelled

April 18 brings rain showers. Despite this, we are able to find humpback and finback whales as well as North Atlantic right whales. Our progress is slow, but the whales remain near the rich waters off Provincetown. Two finback whales and two humpback whales are sighted in the morning. One of the humpback whales is an unknown first photographed last year. The finbacks are the fist mother/calf pair of the season. We are able to approach carefully and get an amazing view of both the mother and her small calf.

Finback mother with her calf
Finback mother with her calf

Nearby, one small harbor seal appeared to be treading water and watching us with its large eyes.  Other than cetaceans, seals are the only other marine mammal found in Cape Cod waters. Our waters are too cold for manatees and too warm for polar bears. All seals are called pinnipeds, derived from the Latin meaning wing- or feather-footed. They have a streamlined, torpedo-shaped body adapted for swimming and often are observed basking on coastal islands and sand bars. Seals primarily eat fish and invertebrates; the most common food items include squid, herring, mackerel and sand lance. By afternoon a few more whales moved into the Bay. The humpbacks were small and not photographed previously and there was no sign of the mother/calf finback.

April 19 was bright with cool Northeasterly winds. In the Bay we spotted several Atlantic white-sided dolphins and 8 small humpback whales. One humpback, the largest of the group was Whirligig, born to Pinball in 2000. Activity ranged from logging, a resting phase, to kick feeding. One of the small humpbacks continually slapped its flukes on the surface, diving in the froth blowing a cloud of bubbles. Occasionally, it surfaced with its mouth open feasting on the abundant small fish. Although there was less surface activity in the afternoon, at least 6 finback whales were sighted and over 200 dolphins. The dolphins were traveling with both finbacks and humpback whales, not a surprise as they feed on the same small fish. Like most toothed whales, white-sided dolphins are highly social animals. Most of their activities are carried out within the security of the pod. They work cooperatively and efficiently to herd prey and protect and nurture their young. While little is known about white-sided dolphins, it is believed the pods are comprised of related females and their offspring, both calves and juveniles, and several adult males.

Atlantic white-sided dolphins on the bow. IMG_9132

April 20 was a beautiful, bright day with light Northerly winds. Five species of whales, fin, humpback, Minke whales, white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoise were sighted. Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales in Cape Cod waters, this seemingly small whale is actually about 20’ long! Minke whales are also known as the little piked whale, perhaps because of their pointed snout visible when the whale first surfaces. In the waters off Cape Cod, Minkes are sighted year round, yet, little is known about their lives. Sightings on Stellwagen are primarily of one individual or small groups of two or three. Unlike other species in the area, it is rare to see mothers with calves. Some researchers speculate that the Minkes of Cape Cod are primarily juveniles. One of the finback whales rolls on its side and lunges, mouth open, catching the small sand eels it has corralled. However we notice that there are few birds in the area, unusual for this time of the year. Two of the humpback whales, both juveniles are identified as Magma and Aerospace. Aerospace is sighted again in the afternoon and circled around the boat occasionally blowing bubbles. Also identified is Backgammon, named last spring. Three small whales approach and circle the boat, one lifting its long white flippers in the air in a behavior called flipper slapping.

April 21 was sunny and calm. Our first sighting, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and a small humpback whale (sighted first last year and to be named this year) were inside Long Point. Out in the Bay we see several spouts, more dolphins and 2 harbor seals. Two small humpbacks, Northstar and an unknown from last year approached and slowly circled the DVIII affording all an incredible view of the entire whale. Several finback whales were sighted, one close enough to photograph and 3 more small humpback whales. It seems to be a spring phenomena that small whales, many not known as calves, come into Cape Cod Bay to feed.


There was more activity in the afternoon and many of the finback whales were lunging across the surface to catch prey. In the calm waters we were able to get a view of a small group of harbor porpoise and several dolphins.  And as in the morning, 6 to 8 humpback whales, all juveniles, were sighted. In the distance we sighted one North Atlantic right whale skim feeding and we paused to look at this critically endangered whale.  Although far away, it was an opportunity for those on board to see one of the rarest mammals. On the sunset whale watch the whales had moved further into the Bay. On our way we saw a huge splash towards shore. Northstar and an unknown from last year were breaching and chin breaching. Set against the dunescape, it was a spectacular sight! As we approached, Northstar began feeding, lunging out of the water, mouth open and closing it in mid air.  All in all an incredible day of watching whales close to Provincetown.

feeding lunge IMG_9206

April 22 was hazy and mild. Leaving the float, we approach the L-shaped breakwater, protecting the harbor from severe storm surges. It is both barrier and home. Along the lower rocks sit common eider ducks, now year-round residents of Provincetown and lining the top, dark, lithe double crested cormorants stretch out their wings. Double-crested cormorants are amazing and unusual marine birds. They fish for a living and dive for fish and marine invertebrates from the water’s surface. They have been known to swallow pebbles to help them dive to greater depths. After catching a fish, the cormorant surfaces, flips the fish in the air and swallows it head-first. They do not have well-developed oil glands that produce the waterproofing oil that protects most marine birds.   Therefore their feathers are not water-proof and get drenched. Cormorants often drip dry their feathers by perching on the breakwater and stretching out their wings to the wind. They nest in colonies and you easily can see their nests of sticks, twigs and seaweed dotting the higher rocks. The double-crested cormorant is a little more than two feet long with a wingspan of about four feet. It has dark brown to black feathers, a long hooked bill with an orange throat pouch, a long tail, and webbed black feet. Unlike most birds, males and females look alike.

Morning sightings include 7 finback whales, 2 juvenile humpbacks, a small pod of dolphins and 3-4 harbor seals. The finback whales are fast moving and occasionally surface feed.

fast moving finback whale IMG_9179

One humpback whale was steadily moving into the bay. We recognized its dorsal fin as that of a whale sighted last year, yet to be named. A few more humpbacks were sighted in to afternoon along with a small pod of dolphins and 3 finback whales.  All of the humpback whales were small and unknown to our naturalist, a common occurrence in the spring. Later in the day a few of the humpbacks started to feed by lunging at the surface. Again today, few marine birds are in the area, often an indicator of the availability- or absence- of food.

April 23 was bright with Northeasterly winds. It seems as if there are fewer whales in the Bay today and we are able to find 3 finback and 3 humpback whales. Two of the humpback whales are active however, jumping out of the water head first and spinning in mid-air.  Few birds are sighted and we move a bit further North to see if there are whales offshore. We have excellent visibility but no whales are in sight! By afternoon, only 6 humpbacks are in the Bay. Four of the whales are identified, 3 sighted first last year and to be named this spring and Aerospace. Aerospace was sighted first in 2007 and named in 2008 for a black spaceshuttle-like mark on its right fluke.