In early November, after the Dolphin VIII had completed her last whale watching voyage of the season on October 27th, I received a call from Dr. Carole Carlson, the director of the research and education program on the Dolphin Fleet. “There are humpbacks kick feeding off the Visitor’s Center! You should go check it out if you have time.”
I threw on a few extra layers, grabbed my binoculars, and headed up to the Province Lands Visitor Center in Provincetown. Like many places in Provincetown, the visitor center is closed for the season, but many other late-season visitors were enjoying the spectacular view from the observation deck, which offers a dramatic view of the dunes as well as of the Atlantic Ocean just north of Race Point. Briefly scanning the horizon, it wasn’t long before I saw a series of spouts, followed by occasional bursts of whitewater, too persistent to be the white caps of waves. These were more likely bouts of feeding, as humpback whales will often use their bodies, particularly their tails, to generate bubbles and corral thousands of small fish.
Peering out to sea from my elevated vantage point among the dunes, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that these enormous creatures, so mysterious and foreign to us, are carrying out a significant portion of their lives so close to our own homes.
I also recalled having similar thoughts at the beginning of the season, under similar circumstances as I watched humpback whales and finback whales from the vantage point of my car parked in the Herring Cove Beach parking lot! When our season started in mid-April, weather conditions frequently prevented us from leaving the safe haven of Cape Cod Bay. Fortunately for us, there was plenty of activity close to home.
Circus and Tapioca were two relatively small humpbacks that were frequently seen swimming back and forth between Race Point and Wood End lighthouses, and were mainstays of our whale watching journeys for the first few weeks of the whale watching season.
Though the spring on Cape Cod is frequently accompanied by less than ideal weather, it is a time when we get a chance to see species that we don’t often see at other points during the year, notably, the Harbor Porpoise and the highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale.
While approximately a third of the right whale population, including calving females, spend their winters off the southeastern coast of the United States, another significant portion of the population spends much of the winter and spring in Cape Cod Bay, feeding on copepods, small crustaceans which form the majority of their diets. Many of these individuals will go north to the Bay of Fundy during the summer. It is prohibited by law to approach the North Atlantic Right Whales within 500 yards, so when we see the tell-tale signs of a right whale, including a V-shaped spout and a smooth black fluke, we slowly and cautiously leave the area. This, however, becomes an important opportunity to reflect on the impact of human activity on our endangered whale populations, as the right whale’s endangered status stems from over exploitation by commercial whalers and continued threats from ship strikes and fishing gear.
Every year, we anxiously await the return of our favorite humpback whale, a female named Salt. Salt was given her name by Dolphin Fleet whale watch captain Aaron Avellar, and we have been watching her come back year after year since 1975. This year, we didn’t have to wait long, as Salt was seen for the first time on April 22nd.
Spring rolled on and we continued to come across a surprising amount of feeding humpback whale activity. Humpback whales travel from the warm waters of the Caribbean where they mate and calve, to the nutrient-rich waters of the North Atlantic to feed. Even though this is their feeding ground, we were still stunned by the frequency with which we witnessed dramatic feeding behavior throughout the spring season.
Humpback whales feeding
Humpbacks weren’t the only whales taking advantage of the productive waters off of Cape Cod. As the spring turned into summer, we were also seeing the sleek, streamlined finback whales on a number of our trips as well! Particularly exciting was the documentation of several finback whale mother/calf pairs.
Finback whale mother/calf pair
There is still much that we don’t know about the finback whale. Despite its large size, the finback whale can be challenging to watch and study due to its great speed, and for this reason, it can a tricky research subject. As a result, we still know very little about the mating and calving behavior of this particular species. Currently, Dolphin Fleet naturalists are working on creating a more comprehensive catalog of individual finback whales using the size and shape of the dorsal fin as a feature to identify a unique individual. See the summer fin whale update for more on photo-identification progress. This season we identified 55 unique finback individuals including five mother/calf pairs.
Like the finback whale, the Minke whales’ speed and elusive behavior makes it difficult to study. However, because these animals are so frequently seen during our whale watches, we are very curious about them. Because identifying individuals is an extremely valuable tool in constructing the life history of a population, Dolphin Fleet naturalists are now exploring the possibility of using the size and shape of the Minke’s dorsal fin to identify individuals in much the same way that we have done for many of our finbacks.
