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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook 02 August to 08 August

On August 2nd, morning trips left Provincetown harbor only to encounter a vast fog bank soon after leaving shore.  Fortunately, soon after passing Race Point, visibility began to increase and we found ourselves among a number of humpback whales.  Exclaim, Isthmus, and Alpha were all blowing clouds of bubbles, kicking and lunging through schools of fish.  Both Exclaim and Alpha are males.  Alpha was first seen in 1979, while Exclaim was first sighted in 1997. 

The mid-day trip caught the end of this feeding frenzy, but still got a chance to see a few of the kicks and lunges that are typical of humpback feeding behavior.  The finale of their trip, however, came in the form of a female humpback and her calf.  Once the DVIII stopped to get a better look at this pair, the mother humpback was seen visibly nudging her calf closer to the boat to get a closer look!

Although August 3rd brought about similar weather, the Dolphin VIII had a suspense-filled whale watch once they came across a humpback on Stellwagen Bank that had tuna hooks caught in the corner of her mouth.  Our naturalist promptly called the Disentanglement Team at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies where a team member is on call 24 hours a day to respond to calls regarding marine life in distress. 

Although many entanglements can be life-threatening, particularly when they interfere with an animal’s ability to feed or come to the surface to breathe, the risks of a disentanglement attempt can be high as well, both for the rescuers and the animals themselves.  Therefore, every time the team gets a call, they have to weigh the risks associated with the response against the severity of the entanglement.  Some factors they take into account include weather conditions, available daylight, as well as the condition of the animal.  Today, they determined that although the entanglement was probably causing some discomfort, the humpback in question would probably shed the gear on its own, and that a disentanglement attempt may even do more harm than good. 

We will monitor this humpback’s condition if we see it again and keep the disentanglement team updated.  In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the fascinating work of the disentanglement team, or if you want to learn about what you can do to help, please click on the link to visit their website.  

By Monday, August 4th, the skies had cleared to the point where, cruising along Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, we could gaze across Cape Cod Bay and see Manomet Point, just south of Plymouth Harbor, jutting out on the horizon.  The increasing winds from the north, rather than the typically prevailing southwesterlies of the summer, seem to have caused the water to cool a bit.  While this may be bad news for swimmers, it also seems to have stirred up some nutrients in such a way that it set the stage for week of almost non-stop humpback feeding just shy of the Southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank.  No less impressive were the colossal fin whales, whose length approaches that of our vessels!

Fin whales cross the bow

All day long we watched three species of baleen whales–the humpbacks, the finbacks and the Minkes, dart through the massive schools of fish which could sometimes be detected simply by watching the ripples on the waters surface.  As whales momentarily escaped our view on longer dives, we could then divert our eyes to the skies and watch common terns flit across the bow with silvery sand lance dangling from their bills. 

On August 5th the northeast winds continued to stir up the water, overturning nutrients and plankton, and we began to see a powerhouse of humpback whale feeders coming together.  A group of at least six humpbacks, including Freckles, Alpha, Entropy, Polaris, and Soot, spent much of the day working to blow huge bubble nets, which would appear on the surface as concentric rings of green fizz.  These bubbles trap fish in the center of the columns of bubbles, where the whales could then be seen surfacing with their mouths ide open.

While humpback whales are world-renowned for their complex communications in the form of songs, their associations are not very well understood.  Unlike toothed whales, humpback whales don’t form pods, or long term, family-based associations.  This is why, when we see a group of more than a few humpbacks stay together for more than a few days, we take notice. 

On August 6th we were pleasantly surprised to return to the same area to find the same group of humpbacks as the previous day.  Freckles, Polaris, and the rest of the gang were sometimes joined in their bubble netting efforts by Exclaim, Barb, Fracture, and Sirius, who were all around for the same reason — food!

We would watch, waiting, as a huge bubble net would slowly appear at the surface, first appearing as small bubbles gurgling to the surface, soon erupting into rings of green fizz.  With such a large group of humpbacks, the bubble nets were wider than the whales are long. 

Eventually, a group of 3 humpbacks, Ampersand, Grackle, as well as a yet unnamed individual entered the picture.  Taking a break from feeding, one of them surprised passengers by leaping out of the water in a full spinning breach!

On August 7th we left port in the morning and had some excitement as soon as we reached Wood End Lighthouse, about 15 minutes into the trip.  Huge splashes off the port side of the boat caught our eye and we were thrilled to see enormous bluefin tuna leaping out of the water in hot pursuit of bluefish. 

Every animal we saw today seemed to be having major success at finding food.  Grackle and Ampersand, two humpback whales blew bubble nets while Entropy, a female first seen in 1997, fed by kickfeeding nearby.  After watching their contrasting feeding styles, we headed east to find the group of whales that had been the powerhouse feeders all week.  This time, Freckles, Polaris, and Alpha were joined by Apaloosa, Bandit, and Skateboard, and as they all surfaced amidst massive nets of bubbles, hundreds of birds, including terns, laughing gulls, and several species of shearwater swooped down to grab any of the fish that hadn’t made it down into the whales’ throats.


August 8th brought us to the same feeding hotspot just shy of Stellwagen Bank’s Southwest Corner.  Upon our arrival, we were somewhat amused but not entirely surprised to see a fin whale travelling alongside our group of six feeding humpbacks who were still going strong.  Although the fin whale and the humpback have different feeding styles, with the fin whale relying on bursts of speed rather than bubbles in order to feed, they have very similar diets, so it makes sense that they are found in the same areas of rich food.  It did, however, give us a great opportunity to contrast the long, sleek shape of the fin whale, almost 70 feet long, with the bulkier, but shorter humpbacks. 

Polaris, Soot, Alpha, and Freckles were the core of the group this time, sometimes blowing bubble nets so close to the boat that we could watch the fish get trapped in the middle of them!  When they came up with their mouths wide open, we could see how much the flexible pleats lining the undersides of their bodies expand to accomodate hundreds of gallons of food and water with every mouthful.

Having spent all week watching the shifting group dynamics of our feeding humpbacks, we’re looking forward to next week where we’ll find out if the food resources stay strong, and if so, whether or not our core group of feeding humpbacks will continue their bubble net collaboration, or break off and form new associations.