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Naturalists Notebook – August 16 to August 22

* August 16 was clearly about variety. The presence of three species of baleen whales; humpbacks, finwhales, and minke whales, was nearly overlooked because of the presence of two species of toothed whales. The morning trips found large pods of common dolphins, including numerous mother/calf pairs. One of the calves was so small that it was likely just several WEEKS old. It was still at the stage where it would bring its whole head out of the water when it surfaced rather than just the top of the head where the blowhole is. This naturalist was fortunate enough to be one of the ones that saw this calf (and was unable to photograph it). It was the smallest whale I have ever seen, sticking close to its mother and surfacing very quickly. Also, several sightings were made of large pods of atlantic white-sided dolphins. Slightly more robust than commons, these animals might weigh as much as four hundred pounds. Several mother/calf pairs were noted in these pods, as well. White-sided mothers will nurse their calves for about eighteen months and, then, the calves will stay in the pod with their mothers for several more years, before mingling throughout the pod a bit more.
* In addition to the cetacean sightings, several blue sharks and a very small harbor seal were also seen out to the east where the dolphin pods were sighted.
* For the humpback whales, it appeared to be a day of rest. Nile and Scylla spent the day logging. Logging is the term for a rest behavior of the humpbacks. While they are resting one of the brain’s hemispheres, they just lay, floating at the surface. It is termed logging because from a distance, they look very much like logs bobbing up and down on the swells. (And, after all, the scientific profession is staffed with very creative types). The entirety of the day, these two humpbacks appeared to be taking it easy, except for one brief moment where they roused themselves enough to breach, side-by-side.
* August 17 began with the kids trip. Numerous important question were asked by the group of younger passengers this week, including; “How do whales sleep,” “Where do whales get their water,” and “How long do they live?” All in all, this was one of the most enjoyable experiences this naturalist has ever had because the children had so many good questions, making what they wanted to know far more interesting than what I wanted them to know. My favorite way to whalewatch.
* A long trip was taken to find a finback whale, but then on the way home, “Ibis, A True Whale Story” was read to the youngsters and a discussion followed about how the human inhabitants of this planet could make things easier for their cetacean cousins. And, of course, the green crabs from the minnow trap led to a brief discussion of how mammals and arthropods differ.
* In the afternoon, Nile and Scylla woke up and allowed wonderful views of lobtailling and flippering, behaviors associated with communication, grooming, and exercise. Incredibly exciting to watch, these behaviors also allow for a much better view of the proportions and size of these magnificent creatures. And also the strength in the muscles of various parts of their bodies.
* In addition, like that wasn’t enough, the sighting of a single spout out to the east led to the discovery of three finback whales swimming among a pod of atlantic white-sided dolphins. Sightings of these two species continued throughout the afternoon and, at one point, one of the finwhales was spotted rolling onto its side and then swimming on its back. As you might imagine, not your average adventure with finwhales!
* The glass calm waters of August 18 made the north atlantic a wonderful place to view both odontocetes and mysticetes. The day began with a humpback named Embroidery feeding near the surface. Several times, this whale emerged from the depths with its rorqual pleat fully extended within just yards of the boat, allowing very excited passengers to get a good idea of just how much a mouthful of a humpback whale might be.
* That same glassy water allowed some of the best views of a finback whale this season. Moving very slowly, less that thirty feet from the Dolphin 9, this animal was visible from rostrum to flukes. “Amazing,” was the word used by the naturalist on the boat.
* The same was true for the minke whale seen by the Dolphin 10. Keeping a steady pace along side the boat, the animal’s length was easily viewed by passengers, as was the way it was surfacing with the point of its rostrum first.
* The glassy seas also made the viewing of several hundred atlantic white-sided dolphins incredible. At one point, as many as seven-hundred dolphins were being seen by the Dolphin 10. Some of these animals earned their nicknames as leapers during the Dolphin 9’s encounter with them.
* August 19 dawned cool and sunny. There were light westerly breezes and a small northerly swell. As the day went on, the cloud cover grew and way to the northeast, several humpbacks whales were seen. The depth-finder showed bait between seveny and one-hundred-twenty feet beneath the surface in about 240 feet of water.
* In addition to the whales seen onAugust 20, hundreds of ctenophores (commonly called comb jellies) were seen off-shore. These jelly-fish like creatures were seen floating over the pectoral flippers of logging humpback whales, being illuminated by the neon-green reflection of those white flippers in our phytoplankton rich waters. Comb jellies are the primary food source, in local waters, of the ocean sunfish. Though they lack the tentacles of the jelly-fishes, they do have rows of small hairs called cilia that they wave in rhythmic fashion to move about through the water.
* Big whales breach the best. August 21 demonstrated this very well. Scylla, a female that was first photographed in 1981 as a calf, was seen launching her body nearly completely out of the water and spinning through the air. She was first seen with her mother, Istar, and has since been seen with 10 calves of her own.
* August 22 was the carnivale parade here in Provincetown. It almost appeared as if the whales wanted to be as far away as possible. The closest ones were found on the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, some 25 miles away from Race Point. They included humpbacks we have been watching in the past week, Nile, Pinball, Scylla, and a mother/calf pair. Valley and her 2013 calf. Valley was first photographed in the waters around Cape Cod in 1985 and this is the eighth calf she has been recorded with. She, herself, was not seen as a calf, so her age remains a mystery to science. And, though she will never help the scientific community determine the lifespan of humpback whales, her eight calves will.