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Naturalist Notebook – August 10 to August 15

* Saturday, August 10, began with a discussion of “How much food is a ton of fish, anyway,” and “A whale’s throat is how wide?” The youngsters on the morning adventure also taught their parents things like, “Feeding low in the foodweb is more efficient,” and “Blubber is a good thing.” Views of three humpback whales logging together allowed this naturalist to then tell those youngsters just how good it is to take a nap. And because of the new digital-blue microscope on the Dolphin 9, our discussion of green crabs was preceeded by an up-close look at a skeleton shrimp. John Himmelman’s classic, “Ibis, a True Whale Story,” was read to a small group of children while the others revelled in their marintime adventure.
* In case I may have reported it incorrectly in the past, Scylla, one of the whales seen today, is the mother of at least 10. Nile has returned to our waters four times with a calf. And Pinball is the mother of five. Those are the three humpbacks that were seen snoozing together up to the north.
* Of course, whales cannot actually sleep like we know it because they have to think about every breath they take. If you will remember, they rest one hemisphere of their brains at a time, switching back and forth so that both of them get rested. Because of a humpback’s ten inch layer of blubber, it can just lay at the surface floating while it rests. Looking like a log, it just bobs up and down with the swell. Hence the name, logging.
* And then there were the dolphins. Atlantic white-sided dolphins. A group of about 60 were seen by the passengers of the Dolphin 9, just milling about and surfing a little bit in her wake. As we left, they got a little more animated, leaping six to eight feet out of the water.
* August 11 was about feeding finwhales. Nile and Scylla and Pinball were seen to by most of todays trips, but it was the finwhales that were seen lunging beneath the surface. Finwhales are fast. They don’t need to rely on blowing clouds of bubbles beneath the schools of fish to corral them together. They circle around the school and without warning turn to lunge through the fish. It is thought that the asymmetric pigmentation that has their lower jaw colored white on the right side might have something to do with corralling fish, but as of yet science doesn’t know how it works.
* August 12: This just in. A new whale has come to town. Well, not really a new whale. Colt is a male that we have been watching since 1981 when he was a calf swimming around these waters with his mother, Equus. In his youth, Colt was a very curious animal. The term, mugging, was used to describe the way he would approach a boat and almost hold it hostage (if he’s under the boat, the boat can’t move so the whale isn’t harmed). Though he did swim more than twenty-five miles today, it was no exception. The passengers of the Dolphin 10, among others, were treated to a rare look at what humpback whales do when they are not busy looking for food or eating. Rolling belly to the boat, he swam, flipper and left fluke out of the water, from the stern to the bow before swimming back and forth under the vessel at least a half a dozen times.
* This naturalist remembers Colt. The first time I saw Colt, I was whalewatching aboard the Dolphin 7 with Captain Aaron Avellar at the wheel. When we passed Colt, he was going the other way. He spun around so fast to catch up to the Dolphin 7 that it looked like he fish-tailed at the surface of the water. And then for nearly half an hour, the Dolphin 7 had to just remain motionless as the animal swam back and forth beneath the vessel.
* When a whale displays this type of behavior, it gives both the passengers and crew the feeling that it is interacting with us. And, while it is more likely just curious about something very large in its environment, it is easy to find ones self feeling like this moment was about the whale and you, personally, instead of about the whale and the boat. In many ways, a moment like that can become a powerful and compelling moment in someone’s life.
* The weather on August 13, was less than ideal. For those with an adventurous spirit, though, it was good. The seas were flat but, throughout the day, there were showers. Nile and Pinball remained far to the north, feeding beneath the surface deep enough that they got to the surface before their clouds of bubbles. They were joined today by Mogul, a male first seen in 1986.
* Finwhales and minkes were also viewed today, including one minke whale that would come to the surface every 2 minutes and put up a visible spout, making it far more easy to keep the animal close beside the boat for much better looks than you would expect at a minke whale.
* The passengers of the Dolphin 10 also had the opportunity to view a blue shark. A slender animal, the blue shark might be as long as twelve and a half feet. Their preferred food source appears to be squid (very much like the huge schools of squid that are present around the northern end of the cape right now). They have also been seen to feed on the floating carcasses of whales. One such minke whale was seen being consumed by a number of these animals from whalewatches in the early 1990’s.
* Highly migratory, they make their way up the east coast of the United States and across the Atlantic by following the Gulf Stream. Then they make their way along the North African coast and back to the Carribean. At one time, they were probably the most numerous shark in the sea, but overfishing has reduced their numbers to the extent that they are considered endangered.
* One interesting fact about these sharks is that the skin of the females is five times thicker than that of the males. Another is that litters of more than 125 are born alive after almost a year of gestation.
* Also, today a South Polar Skua was seen. One of the reasons these are noteworthy is that they nest only in the southern hemisphere and are inhabitants of the open ocean, making them a rare visitor of the north Atlantic coast.
* August 14 was clear and sunny. And windy and bouncy. There were whales to the north again; humbacks, finwhales, and minkes. Also, in the bouncy and damp seas, a sea turtle was encountered. While sea turtles are not really common here, just a little further south, in Nantucket Sound, they are commonly spotted. There are five species of sea turtles, the most common of which in our waters (as uncommon as they are) are leatherbacks and loggerheads.
* Breaching is when the whale (or shark or ocean sunfish or such) launches its body out the water. This morning, the whalewatchers on the Dolphin 8 were fortunate enough to see a humpback whale breach. Thought to be a way they communicate, a grooming behavior, and play and exercise, breaching is a spectacular sight that most of us can be in awe of without really knowing why they do it. And rightly so. It uses more energy than any other behavior in the animal kingdom. First, imagine being a dolphin and throwing your 450 pound body out of the water or a pilot whale and throwing your 2 1/2 ton body up into the air. Next, imagine being a minke whale and launching your 9 ton body or a humpback whale, tossing 45 tons. Lets not stop there. Right whales weigh 60 to 80 tons and, like all other cetacean species, do breach. Move now to finners at 70 tons and blues at nearly 120+ tons. That’s a lot of energy. Must be very important for one or more reasons.
* August 15 was far calmer than the day before. Cool and crisp, the strong winds and big chop were gone. Blown out. This apparently allowed the whales to take it easy today. Nile and Scylla spent most of the day logging, however, Nile did take the time today to thrill passengers on the Dolphin 7 by raising her long, white flipper up out of the water and slapping it on the surface repeatedly. This is called flippering or flipper-slapping. Thought to be communication and grooming, it might also be about play and excersize among juveniles and calves.
* Only children, in this naturalist’s experience, are brave enough to ask about whale defecation. Today, Nile provided some information on the matter, very clearly, for the passengers of the Dolphin 8. Not having been there myself, I have only the description of the other naturalist to go by. The orange color noted was the item of interest. Nile has been seen feeding beneath the surface by whalewatch vessels fairly frequently over the past nealy two months. Usually, defecation from fish looks brown and runny. When its orange, it is usually a sign that the whale has been feeding on krill. Hard to say. Usually, when feeding on krill, humpbacks don’t blow bubble clouds and she had been doing so.