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Naturalist’s Notebook – August 20, 2016 to August 26, 2016

This week, the numbers of finback whales between Race Point and the Station have continued to increase.  They have continued to feed, sometimes lunging at the surface and sometimes beneath it.  But their dispersal has been evolving.  At first, most of the finbacks were moving around on their own, but as the weeks have progressed, the groups have become larger and more frequent.  And, this week, I saw something I hadn’t this season.  As baleen whales, finners do not live in permanent social groups but, as mammals, they are still social animals.  Briefly, I saw what I thought at first was two lunging finners, lunging over top of each other.  But, as I think about it in relation to what I have seen since, I now think that they were beginning to behave socially.  It looked like one finner lunged on its side at the surface while the other rushed beneath it, surfacing very quickly beyond the first.  It looked like feeding behavior.  But, since then, I have begun to have my doubts.  As we have been watching, they seem to be doing this more and more often.  And sometimes, it appears that they are just chasing each other around.  And there are times when just appear to be rolling over top of each other.  I don’t know finbacks well enough to know if they are just saying to each other, “Hey, I am here,” or if there is something more going on.  I will try to get back to you on this.

And all week long there has been a large group of humpbacks on the eastern slope of Stellwagen Bank.  What they are doing when your trip is there depends very much on the luck of the draw.  Just as with the previous weeks, sometimes the feeding is at the surface and sometimes it is deeper down.  This week, when the feeding has been close to the surface, the groups have been as large as twenty, or nearly thirty.  They have also been feeding by themselves and in smaller groups.

Calves appear to be plentiful, breaking up the feeding behavior with breaches and flipper-slapping.

Again, fairly large groups of dolphins, largely Atlantic White-sided, have also been seen over the course of the week.

And minke whales have been spotted on at least half of the trips.  Most of the whalewatches that have not seen minkes occurred on rougher days.

The big news of the week was the repeated sighting of a North Atlantic Right Whale tight to the beach at Race Point.  I saw it on August 21, 22, and 24.  Every time I saw it it was in very much the same place.  My captain and other naturalists saw it too.  It wasn’t a figment of my imagination.  I think, due to its size, it was probably a juvenile.  I also thought it looked a bit pale for a right whale.  Right whales are usually jet black.  This one just looked a little light.  Unfortunately, because they are so endangered, there are very strict laws about approaching Right whales.  But, its presence there allowed us to talk about why they are the Right Whale and why they are so endangered.  It also allowed me to talk to my passengers about how potentially successful not hunting whales might be as a way to allow for their recovery.  You see, Right whales and Gray whales both became protected in the 1930’s.  Since then, Gray whales in the North Pacific have enjoyed a great deal of recovery.  Of course, their numbers in 1930 were far superior to those of the Right whales.  In the North Atlantic, however, there is no recovery to speak of because we hunted Gray whales to extinction in the North Atlantic.  We nearly did the same thing to Right whales.  In 1750, there may have been as few as a hundred fifty of these animals here, from a population of more than 50,000 that used the area when the pilgrims first came to Provincetown.  By the time Provincetown became the fifth largest whaling port in the country, the Right whales were essentially commercially extinct.

That there may be as many as five hundred of these animals in the North Atlantic today is not a testament to our ability to protect a species so much as it is a testament  to their ability to hide from us.  Genetic work confirms that there are more right whales in the North Atlantic than there should be.  This means that somewhere in the North Atlantic, there was a small subset of the population that was able to hide from the Basques that started hunting the species a thousand years ago, from the Yankee whalers that left New England on sailing vessels, and from the commercial fleets with their steam powered vessels and harpoon cannons.

I had two trips on August 22.  The first one was a very pleasant trip under sunny skies and with a light breeze from the the northeast.  When we got to the eastern slope of the Bank, we found 25 to 30 humpback whales actively engaged in making their living.  The feeding was going on at the surface.  The groupings were quite short-lived.  There were many small groups that would lunge once or twice together and then break up and rearrange into other groups.  Occasionally, some of these smaller groups would come together into a larger group that would lunge through a bubble system.  One of these groups was seen to contain 13 humpbacks.

The breeze was still light when we got to Race Point on the second trip.  That allowed us to view the dozen finbacks that were there very nicely.  But as we worked our way to the northeast, the wind grew.  By the time we reached the humpback whales, it was blowing nearly 25 knots and the seas had rose to a six foot chop. We were treated to views of two breaching minke whales and, in the end, six to ten of the humpbacks we saw also breached.

Sometimes, I think that humpback whales like to mess with us.  Today, the whale that was across the sea would breach a couple of times and we would turn and make our way to it.  Just in time for it to stop.  Then the one that we were waiting on would do that.  And then the next one down the line or the next one further from home.  As a naturalist, I am not frustrated by this.  They are going to do what they are going to do.  But my captain was becoming annoyed.  As a naturalist, my job is to interpret what we see.  As captain, his is to give the passengers the best whalewatch he can and as safely as he can.  Unfortunately, someone decided that a breaching humpback was better than one that was just coming up to breath frequently and in the same spot.  And that is a shame because I had what was the most enjoyable and exciting trip of the season while the captain had a very stressful adventure.  He did not have the luxury of enjoying the wind and the sea and the tossing of the boat.  He didn’t have the luxury of being alive on that trip.  My hope for each of you when you come whalewatching is that you have the luxury of feeling alive and are not caged by excessive expectations.