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John Conlon’s Fin Whale Update




John C. Conlon


September is passing quickly! Days are cooler, shorter and considerably less busy on the boats. Our fin sightings have come and gone in waves. Early August, like the later part of July, had many fin whale sightings. Many of those sightings were in the Race Point Channel. Change, however, is one of life’s few consistencies.


Now that we are in mid-September, we are seeing few, and on some days no fin whales. Not only are these whales not along our line of travel but for all the searching we do we are often not seeing them at all. The overall number of fin whales is high this year, though there has been variation in sighting consistency over the season. We have had minimal sightings of the fin whale’s closest relative, the Minke whale, across the summer. This is a noticeable change over the past two summers when we had steady sightings and relatively high numbers of both species. This year we have even higher numbers of fin whales while we have much lower numbers of minke whales.


As photographic data comes in, we now have a minimum of four additional individual fin whales bringing our yearly total to 48. One additional fin whale is Sunspot. She had a calf in 2007 and we regularly saw her in the Race Point Beach area last year. Sightings of her have been far fewer this year. We should also remember our four mother and calf pairs. One of whom (unnamed though previously known, 07 064) we continue to see occasionally. If all these records hold up, that will bring our grand total to 56 individuals including the calves so far this year.


On a very different note, I often say fin whale presence in our area and human interest in fin whales changes over time. With that in mind it is interesting to look at the human interactions with fin whales in local waters in the 1800s. In a paper titled, Humpback and Fin Whaling in the Gulf of Maine from 1800 to 1918, published in Marine Fisheries Review (64(1), pp 1-12), Reeves, Smith, Webb, Robbins and Clapham described in detail the period’s hunting of fin whales. Fin whales were certainly more heavily hunted between the 1860s and 1890s than the preceding period. Through those years there was a substantial menhaden fishery and during those years menhaden oil and whale oil were considered interchangeable. Ships could quickly adapt from fishing to whaling. Those authors report that “in 1885 the Fanny Sprague caught 245 bbl of mackerel in one week and took a large fin whale the next week”.


During those 119 years the majority of whaling activity would have been between the late winters through the autumn. This is the time period when most fin and humpback whales are in local waters. During the earlier half of that time period humpbacks and occasional right whales would have been the preferred target. Both would have been easier to approach, were easier to secure when killed, and yielded proportionately more oil per whale than would fin whales. Humpbacks yielded twice as much oil per unit of length and right whales were so depleted by 1800 that they were rarely taken in the 1800s. According to records, fin whales were taken more regularly beginning in 1846.

If we look at catches by Provincetown vessels and landings in Provincetown by any vessels we see marked changes between 1846 and 1896. During this period explosive harpoon technology would be incorporated into the industry in the 1850s and 1860s while the use of steamers would become more noticeable among the schooner fleets in the 1880s. The exact numbers of fin whales taken are difficult to gauge. A reference to 1880 states, “40 mainly FW” taken, is just one example of the difficulty. Having said that, a minimum of 5 fin whales were landed in Provincetown between 1846 and 1872. By contrast at least 70 fin whales were landed in Procvincetown between 1880 and 1896. Another example of the difficulty though is a reference to 1887 when 102 whales were “Delivered to Provincetown oil works; probably FW and HB”. This later note is in reference to only one year.


Two additional notes are also worth consideration here. First, some of these catches were non-directed. Whales killed but not secured by the whalers would later be picked up by other vessels. Other fin whales would become entangled in fishing gear, a serious problem that persists to this day. Still other fin whales would become trapped in fish traps. In any case the non-directed effort would yield profits from a dead fin whale. The second consideration is that records and publications became more widespread over this time period. Meanwhile, older records would become more difficult to find as time passes and that assumes that other older records still exist at all. This second consideration of records leaves the caution that any of these overall numbers could be conservative especially if we consider that the aforementioned “102”, “probably FW and HB” were not added to these numbers and it is, again, only one example.


If hunting of fin whales occurred locally today those whalers might have done well in the Race Point Channel during July. They would likely not have taken any fin whales locally from late August through mid-September. Their experience would be similar to our own through this time as our sightings have been rare. We find each new year what we researchers and whale watchers have found pretty much every year since whale watching began locally in the late 1970’s. Indeed it is also what those whalers knew through the 1800s. Fin whale numbers can vary, sometimes greatly, within any given area and can also vary over time. Likely much of that variability is in response to food distribution in general and sand lance distribution in particular, though back in the 1800s the fin whales would more likely have been responding to herring–like fish rather than sand lance. We will soon see how our last month and a half of whale watching is regarding fin whales. How many fin whales and where are they, only the future will tell.