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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook 23 August to 29 August

August 23rd was bright and sunny and we found ourselves east of Stellwagen Bank, with the parabolic dunes of Provincetown gently sloping on the horizon.  Many of the same humpbacks seen in association with one another during the previous week still seemed to be bottom feeding, suggested by their longer than average dive times and short stints at the surface.  Hancock and Pumba were about 300 yards from Draco, Canopy, and her calf much of the time, but never seemed to associate with the trio. 

Meanwhile, as Cardhu embarked on an aforementioned long dive, her calf took interest in a clump of brown seaweed, lifting it out of the water with its rostrum and rolling on its back, basking in its new find. 

Whales weren’t the only things that were getting us excited that day.  Naturalist Gwen writes, “Great find today! We had some great looks of a turtle.  I had not seen a turtle in years.  We were able to take a full 360 around it.  We travelled around 13 miles off the Race today.  Great sightings of Coral and a second humpback.  Several finbacks from a distance.  A few Minkes too!”

While sea turtles such as Ridleys, leatherbacks, and green sea turtles are not strangers to our waters.  It is very difficult to catch glimpses at them from the platform of a boat.  Many of these turtles will nest onshore off the southeastern coast of the US north only to migrate north in the summer.

August 24thwas another bright and clear day, and we again headed east, towards the area where the humpbacks had been spotted the previous day.  The group had moved south, and while Hancock and Pumba remained a solid pair, Draco, Canopy and her Calf were joined by a humpback named Pele, first seen in 1997.  Milkweed, an 8-year-old, seen with Canopy and her calf last week, also rejoined the group. 

While the adults continued to go for long, deep dives characteristic of sub-surface feeding, Canopy’s calf rolled and flipper slapped at the surface, to the point where we could actually see the calf’s eye!  When this behavior is observed in calves, it is usually interpreted as either a way to get its mom’s attention, or as a play behavior.  However, play behaviors in calves can be practice for behaviors that will come in handy as adults. 

One recent study on humpback whales focused on non-song acoustic communication.  While it is predominantly male humpbacks that sing, both males and females seem to participate in what the authors of the study call “social sounds.”  These can either be in the form of non song vocalizations, or in active surface behaviors, like flipper slapping and breaching, which result in a sound which might serve a communicative function.  In this study, which was done on with an Australian population of humpbacks, flipper slapping behavior was seen frequently in mother/calf pairs, as well as with mother and calf pairs accompanied by a third humpback, or “escort”.  Although this study was unable to hone in on the precise function of flipper slapping, it did support its role as a humpback whale social behavior. 

On August 25we headed farther east than normal, finding ourselves near the BD Buoy which marks the shipping lane into Boston Harbor.  There, we found another species which are not common to our whale watches – the Common dolphin.  While we occasionally come across the Atlantic white-sided dolphin on our trips, this species is a rarity.  Sometimes called the “saddlebacked” dolphin, it is distinguishable by an hourglass-like pattern on the sides of its body, a V-shaped “cape” contrasting with patches of tan and gray. 


 On August 26thseveral mother and calf humpback pairs became the highlights of the trip.  In the morning, Tongs and her calf were spotted off Peaked Hill in Provincetown and the calf spent time rolling and flipper slapping at the surface while its mom went for long dives. 

Earlier this summer, Tongs’s calf became entangled in fishing gear, and it took some help from the disentanglement team at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies to free the then 4-month old animal from the gear.  We continue to document the animal to make sure that the entanglement hasn’t had any lasting effects. 

The waters surrounding Cape Cod are heavily used by whales and fisherman alike, and while no fisherman wants their livelihood to impact the lives of the whales, sometimes accidents happen and we often find ourselves holding our breath and hoping for the best when we watch our marine animals swim among strings of fishing gear. 

Massachusetts lobstermen have just recently agreed to use a new type of line which will sink rather than float, the hope being that this will reduce some of the obstacles in the water column that these whales face.  Time will tell whether or not these modifications will make a difference.  In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about disentanglement efforts, the research that goes into entanglements, and what you can do to help, please visit the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team’s website

On August 27th we headed eastward once more and found  humpback mother and calf pair not yet seen on the Dolphin Fleet this year.  Crown’s calf is one 71 humpback whale calves seen in the Gulf of Maine this summer, just exceeding last year’s mother/calf count of 70 individuals. 

Amidst this week of excellent sightings, the IUCN, or International Union for the Conservation of Nature published news regarding the humpback whale’s conservation status.  Although the humpback will continue to be listed on the IUCN-monitored endagered species “red list”, it will be moving from a bracket of “vulnerable” to one of “least concern.”  This means that while the humpback whale is still considered endagered, it is considered to be at a lesser risk of becoming extinct. 

It is important to point out, as many IUCN and other contributing scientists did, that this change in status does not apply to all cetaceans.  In fact, in the later winter and early spring, Cape Cod Bay is a major habitat for the North Atlantic right whale.  At a population that hovers around 350 individuals, these animals are at the “critically endangered” level – just one bracket above the “extinct or extinct in the wild” classification. 

Furthermore, many whale species are considered “data deficient,” meaning that there is insufficient research to assign them to a category within the endangered species classification.  This is why it is so important for global, non-lethal research to continue to not only identify those species which are at critically low levels, but also to identify the main threats that they face and how these threats can be addressed. 

On August 28th, the Dolphin VII’s morning trip began with a sighting of a rather small humpback whale.  Since no mother was in sight, we assumed it was probably a juvenile, perhaps one or two years old.  This little humpback was very curious about our boat, and swam back and forth underneath the bow, frequently rolling and flipper slapping. 

In the afternoon, amid increasing winds, our humpbacks seemed to become more active at the surface.  Tongs, Ursa, and their respective calves were tail breaching, and after watching them slam their tails down several times, we decided to head north to where we could see a lot more spouts. 

Due to the rougher seas, it took us a little while to reach our destination, but once we arrived there was activity all around us.  While we watched Crown and her calf flipper slapping, and Canopy and her calf on the other side of the boat, we looked behind us just to catch a huge breach!  As everyone rushed to look off the stern, hoping it would happen again, Canopy’s calf breached off the starboard side of the Dolphin VII!

August 29th was slightly overcast, but light winds and flat seas made for an ideal day to watch whales.  Upon heading east from Race Point, we saw the outline of a dark dorsal fin bobbing in the waves.  When we got closer, we realized that it was Aerospace, a humpback whale who appeared to be resting, or logging.  While it is unclear exactly how whales sleep, it is thought that they rest one hemisphere of their brain at a time, using the other one to regulate breathing.  When we see them floating motionless at the surface, we assume that they are in this resting phase.

To our continued surprise, Canopy and her calf remained with Draco, Pele, and Milkweed.  We will be very interested to see how long this association lasts as humpback whale groups tend to be highly unstable.   Finally, our morning trip aboard the Dolphin VIII ended with the behavior all whale watchers hope to see – a breach!

As Labor Day weekend approaches, many of our summer visitors will leave town, but if previous years are any indication, the whales will stick around throughout the fall and continue to feast on the rich food resources before making their journey back to the Caribbean for the winter.  Keep watching this page for information on fall whale watch sightings.