* The last weekend of the 2013 season began with high winds and high seas. In the waves of October 26 only an ocean sunfish was sighted.
* The following day, October 27, a very intensive search of the surrounding area produced a very quick glimpse of a minke whale and an incredible show of terns being scared out of their lunch by larger jaegers.
* This has been an interesting season. Though the numbers of humpback whales were less than previous years, the Dolphin Fleet did encounter at least six species of toothed whales: the more common Atlantic White-sided Dolphins and the Harbor Porpoise, and numerous sightings of Common Dolphins, as well as a few sightings of Pilot Whales, a single sighting of Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphins, and a sighting of two White-beaked Dolphins. The latter two sightings are fairly rare in our waters, our waters being the southern most limit of the white-beaks’ range and the northern most of the bottlenosed.
* In addition, there were also sightings of at least five species of baleen whales. Humpbacks, finback, minkes, and right whales were joined by Sei Whales, feeding on the copepods of the spring bloom alongside the Right Whales.
* There were also numerous sightings of both Harbor Seals and Gray Seals. And there were sharks, mostly Basking Sharks and Blue Sharks, but there were also suggestions that maybe a Great White was around. Ocean Sunfish, Bluefin Tuna, Bluefish, Stripers and, on Saturday mornings, a variety of crabs, rounded out the season’s flightless species.
* As for the birds, in addition to the Northern Gannets and the various species of Gulls and Shearwaters, there were also Wilson’s Storm Petrels, White-winged Scoters, Black Scoters, Surf Scoters, Common Terns, Least Terns, Black Terns, Parasitic and Pomerine Jaegers, Forster’s Terns, and Northern Fulmars, there were also sightings of South Polar Skua, red-throated Hummingbirds, and a Mute Swan. And also the Common Eiders, Double-crested Cormorants, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Iceland and Glaucous Gulls, Night Herons and Blue Herons, Common Loons, and a variety of songbirds that had been wafted a little off course.
* 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!
* A swell from the East-southeast and a chop from the Northwest made October 11 a day of big, bouncy fun. Some minke whales were seen in the morning, but in the afternoon, the Dolphin IX came to a stop on what looked like a very light, wispy spout. We waited for nearly seven minutes before the animal returned to the surface. When it did, we found that not only had we found a young humpback whale, we had also found its mother. The small animal was the 2013 calf of a female named Orbit, the ninth that she has been photographed with since she was first sighted in 1979. Lifting her flukes from the water, she led her calf into the depths.
* Though the calf returned to the surface every five or so minutes, Orbit didn’t return to view until nearly fourteen minutes had passed. When she finally did, though, bubbles followed her up. She was actively engaged in making her living, feeding on small, schooling fish at some depth beneath the surface. Numerous times, the passengers watched as she arrived at the surface just moments before the green discoloration in the water that explained why she had spent so much time below.
* And, while we watched Orbit and her calf, another humpback, that we had seen a bit in the distance, crossed the bow of our vessel and continued on to the east. It did not lift its flukes but, from the photos of its dorsal, it was identified as Palette.
* October 12 and October 13 were blustery days that kept the vessels of the Dolphin Fleet safely secured to their floats.
* There were some very good looks at minke whales on October 14, including one that was very large and moving in pretty much a straight line (in itself odd for a minke). But the day was made by the moderate sized pod of common dolphins that were found in the morning under bright skies and glass calm seas. These animals were not to be bothered by the presence of the Dolphin VIII. No, they were way to involved with each other. Continually rubbing against each other as they moved alongside us and, occasionally swimming belly to belly, these animals were being more than just a little social. This was courtship behavior. And, much like right whales, when dolphins are thus engaged, they don’t pay any attention to what’s going on around them. The passengers were thus treated to some of the most fantastic views of common dolphins of the season.
* A little later in the morning, the Dolphin IX had a spectacular encounter of her own. A blue shark, rather than being timid and dropping deeper at the vessel’s approach, stayed at the surface and swam up and down the length of the boat. It spent more than five minutes visible just beneath the surface, wowing the passengers and the crew alike.
* Wow! October 15 was a big day for variety. A harbor seal was a little interested in the boat, looking directly at us and rolling over onto its back. On ocean sunfish swam up one side of the vessel and then, after the boat spun around a bit, down the other. Several minke whales afforded the passengers excellent looks. And a slow moving finback whale demonstrated how truly big the second largest animal ever to have lived on this planet can be.
* The highlight of the day, however, would definately have been the large pod of 10 or 20 harbor porpoise that were spotted in the morning. They were easy to keep track of because of the flat seas. The pod included several (at least three) mother and calf pairs. They behaved very much like porpoise, changing direction beneath the surface and heading away from the vessel while visible, but the flat seas and the amount of time they spent at the surface made this the porpoise sighting of the season (and this naturalist’s sighting of a career).
* Wednesday, October 16, was foggy. Visibility wavered in and out. An ocean sunfish was spotted in the bay, as were plunge diving gannets. Also plentiful were the common terns, knifing through the surface of the water in their search for sand eels. And where you have feeding terns, you usually have parasitic jaegers, loudly and aggressively challenging the terns for their catch.
* Once outside the bay, a single grey seal and a minke whale were seen off of Race Point Station.
* The trip begins with, “Ready on the Spring.” In that way, the 17th of October was just like any other day. And the spectacular looks of the ocean sunfish and the bluefin tuna and the piles of terns, gulls, and gannets all just beyond the Race, in addition to the millions of small sand eels, would have stood out in any naturalist’s mind.
* But today was going to be different in a very big way!
* Past the Race, working toward the station, a big splash was seen to the eight oclock of the Dolphin VIII. Another. Too big to be a fish. A third, this one with a dark body in it. A breaching minke whale? Several more splashes. This animal has a triangular dorsal with some white markings on its trailing side. Could still be a minke with an injury. Another splash. A flash of white on the side of the whale. A Dahl’s porpoise? Never saw one of them. But bigger than I would have expected. Another couple of splashes before we got close.
* In front of us now. We can see the white saddle on the animal’s back through the water now. A second saddle passes the bow of the boat. The animals surface heading away from us, allowing us to see the tall dorsal of the second animal. Did we find orcas, finally? No, they are parallel to us now and the one with the larger dorsal has a distinctly falcate dorsal that is too narrow to be a pilot whale.
* The two animals move around very much like harbor porpoise. Only 2 or 3 breaths at the surface before going down. Changing directions frequently and usually angling away from the boat.
* It took a while to figure out what we were seeing. In fact, we radioed other whalewatch boats, looking for answers. What it really took was a good photograph of the second whale. WHITE-BEAKED DOLPHINS. My first such dolphins. I like to think that the passengers were as awestruck as I was. In truth, I can’t be sure.
* White-beaked Dolphins are typically seen in groups that range in size between five and fifty. The females are up to 9 feet long and 680 pounds and the males are about 10 feet and 770 pounds. Pods appear to be segregated into age groups, with juveniles forming separate groups from adults with calves.
* Cape Cod is thought to be the southern limit of their range on the western side of the Atlantic, with France its counterpart in the east. The eastern and western atlantic populations show a great deal of dimorphism so they probably do not interact very often. They feed on small schooling fish, larger bottom-dwelling fish like cod, haddock and whiting, and on crustaceans and octopods.
* The western atlantic population has shrunk quite a bit since the 1970’s, but he population of the eastern north atlantic appears to be growing.
* A rarer sighting than the social interactions of the common dolphins earlier this week.