- Research & Education
- Cape Cod
September 15th was a windy day on Stellwagen Bank, and as is frequently the case, the resulting rougher seas seemed to rile up the humpbacks. Two mother and calf pairs-Anchor and her calf, as well as Valley and her calf-were sighted with another mature humpback named Parens on the Southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Anchor was born in 1983, and Valley was first spotted in 1985. The calves rolled, flipper slapped, and even breached. Anchor’s calf even showed us its fluke! If these calves are seen next summer, they will be photographed and documented and given a name at the humpback whale naming meeting in April of 2009. Anchor’s calf has many distinguishing marks on its flukes. What would you name Anchor’s calf?
Anchor’s 2007 Calf
By September 16th, the sun had come out and the wind had died down. Valley and her calf had split off from Anchor, Anchor’s calf, and Parens, and had joined up with a male humpback named Coral. Such loose and ephemeral associations are typical for humpback whales.
While groups of two or three humpbacks are not uncommon, it is just as likely to see a humpback by itself as opposed to in a group. These groups tend to be very small and unstable, and sure enough, by the afternoon, Coral was seen with another pair of whales, Nile and her calf! Scientists are still in the dark about what criteria these whales use to form and break up these groups, although the presence of food is thought to be part of the equation.
Also seen today were two finback whales. Because of their great speed and elusive behavior, fin whales are difficult to photograph and study. However, here on the Dolphin Fleet, we are working on ways to learn more about these beautiful and mysterious animals. For more information on our progress, see the end of summer finback whale report posted by naturalist John Conlon last week.
On September 17th, we began seeing whales a mere forty minutes into our trip. Heading East at Race Point beach, we skirted the beach, cruising through an area known as “Finback Alley”. This area is notorious for finback whale sightings and is characterized by a steep drop-off from the land. The underwater vertical edge that results is a place where upwellings can give rise to a great deal of food for our finback whales. Sure enough, a pair of finback whales was spotted, as well as the smaller Minke whale.
Because finbacks and Minkes feed on similar things as the humpbacks, we weren’t surprised to see Isthmus and her calf in the area as well. Isthmus surprised us all by performing what we call a tail breach. A tail breach is when a humpback whale slams its tail and muscular tail stock down on the surface of the water.
Isthmus tail breaches
After watching Isthmus and her calf for a few minutes, as well as Gunslinger, Anchor, and her calf, we began to see more activity to the north. We could just barely see the glimmer of a long white flipper perpendicular to the horizon, so we went to investigate. Once we got closer, we saw that Reflection and her calf were rolling on their backs and flipper slapping. Because on an adult humpback that flipper is almost fifteen feet long, on clear days like today we can sometimes see that flipper, as well as the resulting splash, from miles away!
Reflection’s 2007 Calf
On the afternoon of September 18th the buzz among the whale watch boats was that the hotspot for humpback whale activity was in an area known as “the Triangle”. This area is in the eastern portion of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We decided to head straight for that area, but couldn’t resist stopping briefly on our way when we saw a Minke whale breaching. While seeing any whale breach is rare, seeing a Minke breach is particularly unusual, and seems to happen in choppier waters more often than not.
Once we reached the Triangle, it was clear that we had made the right decision. As we stopped the boat to have a look around, Valley’s calf surprised us by rising up right next to the bow of the Dolphin VII! Nearby, Ventisca and Peninsula surfaced and fluked frequently.
Three additional humpbacks appeared to be feeding beneath the surface. We can tell that humpbacks are feeding even in the absence of surface lunges when the whales emerge at the surface with the pleats on the ventral, or underside of their bodies, expanded, indicating that their mouths are full of fish!
Finally, at the end of this exciting trip, we started to see Atlantic white-sided dolphins leaping and charging among the feeding humpbacks. It was clear that these dolphins were after the same thing the whales were, and appeared to be in hot pursuit of fish as well!
Leaping Atlantic White Sided Dolphin
Having seen dolphins the previous day, we were on the lookout for them again on September 19th, and were initially fooled by leaping bluefin tuna. Similar in size and shape to dolphins, it is not uncommon to see splashing in the distance, and mistake the emerging shapes for dolphins, only to find that they are quite a different animal!
Bluefin tuna are frequently targeted by fisherman off of Cape Cod, and previously described “Finback Alley” is often rife with small tuna boats. These boats will sometimes anchor themselves and use kites to fly the lines and the bait several hundred feet away from the boat. When the kite bobs, they know that they have nabbed a fish! A single tuna of a good size can potential secure a fisherman several thousand dollars!
After almost being fooled by the tuna earlier, we found actual dolphins later on the Dolphin VII’s morning trip. These Atlantic white-sided dolphins were in the vicinity of ten different humpback whales, including Salt, Ventisca, Crown, Apex, Whisk, Tunguska, Perseid, and Perseid’s calf.
When we returned on the afternoon trip, the group had dispersed to a certain degree. Ventisca had ventured off on his own, while Pele, Whisk, Perseid and the calf stayed together, rolling and flipper slapping. The excitement continued as a humpback whale named Leonid breached repeatedly!
Leonid breaches as Maya looks on
On September 20th, returning to the same area we found that many of the whales that we had seen the previous evening had not moved very far, while others had joined the area. Pele, Whisk, Perseid and her calf were seen together for the third day in a row. Multi-day associations are atypical but no completely unheard of. Whisk and Perseid are both females. Whisk had a calf last year, while Perseid’s 2007 calf is her first. Perseid was born in 1998, and nine years old is an expected age for a humpback whale to give birth to her first calf.
The calm waters today allowed us to catch a glimpse of a more unusual species—the mola mola, or ocean sunfish. Mola molas can weigh several hundred pounds, but are considered by some to be the heaviest type of plankton, as they spend much of their lives drifting with currents, foraging for jellies and small squid. While they spend much of their time drifting, every so often they will jump. This is a highly unusual sight, but several passengers on the Dolphin VI’s afternoon trip were lucky enough to see this strange sight!
September 21st was an extremely busy day in the Stellwagen Bank, with a great deal of active whales. On the Dolphin VI, passengers were charmed by Perseid’s calf, who played and splashed by the boat during the morning and breached, flipper slapped, and rolled around for passengers in the afternoon.
The calf’s curiosity was evident as he spyhopped, lifting his head so far above the surface that his eye was visible!
Perseid soon became anxious as her calf strayed too far from her side, and Perseid breached a single time, as if to signal to her calf that it should leave the boat and return to her.
During the morning trip, Pele, Whisk, Perseid, and her calf were joined by another humpback named Centipede, named for the centipede shaped marking on the whale’s fluke. While most of the group remained in tact throughout the day, by the time we returned to the scene during the afternoon trip, Centipede had left the group and was not seen for the rest of the day.
Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VIII, Fern and her calf, as well as Isthmus and her calf were the stars of the morning, both approaching the boat and diving right in front of the bow.
Calves often display a great deal of curiosity and mother humpbacks will usually patiently stand by as the calves approach the boat, learning more about their busy surroundings every day.
Isthmus’ 2007 Calf
Perseid crosses the bow
Humpback whales frequently get a lot of attention, but finback whales are often a source of excitement, particularly because of their extremely large size. They are the second largest animal ever to grace the planet, with lengths sometimes exceeding eighty feet! Today, finbacks were seen just off of Race Point beach in Provincetown.
Cheers for a finback!
During the last full week of summer, the whales are still as active as ever, and we continue to make successful trips out to Stellwagen Bank, enjoying the beautiful light and new individuals that fall tends to bring with it.