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August 20 to August 26

August 20th, like most Saturdays in the summer, was enhanced with kid-friendly activities on the morning trip, including a peak inside a baitfish trap kept on the pier next to the fleet.  Every week we get something new in the trap, and today, we pulled up a load of common shore shrimp, green crabs, minuscule spider crabs, as well as a few small killifishes.  These in-depth peaks into our coastal ecosystem give us a chance to see some of the creatures which live at the bottom of our food web, but whose presence remind us what a diverse and productive area we have off of Cape Cod.

Of course, after getting a glimpse at these harbor-dwellers, we were excited to get out and see some whales, and we were not disappointed.   Galactic, named for the celestial pattern on its fluke, was the first to catch our attention by lobtailing regularly and occasionally breaching.


Music, named for the very distinct musical note and score marking on the lower right fluke, also made an appearance on the afternoon trip.  Music was first seen in 2007.


Individual humpback whales seen: Storm, Milkweed, Canopy and calf, Aerospace, Pele, Firefly, Tunguska, Soot, Perseid, Bolide and calf, Bounce, Stonewall, Hancock, Habenero, Elephant, Rattan, Draco, Soot, Forceps, Fracture, I-Vee’s 2008 calf, Bolide and calf, Elephant, Venom and calf, Galactic, Tunguska, Ganesh and calf, Putter, Salt, Music

On August 21st we had to go on a search towards the east to find the humpbacks who had seemingly disappeared overnight!  We made it all the way to Highland Light in Truro before finding a group of kick-feeding humpbacks on the way back in.  Coral, Salt, and Ember were among the humpbacks who had located a huge school of sand lance and were using their powerful tails to stun them and corral them before scooping them up with their flexible lower jaws.

feeding humpback

The wind picked up throughout the morning, but the muggy weather on land made us glad we were offshore.  In the afternoon, we headed straight for Highland Light in hopes that the humpbacks had kept feeding.  Once we got to Highland, the feeding had largely stopped.  A few humpback whales blew bubbles, suggesting that there were fish to be caught, but we saw very few lunges.  What we were struck by was the huge amount of birds everywhere.  There were so many immature laughing gulls flocking around the surfacing whales that we could barely see the mammoth beasts as they emerged from the water.  Birdwatchers with keen eyes were also able to pick out several rare Forster’s terns in the mix of gulls.  Finally, at the end of the mid-day trip, the feeding picked up again.  Salt, still not sated after the morning’s feeding bout, surprised us by lunging furiously through a school of fish and then doing a 360 degree barrel roll, exposing the stretched pleats on the underside of her body.

lunge and roll

In the evening, we had plans to head eastward again, but a splash to the north made us change course, and we headed up towards Stellwagen Bank instead.  There, just to the east of the bank, we had breaching whales everywhere!  The steadily increasing wind throughout the day seemed to have made the whales extra active.  Coral and Milkweed were  lobtailing while Ganesh’s calf rolled on its side and waved its flipper in the air.


We also saw Dusky’s 2010 calf.  Now that this young whale has been spotted back in Stellwagen Bank next summer, it will be eligible to get a name.  Any ideas for what we should call this whale?

Dusky's 2010 calf

Individual humpbacks seen: Midnight, Aerospace, Canopy and calf, Ventisca’s 2008 calf, I-Vee’s 2008 calf, Infinity, Reflection, Elephant, Rattan, Tunguska, Echo, Dusky’s 2010 calf, Pumpkinseed, Ember, Tracer, Pogo, Coral, Salt, Fracture, Jabiru

We started out the morning of August 22nd cruising slowly alongside two travelling humpback whales.  While watching this pair truck slowly to the northeast, those of us looking off the port side saw not one, but four breaches all in a row!  We made our way towards this group, hoping that they would keep it up.  Normally, it can be hard to predict breaches, but they are often preceded by a quick dive that we call a “wind up”.   Today, these breaches were more unpredictable than normal.  We experienced random bouts of breaching in between quiet lulls.  That is, until the end of the trip.  As we were just about to head for home, we encountered Putter, a male born in 1993, who was breaching, rolling, and flipper slapping like crazy!


