On June 16th, the Dolphin VII traveled to the middle of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary where we found Pepper and her calf.  Pepper was given a name in 1976 when she was observed traveling with another female humpback named Salt.  Pepper is back this year with her ninth calf that we know of.  Because we first started watching Pepper in 1976, we don’t know how old she is, and it’s quite possible that she was giving birth to calves long before we started to recognize her.  Soon, Pepper and her calf were joined by Roswell and her 2007 calf. 

 

 

            Pepper and her calf                                          Roswell and her calf

 

Leaving these two pairs of whales, we traveled north where we witnessed feeding behavior from both humpbacks and Minke whales!  Although both of these species use baleen to filter small schooling fish like sand lance, herring, and mackerel from the surrounding seawater, they use different strategies to do so.  The Minke whales, which are some of the smallest baleen whales that we find in Stellwagen Bank, charge after prey items, taking off in rapid bursts of speed through patches of food.  Meanwhile, the humpback whales in the area were blowing bubble clouds to corral the same sand lance.  Bubbles scare, confuse, and ultimately trap fish so that the humpback whales can maximize the amount of food they engulf with every mouthful. 

 

On June 17th we were treated to three different species of whale during our midday trip.  We started the day with a whale named Echo.  Echo is named for the marking on the left fluke, which resemble a depiction of repeating sound waves.  Meanwhile, not far away, Scylla, another humpback was logging, or resting, nearly motionless, near the surface of the water. 

 

Soon, we noticed the other species in the area, the finback whales and the Minke whales.

Minke, humpback, and finback whales all belong to a group of whales classified as the “rorquals”.  Rorquals refer to the pleats running down the underside, or ventral side of their bodies, all the way to their navels.  As these whales fill their mouths with food and water, these pleats expand.  This is another adaptation that these whales use to obtain adequate amounts of food from their environment.  The rorquals are also referred to as the “gulp feeders”, because they feed by periodically taking in large mouthfuls, straining water, and swallowing large volumes of fish in one mouthful. 

 

 

Ventral pleats or “rorquals” on the underside of Ventisca

 

 

Ventral pleats expand as the whale feeds at the surface

 

It seemed was obvious that these whales were found in the same vicinity because of the massive schools of fish that could be seen near the surface of the water, and Dolphin Fleet passengers were delighted to watch humpback whales blowing bubbles to trap fish, straining water through their baleen with their mouths wide open so all of us could see the baleen hanging down from their upper jaw!

 

On June 18th, humpback whales, including Echo, Thread, Weave, Firefly and her calf, and Cardhu spent the morning feeding.  Bubble nets and bubble clouds surrounded the Dolphin VII, and our humpbacks filled up on thousands of pounds sand lance. 

 

After feeding during in the morning, the same humpbacks had the energy to engage in other behaviors all afternoon.  Passengers on the Dolphin VIII were thrilled as Ventisca approached the boat, rolled over, and slapped its flipper on the water.  Ventisca is the Spanish word for “blizzard”, referring to the whale’s distinct, bright white dorsal fin.  

 

The evening trip took the Dolphin VIII to whale named Rapier and her 2006 calf, who was also rolling on its back and flipper slapping.  We noted how unusual it was to see this young animal stay with its mother for such a long time.  Generally, a humpback will stay with its mother for a year before they go their separate ways, but this particular calf seems to have gotten a late start.  Those of us who remember seeing Rapier’s calf last year noted how much the pattern on the underside of its fluke had become sharpened.  A mature humpback will have a black and white pattern on the underside of its fluke which identifies the whale as an individual.  However, when calves are first born, this pattern is not as distinct, and in fact, has an almost cloudy or hazy appearance. 

 

 

Rapier's 2006 Calf in the summer of 2006

 

On June 19th  as we approached a pair of humpback whales, all of us on the Dolphin VII exchanged excited looks as we noticed the large, rounded dorsal fin on one of them.  Could it be Colt?  Colt is a male humpback, born in 1981 to a whale named Equus.  We always hope for a visit from Colt on our whale watch trips because he is famous for doing what we call a close boat approach.

