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Naturalist’s Notebook: June 21 to June 27

Minke whales are also fairly common here between April and October.  If you are looking, you will likely find some of them all year round.  The smallest of the baleen whales common to our waters, Minke whales are still very large animals.  Here, in the North Atlantic, they might be as long as 25 or 30 feet and weigh 8 or 10 tons.  True, from the boat, they are commonly mistaken for dolphins but they are quite larger in comparison.  A male White-Sided Dolphin might be 7 to 9 feet in length and weigh as much as 400 or 450 pounds.  It is the size of the vessel and the huge amount of water the animal is seen in that make it appear small.  It is, in fact, several tons larger than an elephant.

Minke whales are build very like finback whales, just on a smaller scale.  It was their size that protected them, for a very long time, from the harpoons of whalers.  In fact, the name Minke whale, according to tradition, comes from an anecdotal whaling story.  It seems there was this whaler named Minke (the spelling varies depending on where you read it).  He was on watch, looking for profitable whales to kill.  Through his glasses, he spied whales in the distance.  He roused his fellows and they charged toward the animals, hoping to find 100 foot blue whales or 80 foot finbacks.  When they saw that they were 30 foot minke whales (called Northern Piked Whales or Little Piked Whales at the time), they laughed at poor Minke, making sport of someone that could confuse such small animals with the large ones they were looking for.  The name stuck, thus immortalizing the poor guy.

The sad truth is that, today, Minke whales are the most heavily hunted of the baleen cetaceans.  Whaling nations, like Iceland and Norway, continue to openly hunt minkes despite the fact that we know very little about the populations and distribution of these animals.  They may serve you minke whale meat if you are a tourist, but you’re not likely to find any of their pregnant women eating whale meat.  The sad truth is that when you live at the top of the food chain, biotoxins accumulate in your body.  Sometimes the concentration is sufficient to kill you, other times it is not but sufficient to kill what eats you.

The Japanese whaling industry is far worse, pretending to hunt whales for the for scientific research.  There is nothing a dead whale can teach us that we don’t already know.  They claim to be studying what minkes eat.  We already know that.  They claim to be studying how long they live.  How can studying the remains of a whale that you killed tell you how long it would have lived?  More effective, non-lethal means are available for these studies.  The Japanese hunt is about profit.Period.

Minke whales were reported on nine of the Dolphin Fleet trips this week.  That none of the naturalists made much note of their behavior is not surprising.  Because of their size and the relative lesser surface activity of minke whales, passengers are far more interested in seeing humpback whales and, so, whalewatch captains generally pass by minke whales.  They are seen and reported by naturalists, who do point them out and talk about them but passengers want larger animals.  Too bad, really.  Minke whales, like all others, breach and if you take the time to allow them, they can become curious about your boat,  giving you incredibly good looks at an animal that, as I have said, is larger than an elephant.

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They are still wicked cool.

IMG_1878-8-28-br-minkeMINKE BREACH

Spoon and her calf were, again, the highlight of 9 of the Dolphin Fleet’s trips, this week.  Reports were made of the calf, and the mother, breaching and tailbreaching (June 22, 24, and 26). Also, Spoon feeding at the surface, emerging through it with her mouth open (June 24).

open-mouth-with-fish

Other humpbacks were reported, as well.  Glo and Mars were both sighted on June 22.  Nile and Pitcher were seen on the 23rd of June.  They were both sighted repeatedly throughout the week, as was Mostaza’s 2014 calf.  It does not have a name yet.  Humpbacks are typically not given names until the end of their second summer because, as a calf, the markings on the underside of their tails may lighten or darken in their first year.

Nilemars IMG_5075PITCHERglo-img_12421

What must have been the highlight of the week must have been the sighting of Right Whales off the lighthouse at Wood End on June 25.  While Right Whales are fairly common here during February, March, April, and even into May, usually by June they have moved on to places where the copepods they feed on will be more prevalent.  As the waters nearby warm and the amount of dissolved nutrients begins to be lessened by the developing thermocline,  the bloom of phytoplankton ends and the numbers of copepods decline from lack of food and predation by small schooling fish (and larger copepods).  With the food source thinning, the Right Whales move north to the Bay of Fundy and offshore to the Great South Channel.

Right whale flukeright whaleRight whaleright whales near beach