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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – 18 September to 26 September

After a rainy evening, we left port on September 18th under bright, sunny skies.  We spent much of our time near the site of the old Peaked Hill Buoy, where the rolling dunes of Provincetown and Truro are well within sight.

On the way out, we encountered a Mola Mola, otherwise known as an ocean sunfish.  These bizarre looking creatures are seen off the coast of Cape Cod with some regularity in late summer and early fall.  They can way hundreds, sometimes thousands of pounds, although they subsist primarily on jellyfish.

Mola mola
Mola mola

On our mid-day trip, we were somewhat amused, though not entirely surprised, to find a group of six humpbacks traveling together.  What was funny was how familiar the scenario was–a group consisting of Cajun and her calf, Whisk and her calf, Milkweed, and another unidentified humpback.

These two mom and calf pairs were seen with Milkweed nearly every day at the beginning of the season, and it wasn’t until mid summer that the group split.  Cajun and her calf remained mainstays east of Stellwagen Bank, but Whisk and her calf have only just returned to the area recently.  Considering the ephemeral nature of most humpback whale groups, we were surprised to see Whisk and her calf rejoin her old cohorts!

September 19th was another beautiful day with light winds from the southeast.   Another Mola mola, a half a dozen Minkes, one fin whale, and at least 16-17 humpbacks were gathered near the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank.  Cajun and her calf had broken off from Whisk and calf, and Freefall and Belly had joined the crowd.  Even as the end of the season is near, we continue to see new humpback whales all the time.  Today, we saw a young humpback named Seafan.  Seafan was first seen in 2008; however, we don’t know the age or the sex of this whale.  All that we know is that this whale is easily identifiable by the unique pattern on the underside of its tail.


After  heavy winds prevented our boats from leaving shore a day, we headed out towards Stellwagen Bank on September 21st, pleased to see that that the sun was out and that the wind had died down substantially.   Between 16 and 20 humpbacks were seen in the Triangle, east of Stellwagen Bank, alone as well as in pairs.   Cajun and her calf were seen traveling side-by-side, uncharacteristically lacking escorts.  They were, however, joined by a number of seabirds, one of which touched down on Cajun’s back!


Later, we had a very close look at an unknown humpback whale who came right up to the side of the Dolphin VII and peered up at us.  We did not know the identity of this whale, but we noticed that it was relatively small in size, indicating that it might be a juvenile.  It can take 5-10 years for humpbacks to reach full maturity, and it is sometimes possible to tell when they are still young, not only by their small size but also occasionally by their curious behavior.


As if we hadn’t had enough excitement for one day, we ended the trip with a sighting of a harbor seal right in Cape Cod Bay.


September 22nd was bright, but also windy and a bit choppy.  However, as veteran whale watchers know, sometimes bouncy conditions make for great whale watching.  Sure enough, one of our boats spent 20 minutes watching Salt and her calf, Zelle, rolling and flipper slapping.  Salt was first seen in 1976 and this is her twelfth calf that we know of.  At this time of year, calves are becoming more and more independent as they prepare to leave their mothers.  Today, Zelle was imitating mom by raising its long white flipper into the air and smacking it down on the water.


While Zelle is sticking by its mothers’ side, Perseid’s calf is behaving quite differently, often going off on jaunts lasting almost an hour!  On September 23rd, we came across Perseid’s calf, with mom nowhere in sight.  We watched as Perseid’s calf traveled all over the place, mostly at random.  It wasn’t for at least a half an hour that it was joined by its mother.

In addition to the 8-15 humpbacks seen on each trip throughout the day, we also had a mid-sized pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.  Our naturalist estimated that there were between 90 and 120 of these small toothed cetaceans.


Often mistaken for dolphins are the gigantic bluefin tuna.  As they leap out of the water, their shiny ventral surfaces glinting in the sun can sometimes fool even experienced whale watchers into thinking that they are looking at dolphins.  A quick photographer with knowledge of both animals’ behavior can usually tell the difference.


We ended the week on September 24th with another great sighting of Perseid’s calf, going solo once more, this time breaching away.  Maybe trying to get its mother’s attention?  Later, we watched Circuit’s calf breaching as well, although mom was close by, accompanied by a third, unidentified whale.  Circuit’s calf is a humpback we hope to be able to recognize next season based on the markings on the underside of its fluke.  One of our captains suggested that we give it a name based on the “smiley face” markings on its tail!