Saturday 21 April is bright and clear- an excellent day for whale watching. The Dolphin VIII travels into Cape Cod Bay where whale sightings have been reported by local fishermen. By Long Point we see the small, triangular fin of the harbor porpoise, common to our waters in the spring. The harbor porpoise, a toothed whale or odontocete, is the smallest whale we are likely to see on our whale watch.
Basking on the beach are harbor seals. Other than cetaceans, seals are the only other marine mammal found in Cape Cod waters since our waters are too cold for manatees and too warm for polar bears. All seals are called pinnipeds, derived from the Latin, meaning wing- or feather-footed. They have a streamlined, torpedo-shaped body adapted for swimming and unlike whales, have not totally abandoned land. They use it to give birth to and suckle their pups and are often seen basking on coastal islands and sandbars. Seals primarily eat fish and invertebrates; the most common prey for Cape Cod seals include squid, herring, mackerel and sand lance. Our most commonly seen seals are harbor seals, primarily seen in winter, and grey seals, seen near shore off our ocean beaches all seasons, especially in summer.
In the distance we see a low, V-shaped spout and our whale spotter confirms that they are from North Atlantic right whales. We slow down, keeping a distance as we watch one of the rarest whales of all feeding on the small animal plankton in the waters of the Bay.
By the afternoon, we venture north towards Race Point. Race Point was named for its powerful crosscurrent, known as a ‘race’. It is here that the flow of the Atlantic meets the countercurrent of Cape Cod Bay, and where treacherous bars lurk beneath the water’s surface and hundreds of ships met their fate. The HMS Somerset, the most notable shipwreck near Race Point, is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”
In the waters of the race we see tall spouts and Northern Gannets plunge diving for fish. The whales here are finback whales, the second largest animal on earth. They move fast and effortlessly through the rich waters off Race Point. In the midst of the finbacks, a small whale surfaces and just as quickly disappears. 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 (6.1 meters) 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.
By Race Point Beach, we see a small whale arch and lift its tail flukes in the air. As we slowly move towards the whale, it surfaces. A humpback whale! The humpback is relatively small and by looking at and photographing its dorsal fin and tail, we identify it as Banjo, first sighted in 2006.
April 22 dawns bright and clear. The Dolphin VIII ventures further offshore to New England’s only Sanctuary- the Gerry Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. An ocean treasure, the sanctuary, approximately the size of Rhode Island, was designated by Congress in 1992 and is one of only 13 sites deemed to be of such special national significance.
The Sanctuary is renowned among the world’s premier whale watching destinations. Located near major population centers, the sanctuary attracts marine scientists, educators, recreational enthusiasts and commercial users. It is a repository of historic shipwrecks, including the side paddle-wheel steamship Portland, commonly referred to as “New England’s Titanic.”
Just off the edge of the Bank, we see finback whales, humpback whales and countless numbers of marine birds. Suddenly, a humpback whale lifts its tail in the air and slaps it on the waters surface, a behavior called ‘kick feeding’. Soon a large cloud of bubbles turns the water a light green and two humpbacks surface, mouths open. We can see the baleen, a living strainer, hanging from the whale’s upper jaw. It will be used to strain the small fish out of the gallons of water inside its mouth. The fish are then swallowed whole. The whales dive again and we see by their tail pattern that we are watching Tapioca and Buzzard.
Two large humpback whales surface behind us. As they lift their tails to dive, we recognize two whales that have been sighted in our waters for several years: Salt and Mural. While both are large females, Salt is in fact the Grand Dame of Stellwagen Bank- a grandmother and mother of at least ten. All humpbacks are named after natural markings or scars on their body. Each name is descriptive, some requiring more imagination than others. The names are not gender related. Salt was named in 1976 by the late Aaron Avellar, a Dolphin Fleet captain, after the white, granular ridge on her dorsal fin. And she can be recognized at a fair distance. Many of her calves, named by Aaron and now by his son Chad, return to Stellwagen to feed. For the Dolphin Fleet crew, the return of Salt means that our 2007 season has officially begun!
