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Naturalist’s Notebook – June 25, 2016 to July 01, 2016

It appears that this week the large schools of forage fish have sunk lower in the water column.  There were a couple of days at the beginning of the week in which the humpbacks were feeding at the surface, most notably, again, Tornado and Loon.  The biggest feeding event of the week took place on Saturday, June 25.  Within a two mile radius of the Dolphin X, 70 to 100 humpback whales were feeding at the surface.  Carolyn OConnor reported it as, “The most amount of humpbacks I have ever seen in a single whale watch.  Everywhere you look, all feeding humpbacks.  As far as the eye can see in some directions.  Absolutely unbelievable!”

Even if you have been whalewatching before, it might be difficult to imagine 70 to 100 whales that close to the boat.  So lets try this.  If we round 2 miles into 10, 600 feet and we consider that the average rabbit is about a foot long and the average humpback whale is maybe 33 feet long, it is very like having 70 to 100 rabbits within a 320 foot radius (roughly a football field in all directions from you).

Earlier in the day on Saturday, the Dolphin IX found a humpback whale calf.  This youngster was on its own, taking rolling lunges at the surface with its mouth open, looking very much like it was trying to feed or perfecting its technique.  As it lunged, it rolled high out of the water, revealing partially extended rorqual pleats and the surfaces of its pectoral flippers.  These flippers, while mostly white, had a few black markings on them that will last throughout the whale’s life.  They also showed the rusty brown shadings of layers of diatoms on the white skin.

Once Sunday came, the surface feeding became secondary to the surface activity of the calves.  With the adults spending more of their time feeding on schooling fish that was beneath the surface, whalewatch passengers found themselves focusing more on the antics of the youngsters.  So the flipperslapping and lobtailling and breaching of these animals now became the larger grabber of attention.  As well as the occasional curious approach.

A few other sightings of note occurred this week.  On Sunday, June 26, Mark Gilmore reports an observation of two finback whales that were so close to the boat that they might have well been inside it.  He says, “Best views were of finbacks, two practically in the boat gave us very close full right sequences of blaze and chevrons.”  He further reports that, “Lots of diatom sheen on one of the two whales, making look ‘painted’.”

At one point, on June 27, four groups of humpback whales came together beneath the Dolphin IX so that when they returned to the surface; the mother and calf pair, the two pairs of adults, and the group of three all had merged to become one large group of nine humpbacks.  As humpbacks are baleen whales and do not live in pods, this large social group (though it did stay together for the rest of the sighting) probably didn’t last through the night.

On June 28, in addition to all of the activity of the calves, Nancy Scaglione-Peck reports that the passengers of the Dolphin VIII got some great looks at a little harbor seal that spent some time bottling up and down at the surface, quite alert and curious.  She further comments on its “huge eyes, whiskers, and sweet face.”

Just before Dennis Minsky reports on the observations he had on June 29 of active and curious humpback whales and their calves, not to mention the “very, very friendly and charming” baby gray seal, he reminded me of the words of Bertrand Russell.  “The world is full of such wonderful things, just waiting patiently for our wits to sharpen.”

June 30 saw its share of flipperslapping and lobtailling and breaching.  Today, though, some of the calves were joined by their mothers.  Venom took a little time to flipperslap while her calf was breaching nearby.  And on the sunset trip, the only thing that broke the beautiful evening calm was the “massive amount of breaching, flippering, tail-lobbing–calves and cows and other adults.”  Dennis further calls it a “Whale extravagansa.”

On July 1, Dennis Minsky shows himself, once more, to be our resident philosopher by summing up the weeks trips with the words of Herman Melville.  Speaking of humpback whales, he said, “Their oil is not worth much, but they are the most gamesome and high-spirited of whales.”  And this day was no exception.  Another day filled with breaching, flippering, lobtailling, and rolling around at the surface.

That is the report from nearly every trip this week.  The calves and, sometimes, the adults spent a lot of time very active at the surface, repeating behaviors that are typically reported in one sighting of fifty or sixty of humpback whales.  If you missed this week, don’t wait too long.  There’s no telling how much longer this kind of behavior and these kind of numbers will continue.