* If you were to look back at the Naturalists’ Notebook for this week last year, you would repeatedly find mention of a humpback whales named Nile. And pretty much only Nile. Oh, there were also minke and finback whales. And there would ocassionally be a second or even a third humpback whale listed as sighted in the lower Gulf of Maine. But the story of last July was that of Nile making her living along the southern and western edges of Stellwagen Bank. Sightings of Nile are conspicuously absent this month. This week, however, has seen the sightings of more that forty other humpback whales. For a listing of those individuals, refer to the daily sightings blog.
* And, the week started with a bang! This was appropriate as it began with Independence Day. Only one trip actually got to sea on July 04. The front of hurricane Arthur brought some long swells, some gusty winds, and lots of rain. (I feel the need to point out that, as much as it is necessary and beautiful in its own way, rain is a four-letter word. Especially in that amount.) But, as I have told many a whalewatcher, the weather that effects us usually doesn’t alter the behavior of the whales.
* A dozen and a half humpback whales were found, on just this one trip, outto the north of the triangle. Feeding. Blowing a variety of bubble systems and kicking at the surface to corral the schooling fish closer together. Big, slow lunges at the surface with their mouths wide open would follow the bubbles and kicking behaviors.
* Another thing you might remember from July 04, 2013 is the sighting of Bottlenose Dolphins.
* Hurricane Arthur kept the Dolphin Fleet safely in the harbor on July 05, 2014.
* “After two days of cancelled trips due to Hurricane Arthur, we went out.” “There was a day, last week, with dozens of humpbacks, but that had changed prior to the storm. So it was with great surprise that we found dozens of humpbacks, all kickfeeding across the horizon… Overwhelmingly wonderful!”–Mark Gilmore, about his adventures aboard the Dolphin X on July 06. “There were too many humpbacks to count.”–Kathy B. From the crews, “awesome”, “stupendous”, “lovely”, and “once in a lifetime”. And these are from people who see whales every day. And these are not what they said to the passengers, these are what they said to each other and to the crews of the other boats.
* What brought all of this on? Feeding! Nearly forty humpback whales making their living on small, schooling fish. Bubble clouds. Bubble nets. Bubble columns. Kick-feeding. Mouths open wide as they slowly ascended from the deep in the middle of the surface disturbance they had created.
* Imagine you are sitting on the bow of a boat. Just a dozen feet from you, you see a little burst of bubbles turning the water green as they rise to the surface. A few seconds later, a second rises just a few feet to the right of the first. Then a third. And a fourth. And so on, making a spiral of green bubble clouds that rise to the surface. In the interim, though, as those bubbles rise up, the huge, dark body of a humpback whales also rises to the surface, spouts, arches its back and lifts its flukes (nearly 15 feet wide) above the surface and slaps the water twice right where the bubble columns are rising. Huge clouds of green bubbles are the result.
* If you are a small fish at that moment, there is now confusion everywhere. When you first saw the bubbles deep down below you, you were startled. Confused, you did what only comes natural to you. Get as close to the other fish in your school as you can. Many times in your short life, this trick has saved your life so, as the bubbles rise up around you, you just move along with the rest of the school toward the surface. You are scared and you are confused, but there is strength in numbers. As you near the surface, though, you hear this noise and suddenly the leading fish of your school is pushing back against your forward (and upward) travel. They are trying desperately to move down, while you, driven by your fear of the bubbles beneath you, are trying desperately to move up. Everybody is suddenly really close together.
* And that’s when the open mouth of the whale slips past and around you and your schoolmates, nearly unseen until the push of the water around you gives your plight away. You are in the mouth of the beast. It will consume you if you don’t get out. But the upward motion is too much for you to swim against, regardess of how hard you try.
* Suddenly, there is light. And the water is disappearing around you, leaving you dry on the tongue of a humpback whale. You have but one chance. You need to jump. You need to jump as far as you can, past the curtain of baleen plates ringing the upper jaw of the beast and out of its mouth. Only then will you be back in the water and safer than you are now.
* Millions of sand eels, herring, and mackerel have this experience every day. Most, alas, do not survive.
* July 07 was largely about feeding whales, if you were looking from the deck of a boat. Fortunately I was. This is the kind of thing I was able to watch repeatedly throughout the day. The highlight of the day was, undoubtedly, when Etch-a-sketch (feeding much like just described) was then joined by her calf. The calf, about seven months of age, is not ready to feed on fish yet, but so beautifully mimicked its mother in the kicking over the bubble system that I thought it might actually lunge through the pile of fish itself.