April 23 brings us back to Stellwagen Bank. On the way, we turn wide around Race Point- our spotter has sighted several North Atlantic right whales feeding in the waters off the Race. We give these rare whales a wide berth and move north to the Bank. On the edge of the Bank there is a flurry of activity. Clouds of gulls hover near the surface, gannets dive and whales surface, mouths open, to feed on small schooling fish called sand eels. Two large females, Giraffe and Tornado, feed through clouds of bubbles. A smaller whale, Mostaza, born to Salt in 2000, joins in the activity along with Tunguska and Putter.
April 24 is hazy and overcast but the winds are light and the seas reasonable- our destination, Stellwagen Bank. The whales however have moved south and are only a few miles north of Race Point. We see a few finback whales in the distance, but just off the southern edge of Stellwagen, several humpback whales are feeding. Giraffe and Mostaza, sighted yesterday are here again today, as well as Habenero, Teapot, Tongs, Etch-a-sketch, Leonid and Doric. Birds and whales alike are in a ‘feeding frenzy’- with all eyes on the prize- the American sand lance or sand eel. Sand lance can reach lengths of six inches (15 cm) and can live to be five years old, an amazing feat considering they are feasted on in all stages of their life, from larvae to adult. Sand lance burrow into loose sand, hence their common and descriptive name. In the sand at the bottom of Stellwagen Bank, they burrow to escape predation, to rest and to hibernate after spawning.
During the afternoon, the feeding continued. Several other humpback whales have joined the frenzy, including Tapioca, Amulet and Putter. At times, it was difficult to see the whale through the cloud of birds hovering overhead.
April 25 is overcast but again the seas are calm. Spouts of North Atlantic right whales are seen west of Race Point and a small humpback whale, Tapioca, is close to shore near the Race riptide. Today the whales are gathered on the Bank, about 4 to 5 miles north of where we saw them yesterday. While Etch-a- sketch is feeding, other humpback whales are logging- perhaps a resting phase. Roswell and her first known calf float on the surface; the flurry of activity of yesterday is gone for the moment.
By afternoon more whales are sighted on the Bank but little surface feeding behavior is observed. We again see Tapioca, Etch-a-sketch and Roswell and calf close to where they were this morning. The seas and activity are calm and the whales seem to slip beneath the waters’ surface. At first it appears there are a few whales, but as we drift and watch, more and more are visible. We see Circus, a two-year old born to Zipper in 2005, Trident, Entropy, Buzzard, Leonid, Falcon and Mostaza.
April 26 is bright and clear. We move slowly through the Bay as we sight several right whales off Wood End Light. Tapioca is sighted close to shore. All week long this small humpback has been seen between Wood End and Race Point. On Stellwagen Bank we see harbor porpoise, Minke, finback and humpback whales. Rapier and her 2006 calf are logging, as are Measles and a whale we believe to be Ganesh with her first calf. Only Etch-a-sketch is surface feeding. As we move towards the whales, passengers on the bow point excitedly at the water below. First splashes and then small fins become visible- we have been joined by a group of the most common toothed whale in the area, the Atlantic White-Sided Dolphin. The pod or school of at least 50 or so 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. The captain slows the boat, allowing a clear view of the striking hour glass pattern of beige, white and gray on the dolphins’ side as well as the single blowhole typical of all toothed whales. Too soon it is time to head back to Provincetown.
April 27 brings rain and fog. Despite the limited visibility, we are able to find humpback and finback whales as well as North Atlantic right whales. Because of the limited visibility, our progress is slow, but the whales remain near the rich waters off Provincetown. Five finback whales and one humpback whale, Circus, are sighted. One small harbor seal appeared to be treading water and watching us with its large eyes.
The rain lessened by afternoon and we ventured out to Stellwagen Bank. We spent the afternoon with humpback whales and dolphins. The right whales remained west of Wood End and the Race. There was little surface feeding on the Bank and only a few birds in the area. We watched Circus and Roswell and her calf as they moved west off the Bank. No finback whales were sighted.