Hefty swells coming in from the north made for slow going on August 29th. Luckily, the whales were close and abundant, scattered from Race Point east, along the northern shore of Provincetown. Choppy weather like this can make for excellent breaching conditions, and sure enough, the morning’s trip had a humpback breaching right off the beach.
Most whales were diving for 4 -6 minutes, but their lack of consistent direction made it hard to keep track of where they would come up! We watched a group of six humpback whales which included Colt, a large male with a distinctive, round dorsal fin. Colt is famous for his boat approaches and he didn’t disappoint. He left his cohort and came right over to the Dolphin X, giving us a 20 minute close boat approach! Though sitting in the 3 – 6 foot swells made some folks a bit green, getting a close look at Colt was certainly a highlight of the trip!
By the evening, the seas had laid down and and the wind was so minimal that spouts hung in the air for a long time, resulting in rainbows reflected in the blows. This made the whales so easy to spot that we counted at least 20 – 29 animals off Peaked Hill, and as many to the east as far as the eye could see! We recognized many individuals by the markings on the under side of their fluke, including Circuit, Rocker, Loon, and Seal. Salt, a whale we’ve been watching since 1976, was sighted in the area with Crystal, who was Salt’s calf in 1980. These animals don’t stay with their mothers for more than a year, but because they return to the same feeding grounds as their mothers, they can often be seen searching for food in the same regions.
Most of the whale were not on long dives but instead were moving back and forth. Rather than staying in cohesive groups, the whales were mixing in various, short-term associations, interspersed with some surface activity. One behavior that we saw a lot of this evening was the flipper slap. No one knows exactly what it means when these whales raise their enormous flippers out of the air, but many believe that it has a social function, as it frequently occurs as groups form and dissipate.
Before we even left Cape Cod Bay on August 30th, we knew that we were going to have an exciting trip. As we passed Herring Cove, we watched terns dive-bombing the water, picking up small fish in their bills, as Minke whales charged back and forth, clearly after the same school of fish. The feeding frenzy didn’t stop there. As we rounded the corner and headed east towards Peaked Hill, we saw spouts, splashing, and even more birds chowing down on big schools of fish near the surface.
Bubble clouds and nets formed everywhere, and it was hard to keep track of who was who, but we did notice that Putter and Samana were feeding together consistently. Wizard, Hornet, Draco and Tunicate were among some of the other humpbacks taking advantage of the bounty of food in the area. Salt had also remained in the area and was enjoying a meal of sand lance. She would surface with a wide open mouth, exposing a mass of wriggling, pencil-sized fish just before she sent them down her gullet.
Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VIII, the trip started with a double breach! Draco and Wave leaped out of the water simultaneously, and continued a series of smaller chin breaches. We also had a chance to see a huge pod of Common dolphins, many of whom were accompanied by their calves. Their hourglass-shape pigmentation distinguish these dolphins from the more frequently seen Atlantic white-sided dolphins. We could see these patterns easily as they surfaced and jumped all around the boat!
Although we expected a bigger breeze on August 31st, we had a relatively smooth ride in the morning. Upon leaving Cape Cod Bay, we got great looks at a big group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. These animals were moving rapidly to the east. They swam towards us, but weren’t showing any signs of breaking their stride. We clocked them at about 10 knots as we tried to keep up!
The relatively calm morning waters allowed the birders on board to catch a glimpse of a group of phalaropes sitting on the water. These small planktivorous birds often will sit on the water, spinning around in circles in order to stir plankton up to the surface. Unlike many other birds whose males display elaborate plumage, phalarope females actually are more brightly colored than males.
In the afternoon, the wind picked up and the whale behavior did too. Elephant, a humpback first seen in 2007 was breaching and flipper slapping right in front of the Dolphin IX.
Humpback whale calves mimicked the adults and joined in the aerial activity! Thumper and her calf were spotted back in the area after a few weeks of not being seen and both Habenero and Thumper’s calves breached away the afternoon!
