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Naturalist Notebook – May 31 to June 8

May 31st was the first day of the year that it really felt like summer.  It was hot and the almost non-existent winds made the water look silky.  These ideal conditions made it easy to find and follow at least two dozen Minke whales right off of Peaked Hill, right on the border between Provincetown and Truro.  The water was so calm that we could follow them as they swam below the water by looking for their “epaulets”, or the bright white patches on their pectoral fins!

We could also see upwellings on the surface of the water.  These are areas where currents interact with one another or with features on the ocean floor.  Often areas of upwellings result in nutrients or small prey items to be aggregated.  Whenever we see upwellings, we always look for feeding whales or birds in the area!


Although the humpbacks were keeping a relatively low profile, we found that Pisces’ calf was quite the ham.  This little whale was breaching and even approached the boat a few times.  Unfortunately, we also noticed that this young humpback had a raw wound on the trailing edge of its tail, but its bizarre shape made us unsure of its causes.  Dusky’s calf also had us enthralled, breaching away and even approaching the boat!

dusky calf up close and personal

It wasn’t only the calves that were active today.  Bolide surprised us by leaping out the water repeatedly!

Bolide breach

Meanwhile, there was some low-key feeding going on, with humpbacks bubble netting in groups of two to four.  Etch-a-Sketch, now notorious on the Dolphin Fleet for her distinctive kick feeding behavior, was up to its old tricks, slapping the surface of the water with its tail before lunging through the stunned mass of fish.  Venom also displayed a unique feeding behavior.  After she engulfed a mouthful of food, she would nod and shake her head, as if the clear the remaining water from her baleen.


The weather changed dramatically, and on June 1st, strong winds from the northeast made for a bumpy ride!  Thankfully, the whales were not far, and we were able to find them close to shore near Peaked Hill.  Fulcrum, a female born in 1997 was the first to make an appearance, and a dramatic appearance it was!  She breached, tail breached and lobtailed.  Birders were equally impressed with the bird life in the area.  Among the usual mix of gulls and terns, several Manx shearwaters made an appearance.  These are slightly smaller and rarer than the other shearwater species that we find on our trips.


After spending time with Fulcrum, we went next to Tunguska, Blackhole, Underline and Milkweed who were feeding together.  We noticed that even though Underline and Blackhole were consistently kicking, we rarely saw them surfacing with open mouths, meaning that they might have been targeting a prey layer deeper in the water column.  Shards on the other hand gave us a full view of his open mouth as he lunged through a mass of prey.

Tunguska and Blackhole feeding

In the distance we could see a hallmark of bumpy, windy, weather —  breaching Minke whales!  These smaller baleen whales are generally pretty elusive, but there’s something about nasty weather that riles them up, and they can often be seen breaching on windy days.  Even though we weren’t able to get close, the humpbacks also became active, and Milkweed in particular was especially energetic, chin breaching right next to the Dolphin IX!

chin breach milkweed

By June 3, the winds had changed direction slightly, blowing hard still, but from the northwest.  Combined with an easterly swell from the sustained winds of the past few days, the wind-driven seas made for a rough ride as the Dolphin VIII steamed up to Stellwagen Bank.  Once on the southern edge of the Bank, passengers were rewarded with close looks at as many as ten humpback whales, many of which were feeding near the boat, surrounded by pelagic seabirds, including storm petrels and shearwaters.  Among the individual humpbacks see were Wizard, Underline, Etch-a-sketch, and Ventisca.

ventisca and others feeding_6-3_IMG_3109

By the afternoon, the winds had increased and the seas became too rough to safely watch whales, a situation which lasted for the next two days.  It wasn’t until June 6 that the seas calmed, and passengers aboard the Dolphin IX waited patiently as the crew searched for whales in a wide arc from the eastern shore of Cape Cod up and around to Stellwagen Bank, where their patience was rewarded by the sight of several feeding humpback whales and even more feeding minke whales, their distinctive lunges contrasting with the individual styles of humpbacks Ventisca, Wizard, Barb, Blackhole, Tunguska, Etch-a-sketch, and Division.

gulls and division_6-6_IMG_2894

In the afternoon, schools of small forage fish were visible throughout the waters around the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank.


Humpback whales frequently fed at the surface among dense schools of sand lance, while schools of larger fish, perhaps mackerel, were visible for miles.


That evening, after a day of watching feeding whales, passengers and crew enjoyed the sight of a beautiful sunset over waters that were finally calm.


The following day, June 7, the seas remained calm and a layer of thick fog shrouded the waters off Cape Cod.  However, the whales had not moved far from the previous day’s feeding area on southwestern Stellwagen Bank, and the able crews of the Dolphin VIII and Dolphin IX soon spotted the group of humpback whales feeding, interrupted only by the occasional awe-inspiring breach!


Smaller, sleeker minke whales lunged across the surface of the water, the pleated undersides of their mouths bulging, full of water and sand lance, startling and delighting passengers and naturalists alike as they suddenly appeared in the fog!


The feeding frenzy continued throughout the day as the fog burned off, and the last passengers of the day were treated to a spectacular sunset as they headed for Provincetown.


Friday, June 8, began in much the same way, with thick fog across the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank.  The Dolphin Fleet captains cautiously steamed up to the place they had left the whales the previous evening, and the patience of the passengers was rewarded.

feeding in fog_6-8_IMG_3018

Another spectacular feeding display ensued, with humpback and minke whales gulping sand lance from dense schools at the surface.


Humpback whales Tunguska, Division, Barb, Etch-a-Sketch, Ventisca, Wizard, and Blackhole displayed the wide repertoire of feeding behaviors the species is known for, including kick feeding, bubble nets, and bubble clouds, feeding alone or in pairs that changed throughout the day.

ventisca near boatIMG_3044