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Naturalist Notebook – June 29 to July 05

The morning of June 29 was foggy and breezy.  The rain didn’t start until just before the first trip of the day got underway.  The fog and rain were not enough to deter the crew and passengers of the DOLPHIN VIII.  They had come for an adventure and an adventure they would have.  It took a little time searching the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank before the first sighting was made, but once that first minke whale was seen, everything changed.  Nearly a dozen of these “small” whales were seen surfacing around the boat, allowing the whale watchers an unique perspective of their streamlined bodies.

But that perspective changed as the first finback surfaced.  Nearly three times the size of a minke whale, finbacks are long and streamlined, taking the built-for-speed motto to its extreme.  Finback whales can achieve and maintain speeds of nearly thirty knots.  This whale was demonstrating its ability along those lines, moving at all haste to the east.

Fortunately, other finbacks were not in so much of a hurry.  One such whale was Pinch.  This animal was foraging, moving about in a seemingly random manner as it searched for food.  Occasionally, upon finding a sizable enough school, Pinch would lunge beneath the surface, rising from the depths with its jaws slightly agape.  Water could be seen streaming from the open jaws as the whale collapsed its rorqual pleats.

Other finbacks were seen as well, including Skeg, but as the day turned to evening, the growing chop and the darkening skies began to conceal the spouts and dorsal fins of the two species.

All to often, whalewatchers  make the mistake of thinking that humpback whales are the only ones that are exciting to see.  June 30 definately proved otherwise to a number of folks.  When one of the finback whales you see lifts its flukes gracefully and majestically above the surface of the water, it gets your attention, especially when your naturalist tells you that you might see that, not once a week, or once a month, or once in a season, but, and only if you are lucky, once in a decade!  My first time, I was so in awe that I forgot to take the picture.

And if that weren’t enough, the afternoon found a minke whale launching itself out of the water like a missile.  Breaching is thought to be the most energetically expensive behavior in the animal world.  Imagine how difficult it would be to propel just your hundred to two hundred pound body from the water like that.  Now, imagine that you weigh more than an elephant.  Incredibly strong muscles make up the tailstalk  of whales.

July 01 was foggy and rainy.  The fog and the rain could not dampen the spirits of both passengers and crew alike when a feeding humpback whale was spotted on the southwest corner of the Bank.  Nile is a whale well-known to whalewatchers  from Provincetown.  First seen in 1987, as a calf, she is the daughter of Mars and the mother of at least 3.  For a while, it was thought that Nile might be a male.  She was 12 years old when she returned with her first calf.  Usually humpbacks become mature at around 5 or 6.  Nile is small compared to other females of her age class and it might be that size plays a role in determining sexual maturity as well as age.

More gray skies greeted July 02.  It was difficult to tell whether it was herring or mackerel that was being fed on by the two humpbacks, Nile and Mudskipper, but the clouds of bubbles rising to the surface with the whales were a telltale giveaway to their subsurface activities.

Finners  and minkes were again seen on July 03. Mudskipper and Nile were also there.  Mudskipper was still not lifting her flukes above the surface but Nile continued to feed, blowing bubble clouds to scare the schooling fish closer together and then lunging through the school.  Occasionally, she would be seen breaking the surface of the water with her belly up and those rorqual pleats extended.

Independence Day began with a bang!  A pod of forty or fifty robust dolphins was spotted early in the day, making their way steadily toward the northeast.  Photographs of the animals confirm that they were Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphins.  More common of the coast of Florida to New Jersey, Bottlenosed are the most robust of the toothed whales commonly found along the eastern coast of the United States.  As long as ten feet in length and weighing as much as five hundred pounds, these dolphins are usually very inclined to ride the pressure waves from  a vessel.  They are also prone to leap.

Alas, by the time other boats departed, they were gone.  Fortunately, there were also minke whales and finback whales and humpbacks.  Nile was again seen feeding on schooling fish close to the surface, breaking the surface at times with her mouth open.

The southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank is an incredibly productive place.   The steep sides of the bank force the cold, nutrient-rich waters up from the bottom,bringing the nutrient load and dissolved oxygen up to the surface where the nutrients could be utilized by the phytoplanktn to photosynthesize food for themselves and forming the base of the food chain.

July 05 was evidence of this. Two species of whale and numerous species of seabird and gull were seen there today.  Fishermen were also seen there fishing with kites, using them in much the same way as you might a bobber.  The tuna fishermen use them to keep their bait near the surface as it moves further away from their boats.  They say that it greatly increases your chances of landing a tuna.