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06 October brought bright, hazy skies and mild breezes. While the finback whales, so abundant during the last few weeks in summer, have been notably absent for the past few weeks, humpbacks sightings have been particularly abundant, particularly in the southeastern portion of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, along with intermittent Minke whales.

Autumn is a time when every trip brings surprises. Circus is a young humpback whale of unknown gender who was seen frequently earlier in the season, but very seldom during the middle of the summer. However, in the past few weeks Circus has been seen with greater frequency, usually solitarily.

After spending time with Circus, as well as an unidentified humpback whale, we got a chance to see two different mother and calf pairs. Reflection’s calf swam back and forth underneath its mother, a humpback first seen in 1992. This behavior suggests that the calf was nursing. As cooler months arrive, this calf will soon have to learn to feed independently of its mother.

Reflection’s 2007 Calf

Soon after leaving Reflection and her calf, Filament, a humpback whale born in 1989 to a whale named Batik. Filament’s calf briefly approached the boat, before rejoining its mother.

On 07 October, Reflection, Filament, and their respective calves were both resighted during the afternoon trips, the latter pair joined by a humpback named Nazca. Autumn is also a time when bird sightings are particularly exciting as migrations begin and certain species spend time in the Stellwagen Bank area during the course of their seasonal movements. The presence of these birds remind us that the changing seasons also mean changes in daily sightings from the whale watch boats. Dolphin Fleet naturalist, John Conlon writes,

“Ducks and geese are also being observed as they move through the area. Sightings of white-winged scoter flocks of 10 to 20 birds are to be had on most trips. On October seventh a steady 15 knot wind pushed waves and clouds ahead. The clouds were grey and thick and the curtain ended abruptly to be replaced by clear blue sky. High overhead I saw my first chevron of Canada geese. While some flocks will settle down on the lower Cape for a respite, other flocks – this flock included – fly by VERY HIGH overhead. This particular chevron had approximately 50 individuals.”

White Winged Scoters

08 October-After a grey morning with limited visibility, sightings picked up over the course of the day, with calm, glassy seas working in our favor in the afternoon. The midday trip on the Dolphin VIII started off with a note of suspense after we saw a great splash off of Herring Cove Beach, and concluded that we must have seen a breaching basking shark. Basking sharks are plankton feeders, with small, non-functional teeth that are no threat to humans. However, because they feed on the energy-rich animals low on the food chain, they can reach great sizes, sometimes exceeding lengths of thirty feet!

Also off of Herring Cove beach we were able to see a number of Northern Gannets. On these large sea birds, naturalist John Conlon writes,

“Northern gannets are increasing in number as well. Immatures have been arriving over these past couple of weeks and continue to do so. Adults with their brilliant white body and deep black wing tips are now also seen between Wood End and Race Point. All are wheeling about overhead in search of food to plunge dive toward.”

Immature Northern Gannet

Our first humpback whale sighting was of an animal named Peninsula, born in 1985 to a whale named Silver. We suspected that Peninsula was feeding sub-surface, based on the lunging motions we observed when Peninsula was at the surface. These surface lunges and long-dives suggested that the whale was engulfing mouthfuls of food low in the water column and using the lunges to expel the remaining seawater from its mouth by forcing it between the baleen plates hanging down from its upper jaw.

09 October was characterized by a number of humpback whales, including a whale named Etch-a-Sketch, who seemed to be traveling along a linear path. Etch-a-Sketch was tailed by a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Normally, these dolphins are observed in groups of anywhere from a few dozen to several hundred individuals, so the smaller pod was noteworthy. The captain of the Dolphin VIII noted that in order to predict where the whale would surface next, we just had to look for the dolphins, and sure enough, this was consistently true for the entire time spent with these whales.

On bird sightings for the day, naturalist John Conlon writes,

“Greater shearwaters continue to be seen regularly. In most instances they are seen as singles, pairs or triplets, though much larger aggregations are still being spotted. One particularly large group of approximately 70 to 80 Greaters was seen on 9 October. I spotted one Manx shearwater in the group as were several northern fulmars.”