After kicking off the day with rolling and flipper slapping, that behavior seemed to be the norm for the rest of the day.  On the last trip of the day, we started with a flipper slapping humpback.  Afterwards, we came upon Pumpkinseed, humpback that we’ve been watching since 2002.


Pumpkinseed made its way over to Venom and her calf, who were spotted earlier in the day nursing.  Humpback whale calves will feed on the thick fatty milk from their mother for the first 9-12 months of their life.  You can generally tell that a humpback calf is nursing when it appears on alternate sides of its mother, often diving down at an angle.  After an afternoon of feeding, Venom’s calf was ready for action.  We had several curious approaches from this calf, as well as several breaches from Springboard, which seemed to prompt even more breaching from the calf!

We ended the day with a group of randomly associated humpbacks, including Salt, Putter, Tear, as well as a few juveniles.  We also had two harbor seals as well as a fin whale!  Fin whales are often seen throughout the summer, though those of us on board remarked that it had been weeks since we had seen one of these enormous animals on our whale watch!

Finally, on the way back in, we had one of the nicest sunsets of the season, as voted by the crew of the Dolphin IX.

bella noche

Individual humpbacks seen: I-Vee’s 2008 calf, Elephant, Pumpkinseed, Perseid, Jabiru, Pele, Milkweed, Aerospace, Algebra, Cantilever, Springboard, Putter, Cajun, Salt, Tear, Walrus

On August 23rd many of our naturalists started to remark that with the bright sun, crisp air and dark seas, it was starting to look a lot like fall!  The clear skies and flat seas allowed us to see for miles.  Our morning trip found us tailing a group of whales that were headed towards Highland Light and doing a lot of deep dives in between surfacings.  Whiplash  Springboard, and Jabiru were among the humpbacks spotted headed towards Truro.


There were very few birds, indicating little food at the surface.  Even the calves weren’t staying up for very long!  Even so, we marked that there seemed to be more mother and calves in the area, including Canopy, Venom, Ganesh, and their respective calves, than had been spotted in a while.

By afternoon, the whales had moved south and were closer to shore.  Bird balls began to form the the whales started bubble netting.   We got about a half an hour of surface feeding from these humpbacks, including Pogo, Fracture and Cajun, who would blow huge clouds of bubbles before rising through them with open mouths.

humpbacks offshore

Great and Sooty Shearwaters were suddenly abundant, as were the many juvenile laughing gulls who competed for the fish that had been driven to the surface by the whales’ bubbles.  One of our naturalists even spotted a black tern!

birds and humpbacks

After about thirty minutes of feeding, the whales dispersed, as did the birds, and the deep diving became the norm for the remainder of the trip.  We had another beautiful sunset with the expected increasing seas as the wind began to gust from the southwest.

Individual humpbacks seen: Algebra, I-Vee’s 2008 calf, Elephant, Echo, Pumpkinseed, Cajun, Liner’s 2008 calf, Hippocampus, Bounce, Tear, Vector’s 2007 calf, Echo, Venom and calf, Pele, Salt, Spike, Pogo, Fracture, Canopy’s calf, Perseid, Milkweed, Jabiru, Springboard, Komodo, Sundog, Jellyfish, Rattan, Draco, Midnight, Ganesh and calf, Whiplash

Carrying on the trend for the week, the morning of August 24th involved an extensive search in the morning followed by a big payoff later in the day.  We had some intermittent feeding in the morning, replete excellent looks at three types of Shearwaters — Cory’s, Great, and Sooty.  These birds travel great distances to feed on the same small schooling fish that our humpbacks feed on, giving bird watchers a chance to check species off their life lists while aboard the decks of the Dolphin Fleet.

feeding with birds

As the winds picked up throughout the afternoon and the seas churned with the increasingly heavy chop, the whales changed their behavior from deep fluking dives to active surface behavior.  Bounce, now four years old, was particularly active and spent at least fifteen minutes lobtailing!