* In addition to all the feeding, there were a few humpbacks that felt they had time to spend otherwise. So, there was also lobtailling and flippering and even breaching. As much as it was not a one event kind of day, it was also not a one species kind of a day. Minke whales and finback whales were also enjoyed, as were the atlantic white-sided dolphins.
* There was , again, on July 08, a great deal of feeding behavior from the humpback whales. But there were also numerous sighting of mother and calf pairs. One female sighted today with a calf was Salt. Sighted today with her 13th known calf, she is also a great-grandmother this year. (Her grand-daughter, Etch-a-sketch, is also a mother.) Her calf is the only of this year’s calves to already have a name, Epsom.
* Note the cleft palate of the above feeding humpback whale. It would be hard to say what caused it. Regardless of its origin, it is the palate of Salt. She is one of very few that can be identified accurately by looking at the inside of her mouth.
* Again, on July 09, most of the whalewatch trips found themselves surrounded by feeding humpback whales. Today, the smooth surface of the water made it easier to see just how intricate the nets of bubbles blown by them were. It also made it easier to keep track of the numerous calves that, with nothing better to do while Mom is feeding, became curious about the very large objects floating at the surface of their world. Several calves were seen rolling around beside the boats and even under the bowsprit on two ocassions.
* The day also featured incredible looks at finback whales (for those of you who have not been following along, finback whales are the second largest animals to EVER have lived on earth.)
*July 10, saw a lot of the same type of feeding activity from the adult humpback whales, one trip reporting over three dozen of them. And there were frolicking calves, as well.
Minke whales were also seen. The highlight of the day would have to have been the finback whales that were feeding at the surface, taking big, fast lunges through the schools of small fish and sending up waves of water as they passed.
* June 27 was a beautiful day to be whalewatching in the western part of Cape Cod Bay. The fog and rain of yesterday morning had passed and the winds of last evening had diminished, leaving the surface of the bay with enough of a swell to remind you you were on the water but not enough to be uncomfortable. It was here, among the pleasant seas, that Measles, Mogul, and Orbit chose to spend their day using great clouds of bubbles to confuse schooling fish, possibly mackerel, into tighter balls so they could make their living on them.
* A large basking shark was also seen in the area, and a finback was spotted beyond Race Point.
* In addition to the feeding humpback whales of June 28, Bullet was seen with her new calf. Bullet’s calf would be about seven months of age, at this point. It is still nursing, as was witnessed by the passengers of the Dolphin 10, and will likely continue to do so until August or September, when Bullet finishes weaning it off of whale milk and onto a diet of small fishes. (A process known more about in theory than in observation.)
* Among the feeding humpback whales was Hancock. Today, rather than blowing the spiral of bubble columns she is known to utilize, she appeared to be blowing bubble rings. When blown deeper, the rings would be large by the time they had reached the surface and she would have already closed her mouth. However, when the rings were seen rising to the surface, still small, she would lunge close enough that her mouth would still be open when she breached the surface of the water.
* And to add to all of the excitement caused by feeding humpback whales, there was an incredible look at a finback whale named Darth.
* In this photo, you can even get a glimpse of the huge animal’s flipper, as well as a feel for how powerful that exhalation must have been. Note the still open blowholes.
* June 29 was bright and sunny and, to the relief of some passengers, CALM. Humpback whales were again seen feeding, though today, deeper beneath the surface. So for most of the day, the bubble clouds could be seen rising to the surface, followed by the whales that would take a couple of breaths and then lift their huge flukes above the surface to dive.
* Orbit, Measles, and Dome (pictured above) were among the whales seen feeding on what appeared to be huge schools of mackerel.
* By late afternoon, however, the fish had moved closer to the surface, attracting huge numbers of herring gulls and shearwaters. A few northern gannets even found their way to the area. It is hard to say whether the birds were drawn there because they had found the school of fish or because they had found the feeding humpbacks. Now, the feeding activity was at the surface: the great leviathons lunging alongside the boat with their huge mouths agape, collecting countless tinker mackerel behind their curtains of baleen before arching and returning to the depths. Then repeating the process again and again and again!
* The sky was bright on June 30, but throughout the day the wind grew, becoming more than just a stiff breeze by midafternoon. Numerous finback whales were sighted throughout the day, making their way to unknown destinations. Very close views were enjoyed of at least three very large finwhales and a single small one.
* If you went to the west-north-west, across the growing south-west winds (and the chop they created), you would have found yourself, with some luck, encountering a humpback whale that was spending some very long periods of time beneath the surface. But if you had gotten there at just the right time, you would have seen this same humpback whale breach. First, a spinning breach, almost as if to get your attention, and then repeated chin-breaches.
