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Naturalist Notebook –August 1 to August 7

August 1 proved to be a spectacular day for whale watching. In the morning three species of baleen whale were observed–10 humpbacks, 6 minkes and 1 fin whale. The minke whales (photo below) were charging through the water, surfacing with their snout out of the water and showing their white pectoral flippers. The calm seas permitted excellent looks at an otherwise cryptic baleen species.


The Kalmar Nyckle (a tall ship from Delaware) was seen sailing in Cape Cod Bay as the Dolphin Fleet returned from the morning whale watch.


In the early afternoon 6 humpback whales began surface feeding on sand lance. Among those feeding were Putter an adult male born in 1993 to Mars. Putter was seen dragging with hundreds of shearwaters following him (photo below). Dragging is a feeding behaviour whereby after catching hundreds of forage fish, humpback whales swim forward with their heads above water and their mouth slightly agape, meanwhile their expanded throat is contracting and the salt water is being forced out between the plates of baleen, leaving behind the fish.


In the late afternoon 15-18 humpback whales were seen off the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank. The whales appeared to have shifted gears and instead of surface feeding, the humpbacks were displaying active behaviours such as lob tailing, breaching and flipper slapping! Among the active whales were Jupiter, Windrose, Reflection, and Pele.


The lighting was beautiful as the sunset trip concluded in Provincetown Harbor.


The summer haze didn’t last long on August 2 as the clouds broke and blue skies prevailed during the morning trip. 8 humpback whales and 2-3 minke whales were spotted not very far from shore. Among the humpbacks were Palette and her calf. Palette was born in 1989 to Compass and today she was seen with her 7th calf. Hopefully this calf will return to Stellwagen Bank as a yearling and will be given a name based on a unique marking found on the underside of the whales tail. Several other known humpbacks were seen as well including: Storm, Bounce, Convict, Tunicate, Windrose, Leapfrog, Samara, Northstar, Pumba, Pumpkinseed, Snare, and Sprinkler.

In the early afternoon one humpback whale became curious. With the boat engines turned off, this curious humpback surface alongside the boat. The whale would frequently dive under the boat offering passengers located on both port and starboard a close look. As the whale surfaced its blowholes were clearly visible, along with the whales tubercles or hair follicles.


A few of these whales became active as the day progressed. For example, Samara and Snare conducted several tail breaches (photo below). Full spinning breaches were also observed.


The winds were blowing on August 3 and the whales were feeding up a storm. 15-17 humpbacks and 10-13 minke whales were seen in the morning. The humpbacks were surface feeding, some whales were using bubble nets and other were relying on bubble clouds to catch their prey. Several humpbacks were also seen dragging (photo below).


Among the feeding whales were a few discarded balloons. Unfortunately these toys pose a real threat to marine animals, particularly to sea turtles who often mistake these seemingly benign objects for a jelly fish.


As the day moved forward the feeding frenzy continued but with greater intensity. Naturalists counted 30-35 humpback whales all foraging in just off of Peaked Hill. The prey appeared to have moved closer to the surface and consequently the humpback whales were surfacing with wide-open-mouths. Some humpbacks were also displaying spontaneous active behaviours such as flipper slapping and breaching (photos below). It was by far one of the most spectacular whale watching days this year.


The whales continued to display active behaviours on August 4. Naturalists counted 23-31 humpback whales and 16 mink whales in the morning. Among the humpback whales seen were Dome and calf, Putter, Pogo and Tear. Many of the whales were engaged in sight-specific feeding behaviours such as kick-feeding. Kick-feeding is a very dynamic behaviour whereby an individual will smack the surface of the water with their flukes (hopefully disorienting a school of prey located near the surface) and then conduct a shallow dive under the school of fish. Many of the whales followed their kick-feeds with bubble clouds and then surfaced with wide-open-mouths. Thousands of birds (e.g., common terns, laughing gulls, great shearwaters, and sooty shearwaters) flocked over to where the whales were feeding. While the whales were dragging, the birds would follow hoping to scoop up a fish that had escaped.


The whales feeding apparatus (baleen) was clearly visible when the whales surfaced through a school of fish with open mouths. Among the feeding whales was perhaps the most famous humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine–Salt. Salt was first seen in 1976 by Captain Aaron Avellar who started the Dolphin Fleet and she has faithfully returned to Stellwagen Bank to feed every year but one since 1976.


As the day progressed the dynamic feeding behaviours continued, along with some playful behaviours such as lob tailing!

High-winds threatened the sea conditions on August 5 but despite the weather reports, the seas remained calm. At least 30 humpbacks and 10-12 minke whales were seen off of Peaked Hill during the morning. The humpbacks were yet again surface feeding and naturalists documented kick-feeding, bubble nets and even surface lunges!  Later in the day, Elephant and Vertex and calf were spotted. The three whales were hard to miss since they were conducting coordinated flipper slapping (i.e., two whales flipper slapping at once) followed by full spinning breaches and chin breaches. At one point, Vertex was rolled over onto her back and was flipper slapping while her calf was breaching beside her!


The active behaviours continued throughout the day as Calderas and calf were conducing full spinning breaches followed by countless chin breaches and several lob tails!


The humpbacks weren’t far from shore on August 6 as 15 whales were observed just off of Peaked Hill. The naturalists identified several humpbacks including: Pumba, Elephant, Bounce, Echo, Longboard, Convict, Stonewall, Pleats, Pharos, Windrose, Cantilever, Sprinkler, Seal and Gunslinger.  A couple of humpbacks became curious of the whale watch vessel, allowing the passengers to fully appreciate the size of the animals (~45-55 feet long). The captain would use his sonar to watch as the whales traveled only a few feet under the boat, predicting where and when the whales would resurface. Humpacks weren’t the only curious animals, as a young habor seal popped up next to the boat and proceeded to swim around the boat. The calm  seas permitted excellent looks at the curious seal.


As the day progressed the whales became active. One particularly active whales was Snowslide, who conducted numerous chin breaches beside the boat.


The whales had changed locations on August 7 as many humpbacks were found on the Southedge of Stellwagen Bank. During the morning trip a resting humpback whale named Longboard was encountered. Longboard was born in 2007 to Reaper and has been seen consistently throughout the 2012 whale watch season. Longboard soon traded rest for curiosity as he or she closely approached the boat. Once Longboard finally lost interested in the whale watch boat, a flipper slapping humpback named Convict was seen.

In the afternoon, 4-5 minke whales and 1 grey seal were seen just off Race Point, and 9-10 humpback whales were seen near Stellwagen Bank. Fortunately, the humpbacks maintained the enthusiasm witness earlier that day, as several whales were lob tailing (photo below) and tail breaching! The day concluded with a spectacular breach (soon followed by an incredible splash) by Salt!