Also spotted today was Sanchal, Salt’s 2008 calf.  Salt was first seen in 1975 and has brought twelve calves to Stellwagen Bank during the time that we’ve known her.  Typically, humpback whale calves are given names only after they return in a subsequent summer without their mothers, but Salt’s calves are special.  They are named by the family of Al Avellar, the Dolphin Fleet’s founder, and their names usually have a “salty” origin.  Sanchal is a type of black salt that is mined in the mountains of Central India, Afghanistan and Pakistan.


Individual humpbacks seen:  Division and calf, Echo, Ampersand, Abrasion, Colt, Hippocampus, Algebra, Pumpkinseed, Bounce, Midnight, Springboard, Ampersand, Salt, Perseid, Sanchal, Whiplash, I-Vee 2008 Calf, Music, Coral, Belly, Perseid, Lariat, Shuffleboard

More 2008 calves continued to be spotted throughout the week with I-Vee’s 2008 calf making an appearance on August 25th. It was another rough and choppy day, and I-Vee’s 2008 calf was full of energy.  This whale was vigorously slapping its tail on the water and tail breaching–behaviors we often see when the wind picks up.

I-Vee's 2008 Calf

We were excited to have gotten good looks at I-Vee’s 2008 calf (who will most likely get a name in the next few years), because the whales were relatively low-key for the rest of the morning.  They were mostly seen heading west — good news for us as it means a shorter search time — but their dive times were long — almost 10-12 minutes!

The seas calmed a bit in the afternoon and we were able to get more sustained look at a group of five humpbacks from the decks of the Dolphin IX.  Echo and Tear were spotted together again.  These whales have been traveling side by side for the past several weeks, and after parting ways yesterday, they seem to have joined forces again this afternoon!

Echo and Tear

Birdwatchers aboard the Dolphin IX were also excited to spot a Sabine’s gull.  This is North America’s rarest gull, and even the most seasoned birdwatchers rarely get a chance to see this small gull with a forked tail and distinct feather pattern!

Individual Humpbacks seen:  Tracer, Echo, Tear, Algebra, I-Vee’s 2008 calf, Coral, Division and calf

On August 26th, as we made preparations for Hurricane Irene,  the only indication that the storm was building was the slight swell pulsing from the southeast.  Other than that, the warm, glassy conditions were perfect for whale watching.  In an unusual display, we got excellent looks at Minke whales on our mid-day trip.  These whales are normally elusive and rarely spend much time at the surface, but today they appeared to be surfing along the building swells!

The humpbacks had moved back to the east near Highland Light, and after a long search, we happened upon Tunguska, a 14 year old male. Tunguska kicked once, suggesting that he had found food, and was quickly joined by Coral, who started feeding right off the bow of the Dolphin VIII.  Coral is easily recognizable by his almost all white flukes accented by black rake marks along the trailing edge.  These scars are evidence of a shark attack which probably happened when this whale was less than a year old.


The flat, almost lake-like seas were also perfect conditions for a rare close boat approach by Scylla’s yet unnamed 2008 calf.  As this young whale surfaced right next to the boat, we could see every scratch, hair follicle and barnacle atop its head!

Scylla's 2008 calf

The classy conditions also made it relatively easy to spot a huge basking shark during our morning trip.  With the distinction as the second largest shark on the planet, these creatures look pretty scary, but they pose no threat to humans as they feed on nearly microscopic plankton, much like the right whales who frequent our waters during the spring.

After tying up the boat for the night and heading into town, the usually-bustling town had cleared out in preparation for the upcoming storm.  We hoped that the storm would pass quickly so we could get back to whale watching as soon as possible!

Individual humpbacks seen: Scylla’s 2008 calf, Coral, Division and calf, Sanchal, Level, Circuit, Ganesh and calf, Tunguska