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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – May 28 to June 3

May 28th was gray and foggy, and we headed to the waters north of the Race Point station, where we found a small group of humpback whales.  Bayou, Scylla, and Hancock were thought to be bottom feeding as they embarked on long dives, popping up about a quarter mile from the boat each time.  Luckily, our top-notch spotters aboard the Dolphin VIII could immediately spot them and keep them in sight.



Hancock is a female born in 1991.  As we made the turn to head back to the docks, we noticed a big splash off our port side.  Either Scylla or Hancock had breached!  Most passengers just saw the splash, but a few lucky ones were able to catch a glimpse of one of these enormous humpbacks jumping out of the water.   On the way back to port, we also saw a huge gray seal who had just found a delicious fish to eat.  It was tossing it in the air, and the gulls were trying to steal chunks of it.

In the afternoon, we came back to the same spot and the number of humpbacks in the area had increased to about 8 or 9, although their lack of surface time indicated that their food was probably down deep.  We did get wonderful looks at Ase, a female first seen in 1983.  Ase is named for the asymmetrical appearance of her fluke, both the pigmentation, and the very ragged trailing edge.




On May 29th we explored new water off Truro, up by the BD buoy marking the shipping lanes into Boston.  In doing so, we crossed waters almost 500 feet deep!  This is quite a change from our normal meanderings, where at most, we are in 210 feet of water.  There, the Dolphin IX  encountered a very fast traveling fin whale, as well as Nile, a perennial visitor to Stellwagen Bank.

Fin whale

Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VIII, the search for whales took them to an area to the southeast, where humpbacks were seen previously.  Instead, they found several fin whales, as well as an unusually curious Minke whale, who came over to the boat and dove under them!

The afternoon had more luck getting solid looks at humpbacks, as each boat encountered a mother and calf pair.  Aboard the Dolphin IX, there were excellent looks at Pinstripe and her calf.



Pinstripe's 2011 Calf

Pinstripe’s 2011 Calf

Pinstripe was first seen in 1997 and this is her second calf thus far.   Her extremely active calf was tail breaching, surfing the ever increasing waves, and even completed one full spinning head breach!

tail breach1tailbreach2

On May 30th we traveled way up north to find that the humpbacks had continued to spread out.   We located a total of four humpbacks in the morning, including Glo, Rune, and Vulture and her new calf.  Vulture was first seen in 1988 and this is her 6th calf.

Vulture and calf

Vulture and calf

Humpback whales generally give birth every two to three years.  It takes a long time to recover from giving birth to a one ton calf with a one year gestation period!

The mid-day trip aboard the Dolphin VIII traveled north to catch up with this fast moving pair, and were able to get a few quick looks as they frequently surfaced.


An extra big Minke popped up within a few feet of the humpback pair.  Although Minkes can grow to be 30 feet long, most of the Minkes that we see in the Gulf of Maine are juveniles, and are noticeably smaller.

This was also a banner day for birdwatchers.  We had sightings of Wilson’s storm petrels, Northern gannets, a Sooty Shearwater, a Parasitic Jaeger, Common Loons, and one Iceland Gull!

Cool bird sightings continued into May 31st when we saw an Osprey just north of Race Point beach in Provincetown.  Sometimes known as fish eagles or sea hawks, these birds of prey can occasionally be seen several miles out at sea cruising for fish.   We were heading east towards Highland Light in search of a new gathering of whales when we heard a report of a fin whale near Race Point.  We turned around to take a look, and on the way saw a Minke whale making a brief appearance.  We also saw a school of some very large bluefin tuna — a good sign that the food source for whales is here!  When we got back to the Race, we found the fin whale we had been hoping to see —  Loon, a large animal known for the Loon shaped scar on its left side, just below the dorsal.



We spent about 20 minutes watching Loon swim in wide circles, an indication that it was probably finding some sort of food below the surface.  Another fin whale popped up just as we were leaving, and when we returned to the same spot on the afternoon trip, we identified it as Braid, another whale easily identifiable by its scars.