The east winds brought some rough seas on September 1st, but we braved the weather and got a chance to see some amazing whale behavior north of Cape Cod. The whales were moving around a bit, but were breaching on a pretty consistent basis. While no one knows exactly why whale’s breach, this rough weather tends to make them jump, so for some, the roller coaster-like conditions were worth it!
Pumpkinseed, Jupiter, Convict, Elephant, Thumper and Thumper’s calves were among the many humpback whales spotted today. On the way back from the morning’s trip, we spotted this calf rolling and playing in the surf while mom was on a deeper dive.
Perhaps the rough seas pushed some food to the surface, because the afternoon trips witnessed some feeding from some of these humpbacks who had clearly worked up an appetite from their morning activities. We watched several humpbacks, including one named Sprinkler, use their massive tails to smack the surface of the water, stunning and confusing their prey before engulfing it. This kickfeeding behavior is generally performed when the whales are feeding on sand lance.
The birders on board the Dolphin VIII also counted about 150 Roseate terns. Roseate terns are endangered and nest in Massachusetts, but many of them winter in other parts of the world, including Brazil.
The common dolphins made another appearance on the morning of September 2nd, with a group of around 80 of these toothed whales appearing on the Southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Rather than charging by quickly as they had been earlier in the week, this time we got to see them performing social behavior near the surface. We watched them splash and play. Our naturalist noted that he had never seen as much belly to belly activity among dolphins as he did on this day!
We headed east in search of some larger whales and located a small group of humpbacks. We weren’t too surprised to find Pumpkinseed who had been puttering around the area for the past few days. However, we did document a few individuals that we hadn’t seen in a while, including Pleats, Sprinkler, and Fez. Sprinkler and Fez gave us a twenty minute, low-key close boat approach, highlighted by a few flipper slaps from Fez.
In the afternoon, we headed back east to find that our small group of whale had tripled in size and had started to feed! We counted over 22 individuals, all of them on a feeding frenzy. We watched some individuals kickfeeding, while others blew bubbles to encircle schools of fish.
Thumper, a female born in 1998 was accompanied by a second humpback, as well as her calf. Thumper and her escort kickfed at the surface while her calf stayed out of their way, not too interested in joining in. At this time of year, we sometimes see calves imitating their mothers in order to learn feeding behaviors, but today this calf just seemed to want to rest!
The humpbacks weren’t the only creatures chowing down this afternoon. We soon noticed that big schools of bluefish and even a few blue fin tuna broke the surface, chasing down the same unlucky sand lance that were being targeted by the whales!
The cloud formations made the sky look beautiful throughout the day, but nothing compared to the sunset on the way back to shore!
September 3rd was another clear, pretty day, and although it was a bit choppy, there was plenty to see! The feeding frenzy to the northeast continued as humpbacks like Putter, Pox, Music and Bisou kickfed and blew bubbles not too far from shore.
Ganesh, a female born in 1998 also made an appearance, emerging from underneath the Dolphin IX with a huge mouthful of food!
Just as previous days brought bluefish and tuna to the feeding frenzy, today attracted a slew of birds to the area. We were especially excited to see hordes of Manx shearwaters cruising over the waves and bobbing on the water. Smaller than the more commonly seen Great shearwaters, these seafaring birds are distinguished by their almost tuxedo-like plumage. They tend to be associated with water with lower surface temperatures, and are frequently seen in greater abundance as fall approaches. T
The seas picked up even more on September 4th, and a rain shower or two dampened the skies, but we were still determined to head out to see if our whales were still out there in great numbers. At first, the choppy seas made it hard to spot whales, and we began the morning’s trip only spotting fleeting glimpses of splashes in the distance. We powered on towards the east, and soon our efforts were rewarded. Although the feeding had subsided, the humpbacks were extremely energetic, with many of them breaching and lobtailing at the surface.
Elephant also turned out to be a show-stopper, continuously rolling and flipper slapping for passengers aboard the Dolphin X.
Although Labor Day weekend has come and gone, we still have until the end of October before we wrap up operations for the winter. Fall is a great time to see the whales bulking up on food, preparing for their migration and it’s also a great time for birders to see some fall migrants passing through the area. Come pay us a visit and you won’t be disappointed!