On August 18th, all trips were cancelled due to high winds and rough seas. By August 19th, we were back on board. As we steamed past Race Point, passengers began remarking on the dozens of small dorsal fins sticking out of the water, and began to inquire about them. Upon closer inspection, we realized that they were dogfish. Cape Cod vacationers often cower at the thought that there might be sharks in the waters surrounding the Cape, particularly after recent reports of Great Whites off of Chatham. However, many people don’t consider the dogfish, a small shark, frequently found in coastal waters off the northeastern United States.
Dogfish are thought to be the most abundant shark in the New England area, and are between one and four feet long. They are frequently a great annoyance to fisherman, as they prey upon things like mackerel, haddock and cod, as well as almost anything else smaller than they are. On calm days when the seas are flat, dogfish dorsal fins can be spotted with very little difficulty.
Once we had passed the dogfish, the humpback whale sightings overshadowed any lingering shark fears. On a morning trip near Highland Light in Truro, at least 15 humpback whales were widely dispersed and were showing signs of subsurface feeding. These whales would emerge from the depths with the ventral pleats on the undersides of their bodies distended and water draining out the sides of their mouths.
While the adult humpbacks fed below the surface, the 2007 calves of Blackhole and Pepper spent their time checking out the Dolphin VII, rolling over on their backs, flipper slapping, and spyhopping. While whales are not known for their particularly keen eyesight, they will sometimes peek out of the water or roll over to get a closer look at objects above the water line.
A partial spyhop
A humpback whale does the backstroke
Later in the day, the center of feeding activity had shifted to the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank where we came across another group of approximately 12 humpback whales, including Leukos, Barb, Alpha and Raving. This time, these whales were feeding at the surface and we could see their wide open mouths, lined with baleen, as they lunged through schools of fish at the surface.
On August 20th, the concentrated groups of feeding humpbacks had dispersed and the whales were on the move. We watched as several pairs of humpback whales headed to the East, seemingly with great determination. The social structure of humpback whales is complex and not very well understood, but when humpback whales associate with one another, it is usual in small, unstable groups. This is in contrast to toothed whales, which tend to travel in long-term social units, or pods. Large aggregations of humpback whales or other baleen whales tend to indicate that there is a large amount of food within a small area.
The only true long-term association we seem among humpbacks is that between a mother humpback and her calf. Anchor and her calf were among the pairs headed from the southern portion of Stellwagen Bank, presumably headed toward another patch of food.
Anchor’s 2007 Calf
After observing little other than this linear travel, we were excited to see whitewater in the distance. Upon arriving, we found a humpback whale breaching and flipper slapping. We recognized this whale as one of the unnamed individuals of the summer, probably a juvenile, characterized by distinct white patches around the eyes.
Later in the day, Anchor and the calf had settled in a new area, and Anchor’s calf was the one breaching, much to the delight of passengers on the Dolphin VII. Meanwhile, four more adult humpback whales, including Pele, Pregunta, Whisk, and Apex were approached the area, at which point one of them began rolling over and flipper slapping!
Defying the expected social behaviors of adult humpback whales, Salt and Cardhu were spotted again that afternoon, traveling side by side. Salt and Cardhu are adult females, both at least 35 years old, who have been observed at each others’ sides for at least the past four weeks!
By August 21st, Pele had separated from the group where she had been observed the previous evening, and had joined a group of between 10 and 12 humpbacks, including two mother and calf pairs. This group included Pepper and her calf, Doric, Monarch, Entropy and Liner.
The adults in the group appeared to be foraging for food, diving for five to ten minutes at a time while their calves remained at the surface. While we waited for the adults to resurface, Pepper’s calf entertained passengers aboard the Dolphin VII by rolling, tail breaching, and flipper slapping.
Pepper and her 2007 calf
Throughout the day, one of Pepper’s previous calves, Habeñero was spotted intermittently. Habeñero was born in 1990. Humpbacks give birth to one calf at a time, typically with about two years between each calf. Humpback whales tend to display sight fidelity, meaning that they come back to the same feeding ground that their mothers brought them to in their first years of life. As a result, it is not uncommon to see multiple generations of humpbacks in the same day, sometimes even during the same trip!
August 22nd was a banner day for finback whale enthusiasts. Upon rounding Race Point Light House, we were immediately faced with at least 9 different finback whales. The area between Race Point and Highland Lights is often referred to as “Finback Alley” as the steep drop-off from land is very conducive to upwellings, and is therefore a great place for whales to feed. From the vantage point of the Dolphin VII, we watched the whales’ flukeprints, or surface disturbances left by the motion of the whales’ tails. These flukeprints appeared in almost an arc shape, indicating that many of the whales were swimming in circles. This is a typical feeding behavior of finback whales and although we are not sure how feeding helps them, it seems to accompany the sideways surface lunges that suggest that feeding is occurring.
