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Naturalist Notebook – July 20 to July 26

* July 20, was a lesson for the mate and the naturalist of the Dolphin VIII. Despite the implausibility of how minke whales got their name, the crew of the Dolphin VIII showed that it is possible that it did happen just that way. While watching a finback whale, their attention was caught by a spouting minke whale (in fairness, minke whales very rarely put up a visible spout) and guided the captain to the minke instead of the finwhale that was nearly three times its size. As it turned out, it was a good thing. Some incredibly good looks were had at the minke as it swam just beneath the surface, its epaulettes making it easy to follow as it swam just beneath the surface. (Epaulettes are the white bands across the upper surface of a minke whale’s flippers that appear green because of the phytoplankton present in the nearby waters.) It also enabled the passengers to view the rather distinctly “rostrum-first” surfacing of the minke whale.
* The passengers of the Dolphin IX were also treated to a visit from a Cecropia Moth that joined them aboard the vessel some eight miles off shore.
* And, yes, Nile was still on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. After the past couple of weeks, Nile may very well be catching up to Salt as the most photographed humpback in the Gulf of Maine.

* Both Nile and an inidentified finback whale spent most of July 21 feeding beneath the surface of the water. Nile’s bubble clouds were repeatedly seen rising to the surface as she did or even afterwards, indicating the lunges had taken place around mid-water. Once the lunge has taken place and the rorquals are extended out, the whale (even a finback) is so poorly hydrodynamically designed that bubbles rise far more quickly than they are able to.
* A number of minke whales were also seen during the early afternoon. Many of these whales were seen in very close proximity of each other, but diving at differing times and for differing durations. These animals would not be said to be associated with each other. It would be like going to a restaurant where there were numerous other people that were all sitting at different tables.

* The big news of July 22 would have to have been the North Atlantic Right Whale that was swimming around Provincetown Harbor. Likey a juvenile, this animal was smaller than you would have expected for a species that can be as long as forty-five or fifty-five feet and weigh as much as sixty or eighty tons. Also, the animal appeared to be free of gear and showed no signs of trauma.
* Nile continued to feed beneath the surface on the southwest corner of the bank, fluking up as she dove deeper beneath the surface.
* Two other reports of fluking whales were given today. Both of the reports were of a finback whale lifting its tail above the surface of the water before it went down deeper. You are more likely to see a finback whale breach than you are to see it fluke up. In fact, the flukes of a finwhale always seemed to this naturalist to be quite small to be propelling the second largest animal that ever existed on this planet through the water.
* By the way, the undersides of a finwhale’s flukes are fairly nondescript. White, for the most part, with just a thin edging of darker pigment along the trailing edge. Not much use in identifying these animals as individuals. That is why the dorsal fin, the blaze and chevron, and any scars on the body are far more useful for that purpose.

* Skeg continued to wow whalewatch passengers on July 23 by fluking up and showing the underside of its tail. Seeing a finwhale lift its tail once is a very rare thing, but to have one in this area continuing to do so over a period of days. . . Well, as one of the naturalists with more experience than most of the others put it, it “was a high point of my career with fin whales.”
* A new humpback whale was found on Stellwagen Bank, heading to the north. Scylla is a female we have been watching since she was first photographed, as a calf, in 1981. She is the mother of eight and the daughter of Istar. It was Istar that was found dead on the beaches of Long Island earlier this season.
* At one point, the weather was reported to be so strange today that it was pouring on the port side of the Dolphin X and dry to the starboard.

* July 24 was an excellent example of just how dynamic an environment exists in the nearshore waters around the Cape. Yesterday, there were a handful of minke whales, a humpback whale, and several finback whales spotted from the whalewatch boats. Today, as I have numerous times told passengers, the past had nothing to do with the present. Out to the east, nearly as far as the boats could make it in their allotted time, a large group of feeding humpback whales was spotted. They were engaging in a number of the behaviors associated with corralling fish into a tighter ball, including kicking the surface with their tails and the blowing of bubbles. Most exciting was the fact that the fish appeared to be very close to the surface so that the humpbacks broke the surface many times with their mouths still open, allowing a wonderful look at how the baleen hangs down from the upper jaw and the extended rorqual grooves on the underside of their bodies.
* At one point, Salt was spotted. The Grande Dame of Stellwagen Bank, this female has been delighting whalewatchers since her first sighting in 1976. Not seen as a calf herself, she will not help us understand how long the species lives, but her twelve calves and numerous grandchildren will. It was photographs of Salt that showed that the humpbacks feeding here in the summer season were some of the ones that used the area around Silver Bank and Samana Bay as a mating and calving ground. And, because of her easily identifiable fluke pattern and just as identifiable dorsal fin, she has done as much as any whale biologist or naturalist to raise the consciousness of whalewatchers to the importance of studying living whales as individuals.
* Also seen today was Putter, the 1993 calf of Mars. His social skills, both with humpbacks and with boats, and his feeding techniques make him a continued favorite among whalewatchers. Also seen was Reaper, the 1987 calf of Andromeda and mother of 4. And, let’s not forget Underline. First seen in in 1994, very little is actually known of this whale. No calves and no sightings as a calf mean that neither age nor gender are recorded. And Palette, the 1989 calf of Compass, who has given birth to calves of her own, one of which is Perseid. It was when Perseid returned to our waters with her first calf a few years ago that another 4 generation connection was made.
* A small but unidentified shark was also reported by the Dolphin IX. Estimated to be between 7 and 9 feet in length, it was a dusky, dark, grayish-brown. Not the right color for a blue shark, it was seen at the surface, suggesting it probably was not a spiny dogfish.

* July 25 was just as much a learning experience as the day before. Do you remember how suddenly the group of 15 to 25 humpback whales shifted close enough to be within range of the whalewatch vessels? Well, just as quickly, they can shift back off shore. Today was about the single finwhale that was spotted off Race Point throughout the day. Skeg is large for a finwhale in the north atlantic. Because most of the larger ones were killed off by the whalers early here, the descendents of the species tend to max out at between 60 and 70 feet. This whale was photographed alongside a whalewatch boat last week and looks to be around 75 feet long. It is also the same whale that wowed us earlier in the week with several days of fluking dives. Today, in the larger swells, this animal appeared to be using its flukes as a way to slow itself down as it swam against the seas, arching its back and dragging its tail beneath the water. It was very much, this naturalist imagines, very much like the way Southern Right Whales lift their flukes above the surface to use them as sails when placing the wind behind them.

* There were no trips on July 26 as windy conditions and large seas made the north atlantic unsafe for whalewatch passengers.