 

Most humpback whales, while aware of the presence of the whale watching vessel, don’t spend a great deal of time interacting with the boat.  Colt, however, is a different story. As we moved slowly into the area, shut off our engines, and drifted, Colt appeared right off the starboard side of the boat.  As he exhaled, he thrilled whale watch passengers by making a rumbling trumpeting sound as he sent whale breath drifting across the bow of the Dolphin VII! After swimming directly under the boat, Colt appeared on the port side and lifted hisad out of the water.  Although his eye, located further back on the side of his body, didn’t make it out of the water for a true “spy hop”, it was clear that he was trying to take a closer look at us.  Finally, as passengers peered over the railing, Colt seemed to know it, and he blew bubbles beneath the water with enough force such that they boiled to the surface and even sprayed some passengers!  As it neared the time to leave, Colt rolled over, displaying the ventral pleats on the underside of his body and slapping his flipper on the water.  Having had our fill with us, Colt and the humpback whale accompanying Colt, Shards, finally swam away so that we could safely leave for home.  Certainly, any experience with Colt is one that Dolphin Fleet passengers will not soon forget!

 

 

Colt peers up at Dolphin VII whale watch passengers

 

On June 20th, was gray, rainy, and foggy, and as we left Provincetown Harbor, we knew that we would have to work hard in order to find whales.  As luck would have it, we came across three humpbacks, including Giraffe and Falcon, only an hour into the trip.  As we watched these whales, the fog closed in and we had to listen for the rumbling exhalation of the humpbacks to figure out where they were surfacing. 

 

 

A rain squall over Stellwagen Bank

 

Luckily, the skies cleared enough that we were able to see more spouts in the distance.  As we approached the spouts of what appeared to be humpback whales, we also noticed smaller disturbances near the slick in the water where the humpbacks appeared to be feeding.  As we got closer, our suspicions were confirmed.  Leaping among the feeding humpbacks were Atlantic white-sided dolphins!  Atlantic white-sided dolphins are among the several types of odontocetes which visit Stellwagen Bank during the summer, meaning that unlike the humpbacks, finbacks, and Minkes, these whales have teeth which they use to capture their prey. 

 

 

Atlantic white sided dolphin mother and calf

 

Reaching maximum lengths of only about 8 feet, the size contrast between the dolphins and the surrounding humpbacks, who can reach lengths of over 50 feet, was striking!

 

By June 21st, the fog and clouds had lifted, and bright, clear skies abounded.  Our first stop was by Nile and her calf.  Nile and her calf appeared to have a destination in mind and were traveling in a straight, linear direction.  Although Nile did not show us her flukes by diving, we could easily recognize her by her distinct, hook-shaped dorsal fin. 

 

Leaving Nile and her calf behind, we headed east where we found another group of humpbacks, Anvil, Tear, and Grommet.  Nearby, Cygnus and Sloop were lunging through the schools of sand lance that they had just concentrated by blowing rings of bubbles.  Sloop is named for the marking on his right fluke which resembles a single-masted sailing vessel, or sloop.

 

 

Sloop

 

Later in the trip, we came across Habeñero, a humpback whale born in 2001 to a whale named Pepper.  Having seen Pepper and her brand new calf early in the week, we were excited to recognize the fact that multiple generations of humpbacks can be found around Stellwagen Bank at any given time during the bountiful summer feeding season.

 

On June 22nd, we witnessed the most feeding that we had seen on any other trip that week!  Passengers peering over the railings of the Dolphin VII could see enormous schools of sand lance moments away from being swallowed whole by one of the many humpbacks, including Sloop, Cygnus, Ventisca, and Cardhu, congregating in the area. 

 

One of the benefits of recognizing individual whales is that it has helped us learn that humpbacks favor different feeding styles.  For example, Sloop, a male humpback, has a particularly energetic way of corralling fish, as he uses his chin to slap the surface of the water, possibly for the purpose of stunning the fish.  Then, he will dive through the bubble cloud and lunge through the school of fish, engulfing an enormous mouthful as he resurface to strain the seawater out through his baleen plates.  Meanwhile, Cygnus, Cardhu, and Ventisca blew bubble clouds to trap fish. 

 

Meanwhile, the whales weren’t the only ones enjoying the wealth of food in the area.  Sooty shearwaters, a frequent visitor to Stellwagen Bank, flew low over the surface of the water, causing the fish to leap out of the water in alarm, causing a distinct disturbance visible from the deck of the boat.  Sooty shearwaters, like humpback whales, take advantage of the plentiful fish in the North Atlantic during the summer.  However, the shearwater never experiences a true winter.  The shearwater will cross the equator to nest and breed on the rocky islands off the coast of Argentina during our winter, which is the only time that these birds will spend on land. 

 

 

A sooty shearwater prepares for take off!