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Naturalist Notebook – October 18 to October 25

*     October 18 was an incredible beautiful day to be on the water.  The afternoon sky way bright and the sun was warm on your face.  The northwest wind collided with the southeast swell  making it a wonderful boatride.

* The trip began with close looks at both a harbor seal and a gray seal.  Note was made of the location of the nostrils of both of these species so that if whales were seen there could be a comparison made.

*     Big clouds of common terns were seen knifing the water and carrying off sand eels.   Several of them were then harassed by parasitic jaegers until their lunch was dropped back into the water.  And the same school of sand launce also were being fed on by northern gannets.

*     Though there were no whale sightings, many of the places where they have been recently seen were quite productive.

*     Three species of baleen whales were sighted on October 19 nearly ten miles from the eastern side of the bank.  Views of a minke whale, a finback whale, and a humpback whale provided an interesting lesson on how different these three species of rorquals actually are.   And also, just how much alike they are.

*     The humpback appeared to be a juvenile and one that was not in the catalog.  Of the three species, the passengers of the Dolphin VIII enjoyed the closest looks at this animal, allowing them to take note of the tubercles on the animal’s head as well as the long pectoral flippers.

*     October 20 was another sunny and windy day on the ocean.  A three to four foot NW chop made the boat ride like a roller coaster.  Reports from yesterday of  the spouts of a large whale inside Cape Cod Bay, combined with the seas, were enough to keep the Dolphin VIII inside the bay today.  A systematic survey of the bay, however, did not turn up any large cetaceans.

*     What it did find, though, was an ocean sunfish.   This sighting was made exciting by the way the animal was making its living by feeding on ctenophors or comb jellies.  We know that mola’s feed on the comb jellies, but we very rarely get to witness it from the whalewatch vessels.

*     Way out to the east, there is a place where mariners from several centuries ago would have thought you fell off the earth.  We didn’t quite go that far on October 21, but we sure came close.  As it turns out, it was well worth the trip.  Two humpback whales were found actively engaged in making their living.  The school of fish was located about a hundred feet beneath the surface and these two whales were feeding on them, at depth.  Our old friends, Perseid and Eruption (both females) were feeding so deep beneath the surface that no bubbles were seen rising from the depths.  Even without the bubbles, it was easy to see they were feeding because the water could be readily seen rushing from the corners of their mouths.  Several times, they were witnessed rising through the surface with their rorqual pleats extended.  Nobody is ever ready to go back home when the whales are feeding.

*    At   times when the whalewatch boats are not just heading directly for a pile of whales, they take the time to look around.  And, invariably, when they do that, the passengers are treated to a more in depth look at the complex nature of the marine ecosystem.  And they are given the opportunity to learn more about just how interconnected the life histories of the various forms of life here actually are.

*     While no cetaceans were sighted today, the birders on the boat were thrilled by their encounters with feeding terns that, in turn, were being double or triple teamed by jaegers.  All of that against a back drop of the plunge diving of the northern gannets.

*     On October 23, the Dolphin VIII set off in search of two North Atlantic Right Whales that had been reported near Barnstable Harbor the day before.  Heading southeast through the bay, the vessel encountered a small pod of harbor porpoise that quickly got lost in the chop.  Looping back up to the north and the west, the Dolphin VIII made its way along the ledge to Race Point where it found three species of marine mammal.  A harbor seal and two gray seals provided examples of pinnipeds while two minke whales displayed some of the adaptations of cetaceans to the marine environment.

*     High seas and strong winds kept the Dolphin VIII safely secured to her float on October 24.

*     The Dolphin VIII made a huge loop of many of the places that have been productive over the past several weeks on October 25, to no avail.  Rather than have a second look, at the end of that loop, at the Race Point Station, the captain elected to swing a little wide into Cape Cod Bay.  Because of this decision, the passengers and crew were fortunate enough to view two species of toothed whales.  The first was a pod of between 8 and 16 harbor porpoise and the second a very small group of maybe 4 common dolphins.

*    This allowed the passengers to see, first hand, the differences between a fairly average species of porpoise and a fairly average species of dolphin.  It was easy enough to see the difference in the shape of the rostrum.  The dolphin has an elongated “beak” whereas the porpoise has an almost rounded face.  The difference in the shape of the dorsal fin was also easily seen;  triangular shaped fin for the porpoise and falcate (or hooked) for the dolphin.

*     It was also a good example of how they behave differently.  The porpoise typically are not overly interested in boats, angling away from them while at the surface and remaining up for just a few brief breaths.  Porpoise also tend to change direction frequently while beneath the surface.

*     The dolphins, however, came right over to the boat, catching a ride in the pressure wave created by the bow.  Angling toward us, and staying with us, they appeared far more interested in interacting with our vessel.

*     Alas, our encounters with these animals had to be cut short because it was time to go home.  I am reminded of something P. T. Barnum once said.  “Always leave them wanting more.”  And the truth is that for this naturalist, every trip in his nineteen seasons of whalewatching has left him wanting more.  It’s not a matter of what we say today.  It’s a matter of what we might see tomorrow.  On each and every trip, I tell my passengers that what they saw in the past has nothing to do with what they might see today.  That is part of the adventure!