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Naturalists Notebook – August 30 to September 05

*     All of a sudden, there were more whales on August 30. The day began with sightings of 2 humpback whales and as many as 5 finwhales, including a whale named Ladders because of the prop scars on the side of its body.  There were also some fantastic looks at dolphins, this morning.

*     But, in the afternoon, the whales got closer together and the the two humpbacks turned into ten.  The best looks would have been at Clipper and her calf of this year.  Spinning breaches and chin breaches thrilled the passengers of the Dolphin 9 today as that calf showed just how strong the musculature of its tail stalk was.  Breaching is thought to be the most energetically expensive behavior in the animal kingdom, yet it only takes two pumps of that tail to propel that behemoth nearly completely out of the water.  And not a great deal of depth is required either.  This naturalist has seen humpback whales breaching in only seventeen feet of water.

*     New whales today included a female named Nine and her fourth calf.  Nine is the 1989 calf of Rune.  Fan also made her debute.  She was first photographed in 1988, but not as a calf.  There is no way of knowing how old she is.  And Conflux, who is the 1997 son of Diablo.  And the humpback whale with the longest sighting record that was seen today was Warrior, whom was first photographed in 1979.

*     In addition to the humpback whales sighted on August 31, there were also minke whales and basking sharks.  The second largest fish currently living on Earth, basking sharks can be as long as forty feet.   Usually, the ones seen here are closer to twenty.  Like the only fish larger than them, the whale shark, they feed on very small animals.  Basking sharks make their living by filtering small animals out of the water using the specially designed spines on the arches of their gills, called gill-rakers.

*     It was the large pod of common dolphins that was likely the highlight of the day.  Moving very quickly, they did spend some time utilizing the bow and stern pressure waves of the Dolphin X.  They were not shy about getting close to the boat, either.  Riding alongside the vessel, they allowed the passengers close looks at the single blowhole on the tops of their heads and also at the way their eyes set forward on their heads, like ours.   They, because of their eye placement, likely do have stereoscopic vision.

*     The day began with rain on September 01.  Rain and low visibility.  But, as the day went on, the sun came up and the wind shifted.  Can’t say for sure that the improved weather was responsible for the sightings of humpback whales in the afternoon, but who knows.   Half a dozen humpbacks were seen by the afternoon trips of the Dolphin Fleet.  They included Valley and her eighth calf, Nile (who, if you have been following along, you already know), Fan, Scylla, Tongs, and Mogul.

*     Braid was also sighted today for the first time in quite a while.   This finwhale was named for the pair of prop scars that cross its back, reminiscent of a pair of braids.  While this animal was being waited for by the passengers of the Dolphin VIII, they were entertained by the movements of nearly two-hundred atlantic white-sided dolphins.  As long as, but not as robust as bottlenosed dolphins, the white-sided dolphins are far more common around the coast of the Cape.

*     September 02, was so foggy in the morning that you could not see the end of the pier from the upper deck of the Dolphin IX.  Yet, in that fog, numerous humpback whales were found, including two mother and calf pairs.   It was these calves that enthused the passengers of the Dolphin IX by breaching and flippering.

*     These calves were also interested in making their own living.  They are still not quite at the point that they are eating sand eels, like their moms.  They are still depending on whale milk that is between 35 and 50% milk fat.  These young ones have a diet of fifty to seventy-five gallons every day.  No wonder they grow so fast.

*     Logging, or resting, was the name of the game for the humpbacks on September 03.  A number of them were seen,, as were several minke whales.  But the highlight of this naturalist’s trip was the dorsal fin that looked gray in the sunlight and moved steadily toward the front of the Dolphin VIII.  The Captain said, “Get the camera ready.”   And, of course, as I tried, the battery door dropped off the camera.  Frantic, I scrambled to pull myself and my equipment together.

*     And the shark got close, passing along the starboard side of the bow.  And it was long and slender.  Not a great white after all.   Just a basking shark.  Not that that isn’t a fantastic sighting, but this naturalist has never seen a great white and would really like to do so.

*     A harbor porpoise was also sighted today.   We only saw the one, but, it being a toothed whale, there were probably more around.  Like all toothed whales, harbor porpoise live in lifelong social groups called pods.  The social interactions of porpoise seem to be less close-knit than those of their cousins, the dolphins.  While the pods of dolphins spend the majority of their time within a few body lengths of each other,  porpoise pods appear to be a bit more spread out.  And porpoise are not as interested in using the pressure waves of boats to travel as their dolphin cousins.

* September 04 was all about calves.   Both Clipper’s calf and Apex’s calf thrilled passengers of several boats by breaching, throwing their bodies up out of the water, and flippering, raising one of the pectoral flippers out of the water and slapping it back down on the surface.  Both of these very exciting behaviors are thought to be for communication and exercise and grooming.

*     There were newer humpack whales sighted on September 05, as well.  Perseid, the 1998 daughter of Palette and grand-daughter of Compass.  She is the mother of 2, both of which are fourth generation whales in the population study that began on the Dolphin Fleet boats over 35 years ago.  Over the years, many naturalists and whale biologists have participated in that study, making it the largest, and longest-running, study of living whales.

*     Contrary to what the Japanese whalers think, we have learned everything we need to learn from the carcasses of dead whales.  Living whale science is where the discoveries are to be made.  Lifespan and migratory routes cannot be learned from dead whales.   If they could, we would know these things already.  The yankee whalers, and their commercial followers, all had naturalists on their boats that made measurements and diagrams.  No, the potential for advancement lies in the study of living cetaceans.  Only when we see whales of known age begin to die of old-age will we truly begin to know the lifespans of these animals.

*     Long before the Whale Sense mandate, the Dolphin Fleet was involved in collecting data for this data-base.  The current owner of the Dolphin Fleet, the latest in the line of Al Avelar, has made a very distinct point of supporting and expanding the research and education efforts being taken by the naturalists aboard his vessels. The Saturday morning program aimed at involving children  in the appreciation of whales and the marine environment is just part of that educational pathway.

*     The Dolphin Fleet is also very excited about a developing program that would enable students to become actively involved in collecting scientific data and educating the passengers of the whalewatch trips..   Teachers,  if you are interested in finding out more about what the program hopes to offer,  or if you would like to make suggestions as to how to make a program with this aim more successful, please contact Carole Arrow and ask her to put you in touch with Mike Bertoldi  The idea is that when you bring your students to the Cape, Mike would come and talk to your class about how research data is taken and what the applications of that data are.  Then, on your whalewatch trip, your students would take essentially the same data as the naturalist for use in your classroom,  Also, since a number of your classes do projects about whales before coming to the Cape, Mike would like to tap into that resource on the boat and have your students share that information with the rest of the passengers.