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Saturday 17 May

Although the morning was cold and wet, the sun shone brightly by afternoon. The whales so abundant in Cape Cod Bay during April and early May have now moved offshore towards Stellwagen Bank. The waters of the Bay are a vibrant green, a contrast to turquoise, tropical seas. The waters here are teeming with microscopic plants called phytoplankton, a million of which are contained in one teaspoon of seawater. The ocean is a hidden garden of unknown proportion, its web of life complex. In its most simplified version, nutrient fertilizers give food energy to plants that give food energy to animal plankton. The animal plankton give food energy to fish, other invertebrate life and right whales. Fish and certain other invertebrate marine life give food energy to whales and humans. The word plankton comes from the Greek word “planktos” which means “drifting.” Phytoplankton feed- directly or indirectly- on all of the animals in the sea. As the base of the oceanic food web, they are the heartbeat of our oceans and provide atmospheric oxygen. Although invisible unless viewed under a microscope, we see their presence by the emerald green color of our ocean water.

North of Race Point we begin to see spouts and splashes. Several finback and humpback whales are sighted near the edge of Stellwagen Bank. Bubble nets and clouds, open mouths and tails slapping on the surface are signs of surface feeding humpback whales. The finback whales seem to race about, occasionally lunging on their side across the waters’ surface. Lightning, a finback whale easily identified by a large, jagged white scar on its back, is among the feeding finback whales. Humpback sightings include Gumdrop, Putter, Palette, Filament, Meteor and Crystal.

Surface feeding

Getting to know individual whales

Individual humpback whales can be identified readily through photographs of natural markings and scars, particularly those found on the underside of the tail flukes. These patterns, ranging in color from all white to all black, appear to be generally stable in adults, much like our thumbprints. The size and shape of the dorsal fin on the whales’ back, as well as acquired scars also are useful in identifying individual whales.


Lightning was first photographed in the waters near Cape Cod in 1979.

Sunday 18 May

Today the sky is bright and the wind blows lightly from the WSW. We journey to the southwest corner of Stellwagen bank where the whales have been feeding for the last few days. Near the edge of the Bank we sight finback and humpback whales. Our naturalist points out a small whale nearby, but all we see is the water’s rippled surface. After several minutes we see a curved dorsal fin and back. It seems the size of a dolphin but is in fact a baleen whale called the Minke. Smallest of the baleen whales in Cape Cod waters, this seemingly small whale is actually about 20 feet long! The Minke whale is also known as the little piked whale, because of the pointed snout visible when the whale first surfaces. In the waters off Cape Cod, Minkes are sighted year round, yet, little is known about their lives. Sightings on Stellwagen are primarily of one individual or small groups of two or three. Unlike other species in the area, it is rare to see mothers with calves. Some researchers speculate that the Minkes of Cape Cod are primarily juveniles.

Breaching Minke whale

Palette and Crystal are kick-feeding, completing their lunges just beneath the surface. They are soon joined by Doric and all three surface through a net of bubbles. Nearby a larger group of humpbacks- Buzzard, Mars, Stub, Tulip and Nimbus and calf- feed through bubble clouds and nets.

By early afternoon the surface feeding seems to have subsided, but many of the same humpback whales remain in the area. Also identified is a large finback whale named Loon. The activity level rises by late afternoon and more humpbacks seem to have moved on to the Bank. Mars, Underline, Isthmus, Stub, Filament, Leonid, Buzzard, Reflection, Gumdrop, Palette and Crystal feed continually in the rich waters. We see countless numbers of small sand eels near the boat. They seem to sparkle in the sunlight. These small fish are sought after by larger fish, birds and of course, the whales.

Getting to know individual whales


Mars is a mature, female humpback whale first photographed in 1979. She returned with 10 calves including Seal, Nile and Putter- all photographed this year.

Monday 19 May

We leave the harbor under bright skies. However the day is darkened by Iceland’s announcement that they will take 40 Minke whales in commercial hunts- many in areas where whale watching has been successful and a boost to local economies. It has been decades since whales were taken in our waters and it is probable that native Americans were the first whalers of Cape Cod, using the whale’s meat, oil and bone. The earliest form of whaling off Cape Cod was the use of drift whales and beached or stranded whales often dying or recently dead. However it is possible that Native Americans were hunting whales at sea in the early 17th century. Early European settlers learned from the Natives and harvested whales that washed ashore. The Natives in turn, learned how to render whale oil from the Europeans who had been whaling since at least the 12th century. Prior to the arrival of the settlers, the Natives took whales primarily for food.

The Europeans also ventured out to hunt whales in Cape Cod waters. In later years, crews had to venture further offshore to find desirable whales, their journeys eventually taking them as far as the North Pacific. The North Atlantic right whale, a seasonal resident of Cape Cod Bay whose oil lit the lamps of the western world and whose baleen was used for carriage springs, whips and other items, was virtually extinct by the late 1700’s.

In 1760, Provincetown had a fleet of a dozen whaling ships. As whaling came of age in New England, Provincetown suddenly transitioned from a quiet fishing village to a bustling seaport. By the mid-1800’s, Provincetown’s large and safe harbor became one of the busiest seaports in the country, the fifth largest whaling port with fifty-six wharves and a fleet of over 700 vessels. Whaling was declining at the end of the 1800’s due to factors including dropping whale populations and the discovery of kerosene, a replacement for whale oil. Then in 1898, a storm known as the Portland Gale destroyed many of the wharves in town. The era of Provincetown’s fame as a major seaport had ended.

During both morning and afternoon, the whales (primarily humpbacks) were feeding near the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Despite a steady Northwesterly wind, the journey is a comfortable one. A small humpback whale named Tapioca was sighted in the morning feeding near Reflection and Palette. By afternoon the whales were feeding actively but were not as dispersed. We identified Isthmus, Tulip, Reflection, Palette, Buzzard, Underline, Crystal, Filament, Gumdrop, Pogo, Midnight and Anchor.

