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Naturalist Notebook – April 27 to May 3

On April 27, the seas were flat and calm, the weather was warm, and breaching right whales could be seen in the distance as the Dolphin IX headed out for the first trip of the day.  Birders were treated to the sight of razorbills flying by, and all were excited to see a trio of humpback whales feeding, releasing clouds of bubbles beneath thick schools of jumping fish.  The trio, identified as Nile, Measles, and Evolution, was spotted again during the next trip, along with about a dozen harbor porpoises and minke and fin whales, before all enjoyed a beautiful sunset.


The beautiful conditions continued on April 28, as did the feeding by Nile, Measles, and Evolution.  Today the trio was seen lunging at the surface, mouths engulfing massive volumes of water and fish.  Several other species were encountered, including the individually identifiable fin whale known as “Loon” for the unique marking on its flank.


As is typical of this time of year, the numbers of right whales seen feeding in the distance had dwindled to just a few by April 29.  However, a zooplankton sample taken off Provincetown was so dense a spoon could be left to stand in it – perhaps the plankton was even richer elsewhere, where ever the right and sei whales seen earlier in the month have gone.  East of Cape Cod, over a dozen humpback whales were feeding, including Putter, Mira, Circus, Tunguska, Bounce, Thicket, Ventisca, and Evolution.


Mira, an adult male first seen in 2003, was feeding in an unusual manner, smacking his chin on the surface much as other humpbacks thrash the water with their tails, likely to stun prey before engulfing it.  Over fifty Atlantic white-sided dolphins and around a dozen harbor porpoise were spotted, as well as fin and minke whales and several harbor seals.


The previous day’s dense plankton samples were a harbinger of the large number of feeding right whales in Cape Cod Bay on April 30.  The crew of the  Dolphin IX skirted safely around the right whales, maintaining the 500-yeard distance required by law, and found the trio of humpbacks Nile, Measles, and Evolution slowly lunging beneath the calm surface with mouths full of water and  food in between surfacings.


A feeding fin whale was also seen, along with gray seals and several harbor porpoise.  A light easterly wind did little to change things on May 1, with over a dozen right whales again seen skim feeding on dense ribbons of zooplankton visible at the surface in Cape Cod Bay.


A short net tow from the Dolphin IX revealed a thick soup of copepods along with gelatinous organisms called ctenophores, their iridescent hair-like cilia glistening in the sun.  Nearby, humpbacks Nile, Measles and Evolution were again seen feeding at the surface, blowing bubbles and lunging in pursuit of what appeared to be small herring.


Northern gannets were among the seabirds feeding in the vicinity, plunging into the water from above.  On May 2, the first sightings were well inside Provincetown Harbor, as over two dozen Atlantic white-sided dolphins were spotted.


A fin whale swimming slowly at the surface and a small group of harbor porpoise were seen in Cape Cod Bay, as well as a few right whales feeding off Race Point.


Humpback whales Nile and Measles were spotted outside the Bay, and Measles thrilled passengers and crew alike as she launched her tail clear of the water in behaviors referred to as ‘tail breach’ and ‘lobtail’, displacing massive amounts of water in the thunderous splashes.

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Chilly northeasterly winds on May 3 made it tougher to spot whales amid the whitecaps, but passengers left the heated cabin of the Dolphin IX to line the rails for views of fin, minke, and humpback whales, distant glimpses of right whales, and a few seals.