* Finback whales and the smaller minke whales were seen in numerous places on July 01. West of the SouthWest Corner and out to the east were several “bunches” of minkes. Finwhales were found inside the Race and down the backside. Hancock was spotted again today, blowing bubble clouds to corral schooling fish closer together. Timberline was seen not just blowing bubbles, but also kick-feeding.
* A four species day on July 02. Feeding humpback whales were joined by minke whales and surface-feeding finback whales. And, today, there were also several dozen atlantic white-sided dolphins.
* The highlight of the day was the reappearance of our friend Loon. This finback whale has a sighting history that goes back to 1980. There are one or two other finners with sighting records as long or even longer, but none of them has been sighted with the consistency of Loon. Named for this marking on the left side of its body, Loon is most frequently spotted when other whales are not close to the Cape, but is also seen when the feeding is good.
* Imagine the sound of a fog-horn. Now, imagine the air so dense, so thick, that you can barely see the bow of your boat. That was how July 03 began. Calm water, but the air nearly as thick. A faint sound is heard. From where? Listen again, it’s there. Off to the starboard. A third time. It is the spout of a whale. So you listen for it some more, peering into the haze. It takes a moment for your eyes to adjust but then you see it, the dark, long outline of a finback whale surfacing gently on the flat seas. It breathes two or three more times before the dark shape thickens as it arches and dives, removing it from view.
* As you make your way further from shore, the flat seas take on a sizeable swell. The fog has lifted a little, allowing you to see a couple of boat-lenths in any direction. That’s how you found the minke whales. A third of a dozen of them surround the boat. Without the backdrop of a huge expanse of water, these animals actually begin to look like the large creatures they are. They appear out of the fog and disappear beneath the depths so rapidly that you can’t really tell how many are around you.
* Continuing on, toward the northeast, you happen upon a large, triangular fin slowly pushing through the surface of the water. As you near, the features of the basking shark are made more clear. It swims along, gently, oblivious to your presence.
* The fog lifts a little more. And, quite suddenly, there are seventy to a hundred humpback whales kick-feeding all around you. More than seventy humpbacks within a four mile radius of your boat! All of them actively making a superb living on small, schooling fish: blowing bubbles beneath the school, then surfacing to slap their tails repeatedly before diving down beneath the fish once more to open their mouths and lunge through the school, taking in as much of the fish and seawater as they can.
* That was the story of July 03. Most of the afternoon and evening trips saw at least 30 feeding humpback whales! Jumanji, Cloud, and Wyoming were among the more commonly sighted.
* Whales and Seals and Sharks, Oh My. June 20, was a day of variety. In addition to the three species of whales spotted today, there were also two species of seals and two species of sharks. The day began with feeding humpback whales, most notably, Measles.
* Whalewatchers today also saw Mogul, Hancock, and two mother and calf pairs; Vulture, Tongs, and their calves.
* Numerous finback whales were also sighted today, as were quite a few minke whales. Both of these species offered up some incredible views, especially one of the finback whales sighted on the morning adventure. There were also several gray seals and several harbor seals, both of which are frequently sighted in the nearby waters and on the oceanside beaches. There was also a very close look at a basking shark.
* The highlight of the day, however, was the sighting of this shark, thought to be a porbeagle, swimming alongside the Dolphin 9 for quite a while.
* Though small compared to other mackerel sharks like the great white, the porbeagle shark can be as long as twelve feet and weigh as much as five-hundred pounds. It will feed on cod, hake, flounder, and other bottom-swelling fish, as well as mackerel and squid when it is in open water. Though thought to be common, they are rarely seen by divers. They inhabit cold waters over the continental shelf to depths of twelve-hundred feet.
* Notice the five gill-slits. These are part of a highly advanced respiratory/circulatory system that utilizes a complicated array of tiny arteries and veins to collect the heat produced in the muscles by swimming and uses that heat to warm the blood. The warmed blood is then distributed throughout the tissues and organs of the body allowing greater response speed and strength from both muscular and nervous systems. This system allows the body of a mackerel shark, like the porbeagle, to be elevated as much as twenty degrees above the temperature of the surrounding water, making these cold-blooded fishes functionally warm-blooded.
* Notice the torpedo-like shape of the body. This is a very fast-swimming shark. Though not visible in the photo, the upper and lower lobes of its tail are nearly equal in size, indicating that it needs to continue swimming constantly in order to maintain its oxygen supply, quite odd for a shark that spends most of its time near the bottom. Also no discernible in the photo is the secondary keel located near the base of its tail that cuts easily through the water as the tail swings back and forth during swimming.
