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Naturalists Notebook – September 06 to September 12

*     September 06 saw the return of humpback whales to the southern end of Stellwagen Bank.  Warrior and Scylla were joined today by Perseid.  Perseid is the 1998 calf of Palette and the mother of two.  She is part of one of the few family trees that includes four generations.  Her grandmother is Compass.

*     The minke whales have moved to the Peaked Hill Bars area down the backside of the cape.   And an ocean sunfish was also sighted by the Dolphin X.

*     The best looks of the day were probably the looks at the small pod of common dolphins.  Between two- and three-dozen spent some time riding the bow of the Dolphin X, allowing very good looks at their streamlined bodies and the hourglass design of their natural markings.  A number of calves were spotted with their mothers within the pod.  They are coordinated enough now that their whole head no longer comes above the surface for them to take a breath.   Just the tops of their heads is now sufficient.

*     The sky was clear and the air crisp on September 07. The humpback whales had moved off of the southern end of the bank before the whalewatch boats got there this morning.  Continuing on, the Dolphin IX found a finback whale nearly twenty miles northeast of the race.  Good looks were enjoyed by the passengers but, alas, they were brief looks because of how long it took to get to the spot.

*    Back near the race, numerous terns (both common and least) were seen feeding on small sand launce.  These birds just kind of flutter down to the surface of the water and knife into it, returning to the surface with a fish or two.

*     The visibility was so clear in the afternoon that the two humpback whales found were seen from seven miles away.  Moving steadily to the east, the pair was making good time.  One of the whales did not lift its flukes at all while we were with them, the other was a whale named Victim (because of the large portion of her right fluke that was missing).  Victim was never photographed as a calf, so little is known about her age or her mother’s identity.   When she was first photographed in 1988, she might have been 5 or 55.  There is no way of knowing.   She has returned to our waters with calves of her own over the years.

*     Only two trips went looking for whales from Provincetown on September 08. Sightings were limited, but not by the visibility or sighting conditions.  The golden-green water stretched away from the boat for three or four miles before turning deep blue beneath the horizon.  A finback whale was sighted toward mid-afternoon and it did allow some very good looks at both of its sides for the passengers of the Dolphin VIII.

*     September 09 was a day for variety.  Several finback whales were observed, as well as a minke whale.  A group of fast moving dolphins was also seen, zig-zagging about like common dolphins, however the markings on their bodies showed them to be atlantic white-sided dolphins.  It was odd to see white-sides moving in this manner.  Usually, unless they have a destination in mind, white-sides move a bit slower and without as much crashing about at the surface.  Also, the zig-zagging is far more common with the common dolphins.  Several ocean sunfish were also enjoyed by the passengers today.

*     The sighting of the day was, of course, the rare september sighting of a North Atlantic Right Whale.  At this time of the year, most of the right whales are further to the north or further off shore.  But the occasional sighting nearby is possible.  The captain of the Dolphin X said he thought from its size that it might be the same immature right whale that was spotted in Provincetown harbor over the summer.

*     It was a feeding show on the morning of September 10 the likes of which this naturalist has never seen.  Dozen of northern gannets and common terns were feeding on sand launce just a mile or so off of the beach at the race point station.  Beneath them there were at least a half a dozen, or more, minke whales feeding on the same huge school of fish.  Most of the time the feeding lunges of minke whales occur well beneath the surface, but on this day, that wasn’t always the case.  Today, these whales were lunging on their sides like finwhales and just far enough beneath the surface that only the tips of their flukes broke the surface of the water.  But the white undersides of these feeding whales could be easily seen from the deck of the boats as a green streak just before the very tip of one fluke broke through the top of the water for just an instant.

*     While this was going on, the gannets were falling from the sky and sending up tall shoots of splash when they hit the water.   They would return to the surface moments later with a fish or two in their mouths.   At one point, the splashes of the gannets nearly looked like the explosions of fireworks because of the sheer number.