By mid-July, the summer was in full swing and with three boats in our fleet, we were making up to nine trips per day. We noticed that after feeding relatively close to shore during the spring, many of the humpbacks had moved north to feed, although fin whales could frequently be seen along the beach in an area between Race Point and Highland Light. As the summer went on humpbacks could be seen on almost every excursion, and we were delighted to find that a number of our favorite individuals had brought back calves, born in the warm waters off the coast of the Dominican Republic.
Perseid, a nine year old humpback, brought back her first calf, who represented the first documented fourth generation humpback in the Gulf of Maine. This makes Compass, another humpback seen this year, the first known great-grandmother! Perseid’s calf quickly became one of our favorite animals to encounter, as it frequently treated passengers to close boat approaches!
For bird watchers, summer is a great time to see certain species of pelagic birds that come to the rich waters of the North Atlantic every year. Wilson’s storm petrels, as well as several types of shearwaters, including Manx, Greater, and Sooty, are often seen among feeding whales.
Mid-summer was also accompanied by a several species not commonly seen on a daily basis. On July 8th, we came across several Sei whales. Like the humpbacks, Minkes, and finbacks—all of which are fairly regular sights on Dolphin Fleet whale watches—Sei whales are baleen whales, meaning that they use a method of filter-feeding to capture prey items. However, Sei whales’ migration patterns are not very well understood and they are a rare sight on our whale watches.
Another unusual sighting occurred on July 29th when we came across of long-finned pilot whales. Pilot whales are toothed whales, and tend to travel in pods, or groups. These animals are more likely to be see in Cape Cod Bay in the late summer and early fall.
As fall came around, we continued to have beautiful weather as well as exciting whale watches. While we started to see fewer and fewer finback whales, we continued to see other interesting species such as the Atlantic white-sided dolphin, the basking shark, and even the occasional Mola Mola, or ocean sunfish.
September and October were exciting times to be out on the water as we found ourselves photographing a number of humpbacks for the first time all season. One pleasant surprise was a visit from Thalassa, who is one of Salt’s offspring. Thalassa came back this year with a calf. Though this is not Salt’s first grand-calf, Thalassa’s calf marks another addition to Salt’s ever-expanding family tree.
Thalassa and her calf
As is typical in the fall, the bird life also changed dramatically. Dolphin Fleet naturalist John Conlon writes of late-fall bird watching from the Dolphin VIII:
During the last week of whale watching, greater shearwaters continued to decline in number though they were still seen regularly on almost every trip. As the days go by, the greaters are more likely to be seen in the distance from Race Point, as they are outside the sand bars paralleling the beach. Manx shearwaters are seen at a rate of one or two per day generally amongst the small flocks of greater shearwaters, so look carefully.
The foraging terns between Wood End and Race Point are slowly decreasing in number, though the jaegers that chase them are still here in steady numbers. The jaegers of this past week seem to be of a higher percentage of matures than of past weeks.
Gannets are now here in large numbers. We are seeing them both along the beaches and offshore in all age classes. Circling flocks of 10 to 40 are seen off Herring Cove Beach.
The number of scoters and eiders continued to increase over recent weeks. Red-breasted mergansers are now regulars along Herring Cove and will be for much of the winter.
Common loons are now close to shore along both Herring Cove and Race Point and I have seen a red-throated loon as well. As the autumn progresses we will see increasing numbers of loons from Herring Cove around the backside toward the Highland area.
During our last few weeks of the season, we spent a lot of time in an area east of Stellwagen Bank, and continued to see favorite humpbacks from earlier in the season, such as Perseid and her calf, as well as new individuals, such as Hancock. Like Perseid, Hancock also was accompanied by her first calf. These calves were often seen playing together at the surface as their mothers foraged for food below. These adults were often seen in the company of Whisk and Apex, both of whom were mothers last year.
Hancock and her calf
Over the course of the season there were over 400 individual humpback whales photographed and documented within the Gulf of Maine, in addition to 70 mother and calf pairs. From the decks of the Dolphin Fleet, we saw 208 of these individuals and 30 mother and calf pairs.
While leading whale watch trips, Dolphin Fleet naturalists are simultaneously collecting data and taking photos which are integral to our continued understanding of the Stellwagen Bank ecosystem. Check back in April of 2008 as we begin a new season of whale watching on the Dolphin Fleet!
Cetacean species seen from the Dolphin Fleet during the 2007 season
Mysticetes (baleen whales) Odontocetes (toothed whales)
Humpback whale Atlantic white-sided dolphin
Finback whale Harbor porpoise
Minke whale Long-finned pilot whale
North Atlantic right whale*
*All sightings of North Atlantic right whales are made at a minimum distance of 500 yards in compliance with Mass. State and U.S. Federal regulations.