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Naturalist Notebook – June 23 to June 29

The morning of June 23 began with an ominous-sounding weather forecast – a series of thunderstorms was predicted to pass through the area over the course of the afternoon.  The harbor was filled with boats decorated for the Blessing of the Fleet as the first trip of the day motored slowly through Provincetown Harbor.


With an eye on the radar for approaching squalls, the Dolphin Fleet captains guided their vessels north to Stellwagen Bank.  Much like the previous week, the Bank had become a nursery, with three mother/calf pairs among the humpback whales sighted.  Tulip’s calf thrilled whalewatchers as he approached the boat for a close look.

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His eye clearly visible, he rolled onto his side, his belly facing the boat, allowing the naturalist to clearly determine his sex.  This important bit of life history information often goes unknown for long periods of time unless researchers are able to see the genital area on the whale’s belly, which is not normally displayed during dives or other common behaviors.  Boomerang and her calf were seen throughout the day, as were Scylla and her calf.


The only humpback whale not nursing a calf was Orbit, an adult female first seen in 1979 and a frequent mother herself, having given birth to at least eight calves.  Among her calves is adult female Division, born in 1991 and one of the most frequently sighted whales on this season’s Dolphin Fleet whale watches.  Orbit dazzled passengers as she engulfed massive mouthfuls of small mackerel and water in explosive lunges at the surface.

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By the afternoon, the squalls began to pass through the area and the captains guided their vessels around thick green globs on their radar that denoted the densest areas of rain.  The sky darkened and clouds closed in as the boats headed for home.


As the last boat was tied to the dock, a beautiful rainbow shone overhead, a perfect end to a day of whale watching.


The unsettled weather continued on June 24, as rain squalls and distant lightning did little to deter passengers eager to see whales.  The same three humpback  mother/calf pairs were frequently sighted, as were several fin and minke whales.


Scylla’s calf delighted onlookers as it threw itself clear of the water in a series of spectacular breaches!  The morning of June 25 was humid, and a stiffening breeze whipped the water’s surface as the Dolphin IX slowed down off Race Point to wait for a whale that had left a massive cloud of breath in the air moments earlier.  The patience of passengers and crew was rewarded as a massive fin whale surfaced nearby, giving all on board a rare close look at the second largest animal in the world!


The beautiful blaze of light pigment that extends up and back from a fin whale’s bright white lower right jaw was on display for all to see.  Like the tail pattern of a humpback, this marking can be used in concert with scars and dorsal fins to identify individual fin whales.  The whale executed several long, slow lunges at the surface, the ventral pleats under its huge jaws distended as its mouth filled with water and prey.  The thunder rolled in soon after, and the boat headed for home, her passengers thrilled by the close view of such a massive whale and relieved to be warm and dry inside the cabin as the storms closed in.


June 26 brought another day of unsettled weather, as well as fantastic looks at fin whales and humpbacks.  Boomerang and her calf continued to be spotted on Stellwagen Bank, her precocious calf raising its flukes with each dive, a behavior that rarely occurs in such young whales.  Hancock, a twenty-one-year-old female, thrilled passengers and naturalists alike as she fed near the Dolphin VIII, her huge jaws slamming shut at the surface like the lid of a massive dumpster.


Cory’s shearwaters were among the pelagic birds sighted just off Race Point, a reminder that whale watches provide an excellent platform for birders as they travel miles from shore.  On June 27, three Dolphin Fleet boats headed offshore and were rewarded by increased numbers of humpback whales, including Boomerang and calf, Orbit, Hancock, Freckles, Scylla and calf, and Istar and calf.  Most of the humpback whales seemed to be feeding beneath the surface, while minke whales and a massive fin whale were spotted as well.  A highlight of the trip was a massive basking shark, its mouth wide open as it strained plankton from the water.

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This would prove to have been the last day of stormy, unsettled weather, as the morning of June 28 brought calm seas and clear skies.  Several humpback whales were spotted feeding on the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, including Hancock, Isthmus, Scylla and calf, Splice, Orbit, Columbia, Dyad, Giraffe, I-Vee, Freckles, Blackhole, Boomerang and calf, and Putter. At least two generations of humpback whales were spotted, as Isthmus is Orbit’s 1986 calf.


This influx of whales was a source of excitement for the naturalists as well as the passengers, as many of these individual humpback whales had not been seen frequently this year.  While the ‘new’ whales were a nice surprise, it was one of the whales that had been sighted consistently that was the most entertaining: Scylla’s calf repeatedly mimicked it’s mother’s feeding behavior, surfacing with mouthfuls of water as its mother fed nearby.


Minke and fin whales, gray seals, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and basking sharks rounded out the list of species sighted, along with countless seabirds.  June 29 would prove to be similarly exciting, with increasing winds bringing out displays of aerial behavior as several humpback whales breached amid the rising seas.  Boomerang and her calf, and Scylla’s calf were among those that took to the air to the amazed delight of the passengers.  By the afternoon, Hancock, Fulcrum and Barb were among the feeding humpbacks lunging into schools of sea herring.