Braid and Loon were in the same general area, but were not associating with each other, as is typical for fin whales.  Instead, they swam in wide circles, which made keeping track of their movements a bit of a challenge.  Loon slowed down for a time and made a few slow rolls, typical of feeding lunges, but we never saw her with her mouth open.

On our evening trip, we got a few looks at a very long diving humpback whale, making the species count for the day a total of 3.  Throughout the day, passengers were also awed by the bizarre optical quality of the horizon.  Light passing through air layers of different temperatures causes the optical illusion known as Fata Morgana, in which objects on the horizon look distorted.  Manomet point, an area south of Plymouth which we can usually see on our trips, looked like it was floating in mid-air!

Braid stayed put at the mouth of Cape Cod Bay and on June 1st we got excellent look at this fin whale, despite his 10 minute dives.   Then, as if out of nowhere, a small humpback came up right next to the boat!  This little whale came up first on the starboard side of the Dolphin VIII, then the port, causing excited passengers to rush back and forth across the deck.  We never knew where it would come up next!  It was also blowing bubbles, which can be indicative of feeding, but in this case, we presumed that it was social behavior, as we never saw it feed.  Although we never saw the fluke, its distinct dorsal fin will hopefully give us a clue to its identity.

Mystery humpback

Loon, one of the favorite fin whales of the Dolphin Fleet, reappeared off Race Point on June 2nd, and we got great looks at this enormous animals.  In addition to being very large, fin whales are also very fast, capable of moving in bursts of speed exceeding 20 miles an hour.  For that reason, we always feel very privileged to get to see them as close as we did today.

Fin whale jawline

In the above photo, notice the white lower jaw of this fin whale.  Fin whales are unique in the animal kingdom in that their right side is pigmented differently from their left.  This bright white lower jaw is characteristic of all fin whales.  Also notice the yellow coloration around the whale’s mouth.  This is caused by diatoms, nearly microscopic phytoplankton which sometimes make their homes on the whale’s skin.

After spending some time with Loon, we headed east toward Highland Light in Truro, where we found Division and her second known calf.

Highland Light

Highland Light

Division, a large female born in 1991, was kick feeding as her calf stayed at the surface nearby.  Kick feeding is a behavior only observed in humpbacks in the last 20 years, which seems to be an effective way of corralling sand lance, their primary source of food in the Gulf of Maine.

Division with gull on head

Gulls are often lured to the area where whales are feeding so that they can grab any uneaten fish from the surface.  In the photo above, a gull rests atop Division’s head, as Division filters water out between her baleen plates and swallows hundreds of pounds of fish whole.

On June 3rd, Braid and Loon were still holding court at the mouth of Cape Cod Bay.  Their tall spouts could be seen in with the Pilgrim Monument in Provincetown as a backdrop.

Ptown finners

These fin whales appeared to be feeding sub-surface, and on several occasions they surfaced with their ventral pleats extended, pushing water out of their mouths, indicating that they had found a big school of fish on which to feed.


After getting wonderful looks at these whales along side the boat, we decided to explore more of Cape Cod Bay to see if there were any whales to be found.   Immediately we saw that the bay was filled with Gray seals.  These are the larger of the two seals most commonly seen in Cape Cod Bay, and are distinguished by their horse-like profile.  Their unflattering Latin name, Halichoerus grypus, can be roughly translated to mean “Hook-nosed sea pig”.

Gray Seal

Eventually, we came across a very elusive fin whale towards the end of the trip.  The Dolphin VIII joined us by this whale and was able to get better identification shots of this whale’s dorsal fin, tentatively ID’ing it as a whale named Bond.


The distinctive nick at the base of this whale’s dorsal fin will make it easier for us to identify this whale as a unique individual.

Dolphin IX crew

The crew aboard the Dolphin IX searches for whales