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September 3 to September 9

On September 3rd we headed westward — a welcome change of scenery after having spent the last few weeks off of Highland Light to the east.   Here, with a full view of Plymouth across the bay, we had six humpbacks — a single, a pair, and a triplet.   Condensation, Banyon, Jabiru, Midnight, Kmodo, Pogo, and Putter could be identified by the distinct markings on their tails.


Upon arrival, we remarked that although these whales appeared to be feeding, there were no birds in sight!  Then, it all made sense: they were feeding on krill!  From the slow, sideways surface lunges to the bright red coloration of Banyon’s excrement, it was clear that these whales had found a big patch of these shrimp-like crustaceans!  Krill, known to the scientific community as euphausiids.  Because they feed on phytoplankton, these krill are high in Omega 3 fatty acids and are energy-dense food source for our whales, despite the fact that they are only about the size of a paper clip!


Individual humpbacks seen: Condensation, Banyon, Jabiru, Komodo, Pogo, Putter

Identifying individual humpbacks is easy when humpbacks fluke, as there is a unique pattern, not unlike a fingerprint, on the underside of their tail.  Studying animals with cameras rather than tags, for example, is more cost-effective, less invasive, and, in some ways, more reliable than tags, and has helped scientists study this population for the past 35 years.  Photo ID is challenging, however, when humpbacks fail to fluke, which seemed to be the trend on the morning of September 4th. The humpbacks were found in less than 50 feet of water that day, meaning that they didn’t need that extra push from their tail to send them below the surface.  Finally, we we were able to get a positive ID on Komodo, a four year old humpback.  Komodo has a mark on the lower left fluke that is reminiscent of a komodo dragon.


After this slightly frustrating look at humpbacks, we were excited to get a look at a small pod of Common dolphins.  Commons and Atlantic white-sided are the two types of dolphins we’re the most likely to see from the decks of the Dolphin Fleet, and they can be slightly challenging to tell apart, especially as they are sometimes found in mixed pods.  Common dolphins have an hourglass shaped pigmentation on their side which distinguishes them from their more frequently sighted cousins.

Common dolphins

A huge pod —  between 750 and 1000 individuals — of Atlantic white-sided dolphins were spotted later in the day.  We were especially excited to see a group of them surf our wake as we headed offshore!


Individual humpbacks seen:  Midnight, Entropy, Greenbean, Pixar, Komodo, Echo, Backgammon

The whales that were seen in 50 feet of water the previous day were in nearly 450 feet of water when we found them to the east of Stellwagen Bank on September 5th. It was well worth the trek for us, as we witnessed a rare double breach!  Two huge humpbacks, Salt and Entropy, simultaneously launched themselves out of the water right off the port side of the Dolphin IX, while a third humpback, Whiplash lobtailed wildly soon afterward!


By the afternoon trip, Salt and Entropy had moved down southward towards Peaked Hill, and a few veteran whale watchers let out a cheer when they heard that we were in the presence of Salt.  She has been visiting Stellwagen Bank ever since the Dolphin Fleet began taking passengers out in the mid 1970s, and many of our repeat customers have been watching her come back year after year since then!

After receiving a report of a fin whale on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, we chugged westward.  With the increasing winds out of the southwest, it was a bumpy ride with a lot of spray, but well worth it when we realized that the enormous fin whale was joined by a small pod of dolphins surfing the waves alongside the finner’s head!


Individual humpbacks seen: Salt, Entropy, Banyon, Snare, Jabiru, Condensation, Whiplash

Two days of rain and high winds kept us on shore until September 8th when we decided to brave the rain and see what was out there.   It was pouring when we left the dock, but we saw a fin whale, Boomerang, nearly right away as we rounded Wood End.  We remarked that this fin whale was hanging out at the exact same spot earlier in the summer!

It was our lucky day for finding whales in the Bay.  We located a humpback right off the Herring Cove bathhouse.  This whale, thought to be named Brillo, lunged once, but did not continue to feed.


Finally, at the mouth of the bay we found two lunging Minke whales.  These whales tend to be much more elusive, so it was a real treat to see them feeding.  Their coordinated, side-by-side movements were a surprise for us who are used to seeing shy, solitary Minke whales traversing Stellwagen Bank.

Individual fin whales seen: Boomerang

Individual humpbacks seen: Brillo

Aside from seeing the sun for the first time all week, Canopy’s calf was definitely the highlight of September 9th‘s trips. This little whale, now around 8 months old was tail breaching repeatedly.  This calf will be leaving its mother in a few months.  It may accompany her down to the winter breeding grounds, or it may stay up north where there is more likely to be food on a regular basis.

Canopy's 2011 calf

We were also happy to spend time with Ganesh and her calf.  This pair has had a traumatic summer, with Ganesh getting entangled in fishing gear and her young calf getting struck by a boat.  The calf’s wound is still looking pretty red and raw, especially at the base of the dorsal fin, but we noted that the calf’s skin condition seems to have improved since the last month, indicating improving health.  It is also looking nice and plump after a summer of feeding on its mother’s thick, rich milk.

Bird watchers observed terns, jaegers, gannets, and even some phalaropes offshore.  The windy weather had also had an effect on our terrestrial birds.  Occasionally windstorms will blow songbirds offshore where they will occasionally land on the rails of our boat to rest before embarking on their journey back to shore!

SongbirdIndividual humpbacks seen: Ganesh and calf, Music, Canopy and calf, Bounce