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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – Week of April 9, 2011

April 9 – The Dolphin Fleet’s whale watching season kicked off this weekend with beautiful weather and some amazing sightings!  Spring whale watching can be challenging as fog frequently settles over the bay and lingering chilly winds sometimes prevent the boat from going too far.   Another, more exciting challenge is the large numbers of right whales that tend to congregate in Cape Cod Bay in late March and early April.  The North Atlantic right whale is a highly endangered animal whose susceptibility to ship strikes has made it a focus of environmental management in this region.   As long as right whales are in the Bay, boats in the area must travel at a speed of 10 knots.  It is also illegal to approach right whales at a distance closer than 500 yards.  Our captain and crew keep sharp eyes trained on the water at all times to make sure we are not getting too near any of these animals.  As we slowly cruised by Race Point, we could see people gathering on the beach with their binoculars to try to catch a glimpse of these rare creatures from shore!

Whale watchers on the beach

Right whales are attracted to Cape Cod Bay at this time of year due to the vast quantities of copepods that mature and aggregate in the spring.  Copepods are no larger than a grain of rice, but are filled with rich oils that provide right whales with energy throughout the year.   Another whale that is often seen in similar habitats as the right whale is the sei whale, which also feeds on copepods.   It is somewhat unusual to see sei whales in our waters, and we were thrilled to see them lunging and feeding on Saturday morning.   It is easy to mistake sei whales for Minke whales or fin whales, but they are larger than the former and smaller than the latter.   Look for a taller, more sickle-shaped dorsal fin, and their tendency to travel in small groups.

feeding seisfeeding seis IMG_8444

sei fin

The morning was a five species trip, with fin whales, humpbacks, and even a few dolphins visiting the scene.  In the afternoon, we welcomed aboard Joshua and Angie and their wedding party.  They tied the knot near the kiosk and then had an exciting afternoon watching Columbia’s 2010 calf breaching and lobtailing!

Wedding on DVIII

On Sunday, April 10, a group of whale watch naturalists attending a conference in Provincetown left the lecture hall and hopped aboard the Dolphin VIII, where it seemed like the amount of right whales in the bay had doubled overnight!  Naturalists on board say it was like a board game trying to navigate around them while still trying to maintain the 500-yard rule mandated by federal law.  It was chilly, but we had a chance to see more feeding sei whales, fin whales, humpbacks, as well has six harbor seals who had hauled out to sun themselves on Long Point.

The boatload of marine scientists were quickly able to identify Chaise, a humpback who has a chaise lounge type marking on its lower left fluke.   Chaise was first seen in 2003, but we do not know its age or sex.


Underscore, a humpback with an almost all black fluke, is a whale that we know little about.   Often, younger animals will be the first visitors to the Cape Cod area, as mothers with their calves take their time making their way up from the southern feeding grounds.


No whale watch trips are scheduled for Monday or Tuesday of this week due to poor weather forecasts, but keep checking back to schedule your trip.  The season has gotten off to a tremendous start!

After a few days of wind and rain, we were ready to get back aboard the Dolphin VIII on April 14.   Navigating around groups of feeding North Atlantic right whales was once again the name of the game.  Although we are not allowed to approach these animals for whale watching purposes, we were able to get a few good looks at them using binoculars and zoom lenses on our cameras.


Although they are baleen whales, like the humpbacks, fin whales, and minkes that grace our waters for most of the year, right whales have unique physical features that distinguish them from these other species.   One major difference has to do with their feeding styles.  Humpbacks, fin whales, minkes, and sei whales all have pleats of skin lining the ventral side of their jaws which expand when the whales take in a mouthful of water and food.  They use the musculature of these pleats to push water out between their baleen plates, while the bristles on the back of their baleen trap their food.

Sei whale feeding on side

SEI IMG_9043

In these photos, a sei whale is lunging on its side and its rorqual pleats are fully expanded.   Right whales, however, lack these pleats and instead feed by swimming forward with their mouths open.  A gap in the baleen plates at the front of their mouth creates suction which pulls in water and pushes it out through the baleen on the side of their jaws.  The minuscule copepods on which they feed get trapped in their fine baleen.

That being said, right whales and sei whales target the same types of zooplankton, and are frequently seen feeding in the same areas.  Sure enough, when we dropped a plankton net behind the boat, it came back full of these oil-rich crustaceans!

Skimming right whale

Amidst the excitement of all of these whales, it was also hard to miss the bird activity that was going on all around us.  Northern Gannets, which are impressive pelagic birds with six foot wide wing-spans, were diving for food all around us.   These birds will scan for fish from the air and plunge head first into the water to go after them.   The plume that they generate when they dive will sometimes momentarily resemble a whale spout!

To top it off, we had a rare encounter with a Minke whale which approached our boat.  Minke whales are generally relatively elusive and do not tend to approach boats in the Gulf of Maine, but every once in a while we happen upon a curious one.  Minke whales can resemble the sei whale which have been so prevalent over the past few days.  However, notice the bright white patches visible on their flippers.  These, as well as their smaller size, distinguish them from the seis.


April 15th was noticeably windier.  Between the choppy seas and the rule that we must travel at 10 knots when right whales are in the bay, we didn’t make it past Race Point.  Luckily, there was lots to be seen in the bay.  We were able to watch right whales at a distance, and even saw one breach!

On Friday we also received the data from the beach clean-up that occurred on Herring Cove Beach the previous Saturday.   Jen Kennedy from the Blue Ocean Society collected data and found that the naturalists and other concerned environmental educators who had participated had succeeded in removing 31 pounds of trash from the beach that day!

Beach Clean-up

Clean up projects like this act as a reminder of how our human activities can affect our environment.   The Green Arts festival happening in Provincetown over the next few weeks is a great way to find out more about our marine ecosystem on Cape Cod.  For more information on the events happening this week and next, check out the schedule.

Here’s where we went this week: