June 19 was bright and sunny, and with almost unlimited visibility, we could see all the way across Cape Cod Bay to Manomet Point, which juts out into the bay just south of Plymouth Harbor. We traveled to the center of Stellwagen Bank to the site of the old BE Buoy. This used to be an area where ships going to and from Boston Harbor would steam through the center of Stellwagen Bank. This changed several years ago when research groups were able to show (using some data collected aboard our whale watch boats) that many different types of cetaceans congregate in that very area, and that by moving the lane just a few miles to the north, many potential collisions between large ships and cetaceans could be avoided. Today it was obvious that this area is, indeed, a hotspot for humpbacks. Cajun and her calf were joined by Pele and Milkweed, while Whisk and her calf were seen breaching to the north.
During the afternoon, the wind picked up and the whales became even more active. Pitcher, Loon and her calf, as well as Pisces joined the loose aggregation of humpbacks in the center of the bank, and both afternoon trips enjoyed the rare sight of a humpback whale breaching and flipper slapping!
On June 20th, the winds continued to howl, but adventurous passengers boarded the Dolphin VIII and the Portuguese Princess and held on for a bumpy ride, and most people would agree that it was worth it! Cajun and her calf, joined by her regular entourage of Pele, Milkweed, Perseid and her calf had left central Stellwagen and moved to the southeast to an area that we call the “Triangle”. There is something about choppy seas that tends to make these animals want to jump. Some have proposed that it makes it easier for the animal to stick its blowhole out of the water to breathe, others think that it is a stress response or a way to send a strong signal to con-specifics over the roar of a churning ocean. For whatever reason, Cajun and Perseid’s calves were at it again, and we were able to hold on tight and watch them breach until we had to return to port.
Overnight, the winds died down and on June 21st we had flat calm seas on which to cruise back out to the “Triangle”. About an hour into the morning trip, we found ourselves surrounded by between four and eight Minke whales. Notoriously elusive and hard to spot, whale watchers sometimes favor other whale species over the mysterious Minke, but today we were able to get excellent looks. Minke whales first break the surface with their pointed rostrum or chin, followed by their pointed dorsal fin, and then they are gone, only giving us a quick glimpse at their backs.
Minkes have been in the news lately as negotiations at the International Whaling Commission have raised critical issues about the harvesting of whales by several pro-whaling nations. Minkes are one of the main species targeted by these whalers, but because they are so difficult to study, little is known about the size of their population. With so little known about the species, practices like commercial whaling has the potential to reduce their population to a small, unstable size, as was done with so many of the large baleen whales during the age of commercial whaling in New England.
Today, and into June 22nd, we also noticed that we were seeing a much larger number of seals in the area. Perhaps the calm water gave us a better opportunity to catch a glimpse of them as they poke their heads out of the water, but we were spotting seals with great regularity throughout the day. There are two types of seals that we’re likely to see from the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch boats in the summer: the gray seal and the harbor seal. The gray seal is easily recognizable with its horse head-like profile. Its scientific name, Halichoerus grypus translates to the highly unflattering “hook-nose sea pig” and many would agree with that descriptor. The harbor seal is slightly smaller, with a face resembling a cocker spaniel. It used to be that the harbor seal dominated the haul out sites along the beaches of Cape Cod, but in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in the larger gray seals, who seem to be taking over the prime “real estate” along the beaches. Today, both species were seen off of Race Point beach in Provincetown.
On June 23rd we returned to the Triangle to find the regular cast of humpback whales, Cajun, Perseid, Milkweed, and Pele, back in action.
It seemed as though the adults were especially busy trying to find food. Humpbacks return to Stellwagen Bank and the surrounding regions year after year because this is a place where one of their favorite foods, the sand lance, is abundant. However, the sand lance can be evasive, moving up and down in the water column throughout the day, sometimes burying themselves in the sand on the ocean floor. The humpbacks know this, and will often dive right down to the sandy bottom (about 200 feet deep off the edge of the bank), and use their jaws to agitate the sand, causing the fish to come up so they can chow down. Although we can’t watch them do this, we have evidence that that’s what they’ve been up to when they emerge with their jaw lines scraped and abraded. Today, the adults surfaced, taking one or two enormous breaths, and then went right back down again.
Cajun’s calf, however, was more interested in staying at the surface. Still reliant on mom for food, it doesn’t need to embark on these taxing dives. Instead, Cajun’s calf rolled around at the surface, slapping its flipper and delighting passengers aboard the Dolphin VIII. Perseid and her calf soon joined up and would occasionally roll as well. When humpbacks roll around at the surface, we can sometimes see their eyes, which are located on the side of their heads right by the base of their long, white flippers!
On June 24th, the subsurface feeding continued, and more humpbacks joined the crowd in the Triangle. Eruption joined with Cajun, Milkweed, Pele, and Perseid, and was later seen on her own later in the day. Alphorn and Nile were also spotted, occasionally surfacing after long, deep, dives. In the afternoon, as the wind picked up we found ourselves traveling alongside a small group of about 20-30 Atlantic white-sided dolphins. These dolphins were clearly after something, because as they surfed on the waves, leaped, and charged, we remarked that we had never seen these dolphins move so fast! We ended the day right back where we started, with Cajun and her crew, now joined by Alphorn. More rolling and flipper slapping ensued, a perfect finale to an exciting day out on Stellwagen Bank.
On June 25th we had an unusual sighting several miles north of Race Point Beach in Provincetown. We stopped to look at a fin whale, which is the second largest animal on the planet, sometimes reaching lengths of 70-80 feet! Fin whales are exciting to watch because they are so fast – they can move in bursts of speed exceeding 20 miles an hour! This particular fin whale caught our eye because it was accompanied by a calf! A rare sight for fin whales in Stellwagen Bank. Although fin whales can be seen off of Cape Cod at any month of the year, we don’t know much about them. Do they migrate at all? Where do they mate? All of these questions are unanswered. We were thrilled to watch the small fin whale, not even 1/3 the size of its mother, break the surface with its silvery head, exposing the bright white marking on the right jaw, characteristic of all members of the species.
While a sighting of a fin whale mother and calf is relatively rare on Stellwagen Bank, sightings of humpback whale mom and calves are relatively common. So far, at least 25 humpback whales have been seen with their calves on Stellwagen, and every week we are seeing more arrive from the Caribbean breeding grounds. Today, we watched Firefly and her calf rolling and flipper slapping. It was the first time we had seen this whale all year, and we were excited that one of our favorite humpbacks had returned with healthy offspring.