We left the feeding finback whales and headed West, we stopped on two adult humpback whales and were immediately struck by the enormous scar on the right side of one of them. It turned out to be a whale named Owl. Owl has had an enormous dent in her side for many years now, which looks to have been caused by a collision with the bow of a boat. Despite this injury, Owl has managed to feed, travel, and reproduce in a seemingly normal fashion; however, such a sighting is a disturbing reminder of the numerous threats that these whales still face.
Accompanying Owl was a humpback that we could not immediately identify on board the boat. During photo analysis, it was determined to be a humpback whale named Little Spot. Once a regular in Stellwagen Bank, this whale has not been seen in many years, and many veterans of the Dolphin Fleet whale watches were thrilled to see this whale return after so many years.
The excitement continued later in the trip as we came across a breaching Minke whale. While humpback whale breaching seems to occur under many different conditions, we usually see this behavior in Minkes only during rougher seas.
A Minke whale begins its breach!
We were struck by another uncharacteristic whale behavior later on an evening trip when we came across three extremely lethargic finback whales. Perhaps the feeding frenzy that had taken place earlier in the day had worn them out, but in any case, these whales were resting nearly motionless at the surface of the water. This resting behavior, commonly known as logging, is more characteristic of humpbacks, who are buoyant and can float at the surface without much trouble. Finbacks, however, are negatively buoyant, and will sink unless they move slightly. For this reason, their resting behavior is not very well understood and is rarely observed.
August 23rd – Whale watching and bird watching naturally go hand-in-hand. Birds are an integral part of the marine ecosystem, and are often seen among the baleen whales of Stellwagen Bank, as they all take advantage of the rich supply of fish and crustaceans present in the North Atlantic. During the summer whale watching season, bird sightings might include several species of Shearwater, any number of Wilson’s storm petrels, a slew of common terns, as well as numerous gulls. Today, we had a particularly notable gull sighting when we came across a group of Kittiwake gulls.
Greater Shearwater with Black-legged Kittiwake
Although the Kittiwake gull is a relatively abundant bird in terms of gull populations in the North Atlantic, and is frequently spotted in the Stellwagen Bank area during the winter, it is a rare sight, even as the late August days become shorter. The group of Kittiwakes was a sure sign that fall is approaching.
Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VIII, the finback whales spotted yesterday were still feeding by Race Point Beach, which was our first stop. After getting another spectacular look at these finbacks—the second largest whale in the world—we headed West to find the humpbacks. A group of 8 humpbacks, including Vertex, seemed to be feeding below the surface. Apparently, the bait moved upward because soon these whales started blowing bubble clouds and nets and lunging through these bubble clouds, which they had used to trap fish, much to the delight of the surrounding shearwaters, gulls, and terns which swooped down to the bubble cloud to scavenge for any of the sand lance that had not been swallowed by the humpbacks.
On the morning of August 24th, the whale watch got off to a quick start as we came across Pele and Buzzard, both of whom were tail breaching, or throwing their tails out of the water, landing with a smack and a cascade of spray. The purpose behind this behavior is unclear, although many scientists suspect that it is some sort of communication.
After spending time with these animals, we spotted more whitewater in the distance and headed toward another humpback which appeared to be breaching completely. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the whale, a humpback named Alphorn, had discontinued. Not to be discouraged, we soon came across Perseid and her calf, who provided the definitive highlight of the morning. Perseid’s calf, only about seven months old, was extremely curious about the boat, and swam back and forth underneath the Dolphin VII, and persistently peered up at passengers on the port side, alternately spyhopping and rolling over on its side.
Once Perseid’s calf left the Dolphin VII, it was time to leave, and as we headed back to Provincetown a third humpback appeared in the area, and joined Perseid and her calf as they headed out to the West.
In the afternoon, we came across the uncharacteristic sluggish finback behavior seen earlier in the week. Two finback whales lingered near the surface, occasionally rolling over, revealing the bright wide underside of their bodies. Finback whales, Minke whales, as well as several other marine mammals display a pigmentation pattern known as countershading. Viewed from above, their steely gray color blends in with the ocean. Viewed from below, the bright white ventral surface mimics the color of the sky.
After leaving the finbacks, we came across Nile and her calf. Nile’s calf ran through the whole spectrum of active humpback whale behaviors, rolling over, flipper slapping, and of course, breaching.
Nile’s calf breaches
Leaving Nile and her calf, we came across another group of humpback whales. We were just in time to see them start to feed before we had to head back to Provincetown. Although the sun is setting earlier and the crowds in Provincetown will soon be diminishing, the whale watch season is still going strong!