- Research & Education
- Cape Cod
On July 5 the Portuguese Princess, the Dolphin Fleet’s newest boat acquisition, left port in the morning and upon rounding Race Point, watched a big bank of fog roll across the water. Fortunately, we still had visibility to the west, so we headed toward the Southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank where mother and calf pairs were plentiful and active. Scylla and her calf, who are turning out to be some of the most frequently spotted humpbacks this season, were tail breaching and breaching. After throwing themselves out of the water repeatedly for almost a half an hour, Scylla pumped her tail, stopping all forward motion, and they immediately started to log, or float motioness on the surface of the water. Logging is what we assume is a resting behavior. It seems like all of that activity tired them out!
In the evening, Scylla and her calf were active again, breaching and flipper slapping. Pretty soon, we noticed that Scylla had disappeared into the fog, while her stayed near the boat, sometimes coming up right next to us! After a while, the calf seemed to become agitated having lost track of mom, and started to breach, probably in an effort to get its mom’s attention. Although we had to leave these animals before they found each other, passengers worried about the welfare of the calf will be happy to know that Scylla and her calf were seen, reunited, on trips later that week.
On July 6 it was Dusky and her calf that were providing excitement for passengers aboard the Dolphin Fleet boats. As Dusky rolled upside-down, slapping her long, white pectoral flippers on the water’s surface. Her calf followed suit and leapt backwards, slapping its flippers down as it landed.
Humpback whales are characterized by their long, white pectoral flippers, which are about 1/3 the length of the whale’s body. These flippers are lined with ridges, which, contrary to intuitive ideas about streamlined shapes, actually increase the maneuverability of the whale as it navigates the seas. These ridges are so efficient in reducing drag while creating lift that scientists are actually studying the shapes of whale and dolphin flippers to design highly-efficient wind turbines! See related article.
On July 7 we came across one of the more unfortunate sights out in Stellwagen Bank–a humpback whale that had become entangled in fishing gear. Upon noticing that the humpback whale, a female named Ebony, had yellow line draped across its back, the naturalist aboard the Dolphin VIII immediately called the disentanglement team at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. As the team got ready to head out for a disentanglement attempt, whale watch boats in the area took turns staying with Ebony so that the team would be able to locate her.
Fortunately, Ebony was feeding at the surface, which was a good sign not only because it showed that the line was not completely restricting her important life activities, but also because it allowed the disentanglement team to approach the whale and use a long pole with a knife attached to cut some of the line off of Ebony’s body.
Although the team wasn’t able to remove all of the gear, the goal in a disentanglement is to make a few strategic cuts that will allow the animal to free itself of gear on its own. This reduces the risk of creating a number of shorter lines that could further entangle the animal. Ebony was seen later that week and it is thought that the remaining line should come off the animal soon. To learn more about the disentanglement program, visit their website
As the week went on, more and more humpbacks were aggregating in the southern portion of Stellwagen Bank, and on July 8, we saw between 15 and 38 humpback whales on every trip! Some of our old favorites, including Thread, Entropy, Cygnus and Gar were engaged in bouts of feeding, blowing concentric rings of bubbles to entrap fish, and then scooping them up with help from their expandable ventral pleats. In the photo below, taken by our naturalist, Beth, notice the silvery fish accumulating in the giant reservoir of whale’s lower jaw.
Female humpbacks with calves are particularly in need of food. In the process of giving birth to and subsequently nursing their one-ton calves, they can lose up to one-third of their body weight! Many of these humpbacks are visibly thinner when they return to the summer feeding grounds after going with very little food for the winter months. Dome was one of these animals, and as she spent the morning looking for food, her calf delighted passengers aboard the Dolphin VII by lobtailing.
By the morning of July 9 the feeding frenzy had continued and more humpbacks had moved into the area. As we headed toward one particularly active feeder, we were able to identify the humpback before even getting a look at its flukes. Bandit had returned! Bandit, named for the mask like pattern on his dorsal flukes, was first seen in 1988. He has a particularly spastic style of kick feeding which involves frantic tail slashing. After years of watching Bandit feed like this, we know when he is in the area!
Bandit’s Dorsal Fluke Bandit’s Ventral Fluke
In the afternoon, we visited three different mother and calf pairs, including Mural, Scylla, and finally, Whisk. As Whisk and her calf were separated, potentially due to the increasingly rough seas, the calf started to breach. When Whisk surfaced, that calf took notice, and began a series of chin breaches in
the direction of mom. Finally, just as we were ready to head for shore, Whisk and her calf were seen together again!
On July 10, Nancy, the naturalist on the Dolphin VII had an exciting afternoon trip. She writes,
“We saw 2 finners in the distance as we were heading for home and Capt Johnny decided if they stayed up as we went by, we would stop. As we approached, suddenly they increased their speed so we had to speed up to stay along side them. We trailed their foot prints safely. Then suddenly, like I had never seen before, they increased their speed even more to about 20 knots! Then they porpoised two times in a row perfectly syncronized and that was it. They continued swimming at what I would say was their top speed! We couldn’t keep up!! They didn’t dive to avoid us. In fact, as they porpoised, they turned toward us!!! So fun!! It was truly something I had never seen in the 12 years I have been whale watching!”
Another unusual event occurred that day as many passengers got a chance to see a critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale. This whale was breaching within view of Long Point at the very tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown. Because of their critically endangered status (it is estimated that there are only between 350 – 400 of these animals left on the entire planet) a great deal of research effort is devoted to their population. Despite the heavy survey effort, there is still a lot that we don’t know about these animals. At this time of year, many of the right whales in the population spend their time in the Great South Channel on their way up to the Bay of Fundy. Why would this particular animal return to Cape Cod Bay, a primary feeding ground in the late winter and early spring?
Due to federal regulations which require that we stay at least 500 yards from these animals, we were not able to get too close, but as we rounded Long Point on our way back to Provincetown Harbor, we felt excited to have seen just one member of such a small population.
On July 11, we headed up to Stellwagen Bank to find between 25 and 40 humpback whales stretched along a visible upwelling line several miles long. Upwellings occur when a current interacts with an underwater structure, like the vertical edge of Stellwagen Bank, pushing nutrients and plankton up to the surface, stimulating the food web from the bottom up. This is often visible as a change in turbidity at the water’s surface and it is frequently a great spot for feeding whales, birds, and fish.
Echo, Ember, Walrus, Isthmus, Agassiz, Bullet, Exclaim, Tornado, and Soot were some of the many whales seen feeding along this upwelling. One of our naturalists noticed that Tornado had a very unique way of feeding. Tornado would slap the surface of the water with both pectoral flippers before kicking her tail to feed. After that, like most other humpbacks, she comes up underneath that cloud of bubbles with her mouth wide open, trapping fish behind her baleen.
Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VI, our passengers had what one of naturalists says was one of the longest “close boat approaches” she had ever seen. Thimble, a humpback whale apparently curious about the boat, spy-hopped, flipper-slapped, and rolled around right up along side the vessel.
As we headed back into port that evening, we could see the splashes and kicks of feeding whales disappear behind us, and we hoped that this spectacular activity would continue in the following days!