Northern Fulmar

“Northern fulmars are still inshore in numbers of 15 to 25 per trip. This is likely the result of prevailing easterly winds. We’ve had a lot of easterly wind this summer and autumn and this week has been no exception. The fulmars are still more numerous and consistent than I’ve seen in 25 years. Be careful though when counting fulmars. If you watch carefully you will notice that they routinely make large circles of over one hundred yards in diameter only to soar back past the boat two minutes later while easily being thought of as a different individual. If you follow them though you’ll see that the same individual will fly off into the distance and then return from around the other side of the boat as it soars just above the passing swells.”

10 October was reminiscent of the previous day, as a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins leapt and trailed behind humpbacks, although this time, it was two animals, Coral and Apostrophe. Whether or not it was the same small group of dolphins as the previous day, we can’t be sure, but we do know, based on the patterns on the underside of the larger whales’ flukes, that these were two individuals that we have been watching since the 1980s. Apostrophe is a female born in 1985 to a whale named Nurse. Coral is a male born in 1988 to whale named Silver, meaning that this whale is closely related to Peninsula, a humpback seen earlier this week!

Humpback whales give birth to one calf at a time due to the tremendous energetic costs associated with giving birth to and caring for a one-ton creature, and family members don’t appear to associate with one another after the calf leaves its mother at approximately one year of age. However, because humpback whales display “sight fidelity,” tending to come back to the same feeding ground that their mothers brought them to in their first year of life, it is not uncommon to see multiple generations of humpback whales within the boundaries of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Returning to Provincetown at Sunset

11 October we added another mother and calf pair to our growing list of new humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine. Hancock is a sixteen year old humpback and this is her first documented calf! So far this summer, there have been over 45 mother and calf humpback whale pairs sighted in the Gulf of Maine. While most humpback whale calves have a distinctly hazy fluke, we were struck by the stark black and white contrasting pattern on this calf’s fluke, more characteristic of more mature humpbacks.

Hancock’s 2007 Calf

Between Wood End and Race Point lighthouses along the Cape Cod National Seashore in Provincetown, the bird life has been spectacular, and common terns, which are small, delicate, gull-like birds, are everywhere.

Common Terns

As these birds fish, they must be wary of the parasitic jaeger, also seen with great frequency during this time of year. Of the jaegers, naturalist John Conlon writes,

“This has again been a great week for watching jaegers. As was the case last week,

many have been parasitics but there are also some pomarines. On 11 October, we watched two groups of eight and seven jaegers between Wood End and Race Point. Many of these are in beautiful adult plumage. This week, though, there are more steady sightings of jaegers outside Race Point as well. As always, look for their behavior of pirating of sand lance from terns which the jaegers will do as singles and other times in bands of two to four attackers. Sometimes the attacks are successful but many times they are not.”

On 12 October we were drawn to the southeastern edge of Stellwagen Bank by the dramatic splashes of a tail breaching humpback. Once we arrived on the scene, this whale, later identified as an individual named Stonewall, began lobtailing. While we don’t know the significance of these behaviors, they often occur in conjunction with one another, and sometimes seem to set off a chain reaction of other active humpbacks in the area, suggesting that it is probably a communication behavior.

Stonewall Lobtails

Soon after leaving Stonewall, we steamed over to another pair of humpbacks, Tear and Baja. Soon after they raised their tails in a fluking dive, we noticed bubbles rising to the surface. Watching closely, as bubbles indicate feeding, we were delighted to see these whales rise up through the bubble clouds with open mouths, clearly full of fish! Though smaller in scope compared to the feeding frenzies of early in the season, these whales continued to scoop of big mouthfuls of food for the remainder of the time that we stayed with them!

Read John Conlon’s complete Fall Bird Update