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Naturalist Notebook – June 22 to June 28

June 22 was all about finback whales.  During one sighting the whale took ten or more breaths before arching its back and slipping back beneath the surface.  In doing so, the animal allowed the passengers of the Dolphin IX a fabulous look at its blaze and chevron, the swirling pattern of pigment used to identify these huge whales as individuals.  At least two different finback whales were during the day, including Skeg (a whale we have been seeing quite a bit of over the recent weeks).

Sightings of finback whales and minke whales continued on our whale watches on June 23.  Also seen today was a lone humpback whale.  Tentatively identified as Piano, this animal was reported to be in very bad condition.  Discolored and covered with barnacles, this humpback whale was also extremely thin, like it hadn’t eaten in quite a long while.

On June 24, Skeg was seen once again,this time moving very slowly and moving for much of the day in a nearly linear pattern.  Toward mid-afternoon, this animal began to swim in big circles.  All throughout the day, Skeg appeared to be resting.  Whales cannot sleep like we do because they can’t just shut off their conscious minds.  If they did. they would suffocate.  Whales need to think about every breath they take.  So what do they do instead?  From studies of bottle nose dolphins in a controlled environment where electrodes could be placed on their heads to measure brainwave activity, it was learned that whales are capable of resting one hemisphere of their brains at a time.  While one side rests, the other keeps the whale alert to the environment around it, coming to the surface to breath, and moving forward through the water so that denser whales, like finbacks, do not sink to the bottom.  Finwhales in this mode are often easy to watch and get incredibly good looks at.  Skeg, today, was no exception.

Skeg was just one of several finback whales seen on June 25. One allowed the Dolphin X to travel parallel to it for a while, treating the passengers to wonderful views of both the left and right sides of the whale’s body.  Skeg spent the Dolphin X’s visit with him feeding on mackerel beneath the surface.  Several times the huge finner rose slowly from the depths with his rorquals extended and water streaming from the partially opened mouth.  That mackerel was evident in numerous places and our good captain pointed it out to us as we passed over a bait ball.  Passengers from both upper and lower decks were able to discern easily a dozen of their bodies swimming beneath the bowsprit.               Minke whales were also present today on the Bank.  Good,even if brief, looks were had at several of these streamlined creatures.  One of them surprised the passengers by breaching off the starboard side.  Looking like a missile, this animal launched its entire body out of the water and then just fell back to the surface with a giant splash.

The southern end of Stellwagen Bank was again visited by numerous minke whales on the morning of  June 26. One of them spent a good part of the morning working a huge ball of schooling fish.  It was seen several times lunging just beneath the surface.  By the time thee squalls of the afternoon began, a finback whale had also arrived in the area,settling in on the southwest corner to feed for the early part of the afternoon.  By the time the rain stopped, the minke whales had moved from the Bank, leaving the still plentiful schooling fish to the finner.

June 27 was foggy and gray with intermittent showers.  There was a small but, for some, uncomfortable swell.  Even with the fog, two finback whales were sighted, delighting the passengers and crew with fantastic views as they made their way towards Race Point.  What really thrilled the crew was the rare thirty-seven minute encounter with a minke whale that was traveling in a nearly straight line.  This animal would take two breaths and then arch its back to dive.  Only a minute and a half or so would go by before it would be back at the surface again.  It was because of its linear path and consistent breathing pattern that the captain was able to keep pace with this minke, even without being able to see its epaulettes.  If you have ever seen a minke whale from a whalewatch  boat, you know how special this encounter was.

The gray skies were joined on June 28 by strong, steady winds.  Congratulations to all of the passengers of the Dolphin IX who showed themselves to be of a hearty, seafaring stock.  Despite the buffeting of the wind and the roilling of the sea, they remained upright and their faces maintained the proper color.  And, what’s more, even with the lashing of the spray and the disappointment of having, in all that weather, just a glimpse of a minke whale, they remained hopeful and in good spirits and cheerful.  So to all of those passengers that whalewatched  with this naturalist on the Dolphin IX this day, I salute you.