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Naturalist Notebook – June 01 to June 07

On June 01, the day clearly belonged to a finback whale named “Loon.” Seen on all four Dolphin Fleet whalewatches that day, Loon is an animal that was first photographed in 1983. Yes, this season marks the thirtieth year that Loon has been a part of the population study of the Gulf of Maine. He was not a calf when he was first photographed and may just as well have been fifty years old as five. There is no way to tell as whales do not show any physical signs that are recognized as those of aging. The animal is thought to be a male because it has never been seen with a calf. The only other way to tell the gender of a baleen whale is by genetic analysis of a tissue sample, as the two sexes generally look alike.
Loon appeared to be doing a great deal of travelling today. The morning trip found him just to the west of Race Point and the afternoon trips found him thirteen miles to the south west, where Plymouth was clearly in vision.
June 02, proved to be a bit more difficult. The morning trip made what turned out to be a very large loop, taking in the west side Stellwagen Bank, its southwest corner, and then down the back side of the Cape, over Peaked Hill Bars and toward the Highland Light. A look at a minke whale led to the sighting of a finback whale. Minke whales are the smallest of the baleen whales common to the Gulf of Maine, but small only relative to other whales. They are still 25 to 30 feet in length and weigh between 8 and 10 tons. For some perspective on that, the largest animal walking around on land today is the african elephant. A big bull elephant might weigh 5 or 6 tons. P. T. Barnum’s “Jumbo” weighed a mere 7 tons. So when you see a minke whale and it looks small like a dolphin, just remember that it is several tons larger than any elephant walking around on land today.
Finback whales, though built much the same, are nearly three times the size of minke whales. Sixty to seventy feet long, here in the North Atlantic, and as much as ninety feet long in the southern hemisphere. And they weigh nearly a ton for every foot of length.
One might think an animal this large would be slow. Not so with finback whales. They honestly deserve their nickname, “the greyhounds of the sea,” being capable of achieving and maintaining speeds of nearly thirty knots. Sometimes when you watch finback whales you get a very clear picture of just how fast they can be.
Fortunately, even though the wind picked up a bit for the afternoon, some very good looks were had of this finback whale.
Those strong winds continued through June 03, causing the Dolphin Fleet to cancel its trips.
June 04, was a sunny, beautiful day on the water. At least four finback whales were seen to the northwest of Race Point throughout the day. “Skeg,” a finback that we have been watching for at least a decade, was named for the scars on its body. The propellar scars have faded but the scars from the back of someone’s keel can still be seen. “Pinch” was also seen on this day. Less is known about Pinch but, like Skeg, the animal is thought to be male. Both of these finwhales have been seen in the past several years to kind of park themselves out to the west of the Race and spend a good deal of time there.
Loon was also seen today. Named for the white markings on the left side of his body (that kind of resemble a loon with a fish in its beak), Loon had found himself a school of small fish to feed on. The feeding lunges were all beneath the surface, but several times the animal came to the surface with its rorqual pleats fully extended, both a sign of a feeding whale and a way to look like a huge tadpole.
A humpback whale was seen on June 05. This large animal remains, as of yet, unidentified. The day was sunny and pleasant, making looking for whales a treat for both crew and passengers. Between them, they found two other species of baleen whales, finback whales and minke whales.
Feeding must have been good somewhere close by over the past couple of days because both the humpback whale and a finback whale were seen defecating. Probably not the kind of thing that most whalewatchers over the age of 6 would appreciate, defecation is, none-the-less, a sign that there is food available for these large animals and that they are making their living here.
On June 06, there was a lot going on. The morning found minke whales off of Peaked Hill Bars and a large group of atlantic white-sided dolphins to the north of that. White-sided dolphins are about the same size and shape as the bottlenosed dolphins most people are more familiar with but have different markings on their sides and tend to range in somewhat colder water than the bottlenosed.
In the afternoon, well let’s just say that the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank is far away. Not only was Boston a clearer sight than Provincetown, so was Glouchester. Yes we were quite a ways from home. Our long voyage was rewarded by views of four feeding humpback whales, including Satula, Shuffleboard, and Pinball. The lunges were taking place at depth, but you could still see the clouds of bubbles these whales were using to corral the schooling fish into a tighter ball rising to the surface.
June 07 was a cloudy, gray day with a little bit of a breeze. The Dolphin X was the only whalewatch vessel to leave Provincetown harbor that afternoon. Spiralling our way out of Cape Cod Bay, we headed to the east and Peaked Hill Bars. Then to the north to an area referred to as the triangle. Turning west, we travelled along the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, clearly visible due to the lobster pot markers, and then to the southwest toward Plymouth. Now, east toward Race Point.
The trip was saved by a passenger who noticed the spout of a very large finback whale behind the Dolphin X. Though the encounter was brief, some very good looks were had at both the left and right sides of this animal, allowing for a quick discussion of the asymmetric pigmentation the species is known for.