*     The terns were also having a successful morning of feeding, knifing down through the surface of the water and emerging with the pencil-sized fish.  At one point, this naturalist saw a common tern snatch a fish from the water and begin to wing away only to be harassed by an immature gull into dropping the fish back into the sea.  Kleptoparasitism like this is very commonly seen from both parasitic and pomerine jaegers.  Gulls do this as well but aren’t as often caught by the human eye.   Just goes to show that the human species is not the only one to produce bullies.

*    And way out to the east-northeast, the finwhale named Skeg thrilled the passengers of the Dolphin IX by lifting its flukes high up above the surface of the water.

*     By early afternoon, the minke whales had moved on from Race Point, leaving the school of sand eels to the terns and a sizable school of bluefish.  And an ocean sunfish had made its way to the waters around the Wood End Light.

*     Meanwhile, between the piers in Provincetown Harbor, a gray seal was making a meal of bluefish behind the Dolphin X as she boarded for her afternoon trip.  Myself and the Captain watched the animal for a few minutes and, at one point, it took notice to us.  Usually when a whale displays curiosity about a boat, it is thought that it is a reaction to the boat and not the people on it.  But with this seal, it was reacting to us (the people).  Looking into our faces, the pinniped stopped eating and began moving toward us, its face out of the water and its eyes clearly looking into the faces of the Captain and myself.  When it got about ten feet from the stern of the Dolphin X, it rolled down through the surface of the water and came back up with another bluefish in its mouth.

*     There was a lot of travelling on September 11 and each of the three Dolphin Fleet boats that went out reported very different types of trips.  All of them reported the presence of several groups of atlantic white-sided dolphins.  Some of the reports were of very small groups of just ten or twelve and others were of pods of four-hundred or more.  These toothed whales are commonly found in the nearby waters and have been sighted by nearly fifteen percent of the trips leaving Provincetown Harbor in the more than thirty-five years the company has been taking passengers off shore to whalewatch.

*     John, reporting from the Dolphin IX, makes note of parasitic jaegers chasing the terns around along the Peaked Hill Bars.

*    Leah, reporting from the Dolphin VIII, commented on a more than twenty foot basking shark that swam the length of the port side of the vessel.

*     Liz, aboard the Dolphin X, reports that while they waited for two finback whales that were feeding deep beneath the surface in seven-hundred feet of water, the passengers with her had awesome looks at a blue shark.

*     So many different kinds of marine life today that would likely have been feeding on so many other kinds of marine life.  When this naturalist whalewatches, he frequently refers to the area as a giant restaurant.  Usually, he is talking about both the productivity of the local waters as a supply of food and the idea that when baleen whales are feeding in close proximity to each other, it is like sitting at different tables in the same restaurant.  The reports from today’s trips reminds him just how large the menu is.

*     There are whales again on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank.  On September 12, nearly a dozen minke whales afforded fantastic looks to the passengers of the Dolphin VIII.  They are quite graceful as they move through the water, piercing it occasionally with the point of their rostrum as they surface for a quick breath.  Today, with the mostly calm seas, they were easy to follow as they moved beneath the surface because their mittens (epaulettes) were readily visible beneath the water.

*     It is interesting that while the calf of a finback whale might be as much as fifteen to eighteen feet long at birth and weigh nearly two tons, a minke whale’s calf might be nine feet long and weigh some seven-hundred. pounds.  That a minke whale calf is in a very real sense smaller doesn’t astound anyone.  But when you consider how much larger it is relative to the body size of its mother, it doesn’t sound so small anymore.  A finback mother might be as long as seventy-five feet and weight nearly a hundred tons or more.  That minke mother is likely only thirty feet and about eight or ten tons.  That minke calf is almost a third of her length and about three percent of her body weight.   As opposed to the finwhale calf that is only a fifth to a quarter of its mothers length and is only two percent or less of her weight.  And also remember that the minke whale calf only gestates for ten months instead of twelve.

*     By the way, among mammals, humans give birth to the largest babies.