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Naturalist Notebook – June 9 to June 15

On Saturday June 9, the Dolphin Fleet returned to Stellwagen Bank to find the feeding frenzy still underway.  Etch-a-Sketch, a 14-year-old female humpback whale born to Thalassa in 1998 was among the many feeding humpback whales feeding in the area, their huge mouths filled with water and sand lance.  Etch-a-Sketch’s unique kick feeding behavior has become a familiar sight to whale watchers this year, but she is also noted for being the granddaughter of the most well-known humpback whale in the world, Salt, first seen in 1975.


While the humpbacks were exciting to watch, minke whales abounded as well.  Lots of harbor and gray seals were spotted, including a small harbor seal resting on a huge floating log a few miles north of Cape Cod.

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The crew of the Dolphin IX slowly approached to give the passengers a good look at the seal without disturbing it from its perch on the log.  The sudden sight of a giant shark fin made passengers and crew briefly wonder if the seal was attempting to evade a predator, but all soon realized it was the first of what would be several basking sharks sighted that day, the first of the season.


While perhaps not as exciting as the second largest fish in the world, other fish also caught the eyes of passengers and crew, including large schools of mackerel visible for miles across the waters between Cape Cod and Stellwagen Bank.  Perhaps the most unusual fish sighted was a sea lamprey attached to the flank of one of the humpback whales.  Lampreys are known to feed on the blood of whales, rasping through their skin to access the network of blood vessels beneath.


Trips to the same area on June 10 found a similar scene, with dense schools of sand lance and mackerel visible for miles.  Minke whales darted about at the surface, while humpback whales Etch-a-Sketch, Division, Barb, Ventisca, Wizard, Blackhole and Tunguska fed around the boats.  By afternoon the feeding had subsided a bit, but sporadic bubble clouds and massive jaws slamming shut continued to delight passengers and crew alike.


Minke whales were abundant, with nearly a dozen spotted on every trip, the distinctive white patches on their flippers gleaming brightly beneath the surface.  The beautiful weather of the past few days continued on June 11, as did the large numbers of minke whales.  The same group of humpbacks was found in nearly the same place, still feeding on thick schools of sand lance.  Many of the crew and others on the dock wore red caps to mark what would have been Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s 103rd birthday, honoring the pioneering marine biologist, naturalist, and explored who inspired many of the Dolphin Fleet’s naturalists to pursue their interests in marine science and education.


Dense schools of sand lance continued to sustain the now-familiar cast of feeding humpback whales, including Barb, a 25-year-old male and Division, a 22-year-old female, blowing nets of bubbles and thrashing the surface with their tails before surfacing with mouths wide open.


The morning of June 12 was a bit windier than the past few days, and perhaps a harbinger of offshore rough weather, a northern fulmar, a pelagic seabird normally found far offshore, had taken refuge in the harbor, its scruffy appearance indicating a need to molt.  Further offshore, humpback whales continued to feed on the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, including Ventisca, an adult female first seen in 2001 and notable for the white mottling on her dorsal fin.


Also exciting was the first ocean sunfish sighting of the season!  The ocean sunfish, or Mola mola, holds the distinction of being the world’s heaviest bony fish, with a record specimen weighing in at well over two tons.  Swimming slowly at the surface, its dorsal fin slowly waving back and forth, it attracted the sharp eyes of the crew aboard the Dolphin IX, who were able to bring the boat close so that the passengers could gaze in awe at the unusual looking fish, its form reminiscent of a giant swimming fish head.


A gray, rainy day did not deter eager passengers on June 13‘s trips, as at least a dozen minke whales were seen among feeding humpbacks and huge schools of sand lance.


On June 14, the windy conditions made for a slightly bumpy ride as the sturdy Dolphin Fleet boats ventured up to Stellwagen Bank.  Humpback whales Barb, Division, and Ventisca were accompanied by a calf as they fed.  The calf did not belong to any of the other humpback whales in the area and breached occasionally as it followed the adults.  This was an unusual sight, as calves are generally not weaned until fall, still reliant on their mothers’ milk in the summer months.  This need seemed evident as the calf tucked under Ventisca as she fed, in a manner consistent with a nursing attempt.  Conditions continued to be windy and choppy on June 15.  Feeding humpbacks as well as a number of minke and fin whales were seen throughout the morning, the tall spouts and dorsal fins of the latter easily visible amid the waves.


Many of the humpback whales seemed to be heading east by the end of the day.  The unknown calf seen on the previous day was seen again, this time following and seemingly attempting to nurse from Etch-a-Sketch as she fed, stopping occasionally to breach, throwing its comparably small body high in the air.