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Naturalist Notebook –August 8 to August 14

Calm seas and cool air made for a nice day of whale watching on August 8. Naturalists reported three species of baleen whale with 8-10 minkes, 1 fin wale and 3-5 humpback whales. The humpbacks were conducting high-fluking dives throughout the day and it was suspected that the whales were feeding sub-surface. This behaviour is ideal for photo-ID because the whales lift their tails high out of the water allowing enough time to digitally capture the animals unique pigmentation pattern (photo of Sprinkler below). Consequently, many whales were identified including: Wizard, Reflection, Dome and calf, Elephant, Doric, Colt, Tunguska, Storm, Jupiter, Pele, Habenero and calf, and Snowslide.


In the afternoon,  two humpback whales began lob tailing. Snare an individual born in 2007 to Anchor (photo below), put on quite the show!


The captains had their work cut out for them on August 9 as thick fog drastically limited their ability to detect whales visually. When visual scanning for whale spouts is limited, captains will use their radar to detect large objects at the sea-surface. They will also visit areas where whales were last seen (the day previous) and shutoff their engines in hopes of acoustically detecting the animals (just by listening for the whale to exhale). Despite the challenges, three species of baleen whale were found including 4-5 minke whales, 1 fin whale and 6 humpbacks in the morning. The naturalist identified the fin whale almost immediate as Spike because this whale has small propeller wounds just past its dorsal fin. Unfortunately vessel strikes are a leading cause of large whale injury and mortality in the North Atlantic Ocean.


The weather conditions greatly improved as the day progressed as whales could be spotted miles away. While off Peaked Hill a large splash was seen and sure-enough it was the remnants of a breach. The whale watch boat headed over to the active whale and fortunately it continued to breach repeatedly! A curious humpback named Elephant was encountered off Peaked Hill along with a breaching and flipper slapping humpback. In the late afternoon, the whales were keeping low-profiles, surfacing for only 3 breaths and then fluking up and dropping back into the depths. Among those encountered were Jupiter, Snowslide and Storm, three individuals who have been known to form short-term associations this season.


A diversity of marine life was observed on August 10 with four cetacean species documented! While leaving Provincetown Harbour, a small pod of Common dolphins (photo below) were spotted off Long Point (the tip of Cape Cod). The dolphins were seen leaping, spinning and swimming upside-down with their white bellies facing the sky. Common dolphins are considered to be a relatively rare sighting in the summer. On average, adults are 2.3 and 3.3 ft long and weight 180 and 330 lb and adult males are typically larger than adult females. Common dolphins make their living by feeding on various fish species and squid.


Shortly after leaving the dolphins in Cape Cod Bay, 3-4 minke whales and 1 fin whale were observed just off Race Point (the mouth of the bay). The whale watch boat then went east as it transited into the North Atlantic Ocean and found 5 humpback whales off Peaked Hill. Among those identified were Snowslide, Storm, Twine (photo below) and Hazard.


In the afternoon many of the same humpback whales were seen. One of the most memorable moments was when Hazard surface along side the boat, lifting his or her tail out of the water in front of the bowsprit (photos below). Hazard was born to Roswell in 2007 and the sex of this whale is currently unknown.


The momentum continued on August 11 with yet again four species (three baleen and one toothed). In the morning a group of 4 humpback whales appears to be feeding deep down. When all of a sudden, Snowslide threw it’s head above the water and gave us one big breach with flippers extended out to the side (almost looking like it was trying to flap). Spike the fin whale was spotted again along with 7-12 minke whales. While steaming back into Provincetown Harbor another small pod (25-35 individuals) of Common dolphins were spotted!


In the afternoon 6 humpback whales were spotted including Storm, Windrose, Snare and Reflection. The whales were a couple miles of Peaked Hill as well as Highland Light (photo above) and were going on high-fluking dives.

Despite the less than ideal weather conditions (rain) August 12 proved to be an exciting day for whale watching. In the morning two well known humpback whales named Elephant and Windrose were spotted. Elephant was first seen in 2007 but not as calf so we don’t know how old this individual is or who its mother is. Windrose appears to have found a school of sand lace that was taking cover a few feet under the whale watch boat because he or she rushed to the surface only a few feet from the boat. In the afternoon, the humpback whales became active with frequent bouts of breaching and flipper slapping next to the boat!


The weather conditions were much more favourable on August 13 and three kinds of marine mammals were spotted. In the morning, 4 humpback whales, 5-6 minke whales and 1 harbour seal were seen. One of the humpbacks named Windrose was going on beautiful fluking dives next to the boat. Another humpback named Elephant was observed logging (or resting at the surface). After leaving Elephant, an unknown humpback whales gave a great close boat approach (photo below).To conclude the morning whale watch, a mother named Skateboard was spotted with her calf. The pair swam along with the boat as it jogged forward in beautiful green tinted calm water so that everyone could see the whales in perfect full length detail. Both of the sightings provided great opportunities to appreciate the size of the animals (~45-55 feet) and to observe the unique features of humpback whales (e.g., tubercles, barnacles, long-white pectoral flippers). Their two blowholes (photo below) were clearly visible as the whales took deep breaths before submerging.


In the afternoon, the whale watch boat found almost a dozen minke whales off Race Point and then headed for Peaked Hill where Snowslide, Storm, Jupiter, Windrose, Elephant, Aerospace and Skateboard and calf were found. The whales appeared to be feeding only a few feet below the surface as they were charging around randomly and aggressively surfacing. The whales were spending a great deal of time at the surface, which afforded great looks! To top things off, a pod of 75-100 Atlantic white-sided dolphins were spotted!!

August 14 was perhaps the most exciting day to be on the water. The seas were incredibly calm, the sky was bright blue and the wind was low. To start off the morning we had two extremely curious humpbacks–Elephant and Samara. These whales approached the boat and rested almost motionless beside us. At one point Elephant went on a shallow dive under our boat and released a cloud of playful bubbles on our starboard side! Shortly after, Elephant rolled over onto its side revealing its left eye and ventral pleats (photo below). Recent wounds most likely caused by bottom feeding where found on the whale’s right jaw as well (photo below). After leaving the curious humpbacks we encountered a pod of common dolphins that were leaping, swimming upside down and surfacing right next to the boat. And at the end of our morning trip three humpback whales were spotted–Skateboard, her calf and an escort whale!


The conditions only got better as the day progressed with almost glassy calm seas. While heading northeast of Peaked Hill we found 50-70 Risso’s dolphins!! An extremely rare sighting for a whale watch because these dolphins are usually found in depths of 400-1000 (far outside the range of Stellwagen Bank where the whale watch boats usually go). Adult Risso’s dolphins are about 10 ft long although they may reach lengths of 14 ft. Risso’s dolphins have a mottled grey colour that almost looks like scarring (photos below). The dolphins moved slowly through the water and some individuals even breached (photos below).

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After leaving the dolphins, 6-7 humpback whales were spotted (including Relfection, Lobo and Tripod). The whales were almost as calm as the sea with relatively low profiles with shallow dives.