Palette and Crystal feeding

Getting to know individual whales


Palette is a mature female born in 1989 to Compass. She has returned with 5 calves.

Tuesday 20 May

Tuesday dawned gray with light winds from the southwest. We traveled to Stellwagen Bank where we watched whales the evening before. A few humpback whales were near the Bank along with a small pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Some of the humpbacks were traveling south but Thread, Aerospace and Underline were feeding through nets and clouds of bubbles.

In the afternoon we sighted Aswan surface feeding. We are however distracted by a large splash in the distance. It is a surface active mother/calf pair of humpback whales. As we approach the mother/calf pair, the acrobatic activity continues, sometimes synchronously. It seems that we are observing a lesson in humpback whale behavior- from mother to calf. The mother, then the calf jump tail first out of the water, a behavior called tail breaching. The pair then began to lobtail, hitting their tail flukes repeatedly on the surface of the water. We identified the mother as Trident by her distinctive fluke pattern and hooked dorsal fin. Trident was born in 1982 to Flag and has returned this year with her 10th calf.

Trident lobtailing

We travel back west to the area where Aswan was feeding. There, several humpbacks have gathered to feed on the abundant prey. Tulip, Anchor, Perseid, Fulcrum, Blackhole and Putter were feeding on the move, occasionally stopping to kick-feed.

Getting to know individual whales


Aswan is a male born to Nile in 2000.

Wednesday 21 May

Wednesday is bright with light westerly winds- a great day for whalewatching. Today the whales are far to the north on Stellwagen Bank and we are grateful for the relatively calm seas. In the morning we find Buzzard, Gumdrop, Aswan and Mural and her calf actively feeding. There were no sightings of finback whales in the area.

Much is the same in the afternoon. We photographed Fulcrum kick-feeding and Filament and Tear feeding through a large bubble cloud. Buzzard and Gumdrop were feeding through a bubble net and occasionally kick-feeding. Also in the area were Tulip and Underline.

We learn Icelandic media reported that whalers have killed a male minke whale. The whale, said to have been caught last night (Tuesday) in Faxafloi Bay near Reykjavik, is expected to be brought ashore later today. The whale was killed close to an area where whalewatching occurs. Abundant in number world-wide, Minkes are the most heavily hunted baleen whale. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling, over 1400 Minkes are killed each year in commercial hunts off Iceland, Norway, in the North pacific and the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Getting to know individual whales


Gumdrop was first photographed in 2002 and named for a raised serration on the left fluke.

Thursday 22 May

The sky is bright as we leave the harbor on our morning whalewatch. The whales still are far North of Race Point but the winds are light and the seas calm. Anvil is kick-feeding while her calf stays nearby, spending most of its time near the surface. Soon the calf will begin to feed and supplement the rich milk from its mother. Anchor and Isthmus are kick-feeding when we arrive but soon after we see Isthmus feeding with Gumdrop and Anchor feeding in a different area. Ampersand and a small unknown whale feed through a net of bubbles.


By afternoon there seem to be fewer whales in the area. We sight Perseid feeding with a humpback whale (that never lifted its tail and remained unidentified) and the energetic kick-feeding behavior of Ganesh, Aswan and Drako. However, further west, over 200 Atlantic white-sided dolphins are splashing and leaping out of the water. Once close to the dolphins, they ride the pressure waves of the bow and surf through the wake of the Dolphin VIII. The pod or school contains several mothers and calves as well as juveniles. The adults generally are 6 to 8 feet long (1.8 to 2.4 meters). They move in perfect synchrony and grace and appear to look at us with their dark eyes as they speed alongside. On our way back to Provincetown we catch a glimpse of a fast moving finback whale.

Atlantic white-sided dolphins

Getting to know individual whales


Ganesh was born in 1998 to Loon and returned last year with her first calf.

Friday 23 May

Friday is bright but the winds blow hard from the Northwest. Fortunately, the whales have moved further south and the seas offshore are not as bad as anticipated. Although the whales seem to be few in number the activity is consistent and amazing to watch. Gumdrop, Buzzard and Pixar feed continuously and often close to the Dolphin VIII. As we drift we watch the spectacular kick-feeding and surface lunges. In the distance, we see a mother/calf pair that we are able to identify in the afternoon as Shockwave and her new calf.

Shockwave and calf

Gumdrop, Buzzard and Pixar still are feeding together in the afternoon and Shockwave is feeding with Pinpoint, a humpback with a striking white tail fluke. Shockwaves calf is nearby and stays close to its mom whenever she surfaces. Two other mother/calf pairs are sighted but only one close enough to identify- Mural and her calf. Mural is a humpback whale that was first sighted in 1980 and we primarily see in the spring. This is Mural’s second documented calf since she was first sighted.

Mural’s calf likely was born in the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea during the winter and was able to swim immediately. The calf soon learned to nurse on the fat-rich milk of its mother, gaining about 100 pounds (45.5 kg) per day. In early winter, they began the long migration across the open ocean to the waters off Cape Cod. Fasting in the Caribbean, Mural needs to feed in the rich waters off Cape Cod and the calf now has enough blubber for cold water.

Suddenly the water near the bow turns a bright green and rings of bubbles erupt at the surface. Gumdrop and Buzzard are feeding near the Dolphin VIII. They surface through the bubbles and spout- sending a fine mist on passengers. The pair then move away from the boat and continue to feed on the move. Once the whales are a safe distance away, we slowly make our way back to Provincetown.

Buzzard surfaces near the bow

Getting to know individual whales


Shockwave is a mature female first photographed in 1999. She has returned with three calves.