On 30 Augustwe skirted Race Point Beach, the northernmost tip of Provincetown, andcontinued to follow the shoreline until we were in view of Highland Light, situated atop the bluffs in North Truro. Along the way, we encountered a humpback whale, slowly traveling to the east. Humpback whales, weighing up to 40 tons, are not particularly fast moving animals in the first place, and as Stellwagen Bank andthe surrounding waters constitute a feeding ground destination, travel at top speed is not often observed.
Along the beach we also got a brief look at one of our faster moving cetaceans, the long, sleek, fin whale. Although this whale was approximately a half mile away, we could distinguish it from the humpback by its streamlined body shape, lower profile, and speedy dive. Fin whales, despite weighing approximately 60 tons, can move in bursts of speed which exceed 20 miles an hour!
After getting a very close look at a humpback named Thimble, we noticed some activity in the distance. Common terns were swooping down to the water’s surface, which appeared to be “boiling” with activity. Soon, we began to see dorsal fins and small spouts. We had found dolphins!
Informally referred to as “Lags”, for their scientific name “Lagenorhynchus acutus“, Atlantic white-sided dolphins are seen occasionally on our trips to Stellwagen Bank, forming groups or pods sometimes exceeding 500 individuals. Today, a group of approximately 250 animals was observed lunging at the surface, presumably feeding on the same type of schooling fish that were attracting the terns to the area.
The morning of August 31st was bright and clear, but moderate winds from the northwest made the seas choppy. Though there is no statistical correlation to support this, veteran whale watchers will tell you that sometimes rougher seas seem to lead to active humpback surface behavior. Today, we spent most of the morning with a yet unidentified humpback whale who was breaching, rolling to its side, occasionally slapping its flipper and, sometimes rolling completely upside down!
Although humpback whales don’t generally form long-term associations, they still communicate and associate with other members of the population. Some scientific studies have suggested that active surface behaviors like breaching and flipper slapping are part of a repertoire of “social sounds” which may influence group formation and dissipation. Although we didn’t see this animal for the rest of the day, it is possible that such behaviors allowed this whale to locate and associate with other whales in the area.
By September 1st, the winds had died down slightly, but the humpbacks were still acting up. On our morning trip, we briefly stopped at a humpback near Race Point, only to be lured to the Northeast by a big splash on the horizon. As we arrived to the site of the splash, we were treated to the sight of an enormous humpback whale in a full spinning head breach. As this whale hurled itself out of the water, its body twirled in mid-air before it hit the water again, landing on its side. This whale also performed a chin breach, which involves coming halfway out of the water, head first, and smacking its chin down.
Next, we located Whisk, a humpback born in 1987, traveling slowly with her calf. Whisk gave birth to her first calf when she was 6 years old. This is her fifth calf to date. In recent weeks, Whisk and her calf were seen consistently with a group of 3 to 4 other humpbacks, so we were surprised to see them on their own this time!
Later in the afternoon, as the wind decreased further, we headed to the same area north of the Peaked Hill bars, only to find a different group of humpbacks, including Scylla and her calf. We also had an unusually close approach from a curious harbor seal. Normally, our closest looks at these creatures occur when they briefly stick their whiskered faces out of the water to gut a bluefish or quickly take a breath. This particular seal, however, seemed to be very curious about the boat, and spent several minutes swimming alongside of the Dolphin VIII!
As strong winds from the northeast increased throughout the day on September 2nd, heading eastward towards the areas where we had humpbacks during previous days became more and more challenging. Fortunately, our mainstay group of humpbacks, including Milkweed, Pele, Canopy and her calf were still hanging out in the same general area. Over the past few weeks, these animals had been seen more or less in association with one another, presumably feeding deep in the water column. East of Stellwagen Bank, the water is approximately 190 feet deep. Humpbacks can easily reach the ocean floor at this depth, andwill often forage for food by going after sand lance and other small schooling fish which bury themselves in the muddy bottom.
As these whales embarked on dives that lasted, on average, between 5 and 10 minutes, coming up to take a breath or to check on the calf, we assumed that the fish that they were after were far from the surface.
September 3rd was another windy day, but we tenaciously headed east of the Bank, once again finding ourselves north of the Peaked Hill bars near Truro. Our first stop was to check out some Minke whales. These are the second smallest baleen whale, and are sometimes called “little piked whales.” Their scientific name, balaenoptera acutorostrada describes their pointed rostrum, which is the first part of their body to exit the water when they come up to breathe. Often elusive and difficult to watch, we managed to get a good look at two or three Minke whales who were swimming in circles. Both fin whales and Minkes are known to swim in circles when they feed, presumably because this keeps them localized around a desirable patch of prey.
Next, we encountered a highly active humpback by the name of Spirit. Spirit enthralled passengers aboard the Dolphin VIII for almost a half an hour by tail breaching and lobtailing, revealing the ghost-like pattern on the underside of the flukes.
On September 4th our morning trip aboard the Dolphin Fleet’s Portuguese Princess II began by watching three small humpback whales. Because they were not accompanied by a mother, we assumed that they were probably juveniles, likely to be 1-3 years old.
Because these were the first humpbacks we saw this trip, passengers not familiar with their size got a taste of how large these animals can get to be when we came across Ursa and her calf. Ursa is an old female and she is easily over 45 feet long!
While waiting for Ursa and her calf to resurface, we admired the remaining Wilson’s storm petrels – swallow sized birds which flutter low over the water in search of small crustaceans. Suddenly, we were shocked when Ursa’s calf breached right off our port bow. Soon after the huge splash, Ursa returned to the surface to see what her calf meant by such a dramatic display.
Next, we moved on to a group of five humpbacks. Whisk and her calf had reunited with Pele, Canopy and her calf. While the three adults went on long, deep drives, the calves tail breached and flipper slapped at the surface. When the adults came up from their dive, the calves had moved a fair distance from the group. However, as soon as they realized this, they abandoned their surface play and sped back towards their mothers, not wanting to stray quite yet!
Friday, September 5 marked the end of our week, and we were excited to find that our group of humpbacks from the previous day had been joined by a sixth humpback named Percussion. Percussion was named for the drumstick-shaped marks on the left fluke.
In line with their behavior from previous days, the calves hung out at the surface while the adults embarked on deep dives. Today, both calves expressed curiosity about the boat, even appearing right under our bow!
Over the past few weeks we have seen Canopy, Whisk, and their associated calves consistently accompanied by at least two other adults, with little exception. Although Labor Day has passed and there are fewer people in town, we still have almost two months of whale watching ahead of us, and we’re excited to see how the changing seasons will affect the creatures that we see in our watery backyard!