* Also not visible are the pair of claspers between the pelvic fins. The presence of claspers would indicate this shark to be a male and the absence of them would indicate a female. It is unclear whether the claspers are not present or are just being concealled by the body. Porbeagles are viviparous, giving birth to live young that develope inside the uterus. Not having a placental connection to the mother, the larger embryos often eat smaller ones while in the womb.
* June 21 was a clear and sunny day, a beautiful day to be on the water. Again, today, three species of whale were spotted, beginning with the large finback whale near Race Point. This animal treated whalewatchers to amazing looks at both sides of its body, allowing them to appreciate the asymmetric pigmentation that is unique to finwhales (among mammals). The other finbacks and the minkes and humpbacks were scattered a bit more today, but that did not prevent the passengers from seeing several of each species. Throughout the day, Measles and Hancock observed blowing spirals of bubble columns, but most of the feeding lunges took place beneath the surface. Again, today, both harbor and gray seals were spotted, both on the beaches and in the water. The highlight of today was, again, not a whale. A very large basking shark was observed feeding very near the surface and, at least on one trip, spent nearly ten minutes swimming with its mouth open very near the Dolphin 9.
* Basking sharks were also seen on June 22. Today, though, was about finback whales. Spread out between the Seashore Ranger Station at the Race and the area known as the triangle, nearly half a dozen were seen, several of which allowed good, close looks at their different dorsal fins and chevrons. The one closest to the triange, was spending its time lunging repeatedly through a huge school of some type of small fish, feeding. Its efforts were also aiding a large group of gulls and shearwaters. At one point, another finwhale (this one identified as Rila) rolled onto its side while swimming along beside the Dolphin 9. Its rorqual pleats were beautifully defined, thanks to the sunny skies and calm waters.
* There were a number of humpbacks sighted early in the day as well. Mostly, they were engaged in bubble feeding deep beneath the surface but, just once, one of them did “a spectacular roll showing us her pleats inflated with food and water.”
* June 23 was another clear day with bright sunshine and fluffy, white clouds against a blue backdrop. One of the finback whales seen today was a female named Skeg. If you will remember from the last two years, she is the one that quite frequently (for a finwhale) lifts her flukes above the surface when going deep beneath the surface. She did it again today! It happened just one time as the morning trip was carefully approaching the whale. If you have never seen the flukes of a finback, they all look very much the same, with a dark outline and a white interior. Smaller than those of a humpback or right whale, the trailing edge is generally smooth (like that of the right whale). She was also seen swimming rather slowly, nearly logging, by the Dolphin 9.
* On the way to Stellwagen, the passengers of the Dolphin 8 spotted a V-shaped spout. It was that of a juvenile right whale on its way toward Provincetown. Its flukes were seen as it swam away.
* And there were humpback whales too. Mogul and Orbit were blowing bubble clouds and feeding beneath the surface. And Diablo appeared again, appearing to be a bit curious about the large vessel she had encountered.
* And, as you can see, she had other things going on too.
* The other thing that was noted by the naturalists on all four trips was the natural result of all of the feeding behavior witnessed over the past several weeks. Defecation. And lots of it.
* The morning action on June 24 was on the SouthWest Corner of Stellwagen Bank. That’s where there were a number of both humpback whales and finback whales. The humpbacks were feeding on short, deep-bodied fish, likely herring. Bubble clouds were being used to corral the fish and push it toward the surface, where three species of shearwaters joined the humpback whales for breakfast.
A greater shearwater takes off
* Orbit was seen throughout the day, expelling partially digested food in the natural way. And Hancock spent a little time in the afternoon thrilling passengers and crew alike with spirited flipper-slapping.
* June 25 was bright, but hazy. The SW breeze of the morning grew throughout the day, kicking up the seas and making the days adventures like being on nature’s roller-coaster. Whales don’t care about that, though. In fact, the weather patterns that influence our lives so much have very little effect on the lives of whales. Humpback whales continued to feed on the SouthWest Corner. Finback whales continued to move around unconcerned with the presence of the vessels.
* One of which was Skeg. Notice how petite the flukes appear compared to those of a humpack.
* It was foggy and raining on June 26. The Dolphin 10 zig-zagged its way to the SouthWest Corner, hoping to find some of the whales that were feeding there yesterday. Even from a distance, the passengers could see that greater and sooty shearwaters were there in abundance. And when they arrived, a look down, into the water revealled huge schools of small fish. But were the whales still there? Fog can be tricky on a whalewatch. Rain complicates that. Just like on a bright, sunny day, you have to hope for the best.
* As it turns out, there were whales. Humpback whales, a finback whale, and a minke whale. Measles continued to feed and defecate, unconcerned about the weather. And Orbit was making non-fluking dives, likely feeding subsurface.