April 23rd was windy and rainy, but in the morning, a boatload of people braved the weather to experience the once-in-a-lifetime chance to catch a glimpse of the North Atlantic right whale — the most endangered large whale on this coast! Over the past few weeks, these rare animals have been gathering in record numbers right off the coast of Provincetown, often close enough to shore to view them from the beach.
Over the course of the trip, we counted at least 30 of these whales feeding close to shore in huge groups! In addition the massive feeding bout, one young-looking whale spent much of the morning breaching and lobtailing in full view of Wood End Lighthouse!
The fog rolled in overnight and by April 24th our visibility was less than 1/2 a mile. Nevertheless, we slowly crept out of the harbor, standing outside the wheelhouse listening for loud exhalations. Suddenly, we heard a loud splash, and we were able to get a visual on our first right whale right off the Wood End Buoy. As it breached and lobtailed, we were able to get a really great look at what looked like a very young animal!
Soon afterward, a veritable parade of right whales were in view, their mouths out of the water as they skim-fed on surface plankton. We estimated between 75 and 100 individuals were in the area! Sometimes they even appeared on our radar screen as brief flashes, but for the most part, we continued to find them using our ears.
In the afternoon, the fog lifted and the weather was beautiful and sunny. We located our first bunch of right whales just off of Hatches Harbor, a natural inlet characterized by dynamic tides, at the northern tip of Provincetown. Especially exciting was a sighting of a right whale SAG or surface active group. During a typical SAG, right whale males gather at the surface around a focal female. Males will engage in tactile behaviors with each other and with the female, often rolling around at the surface. For this reason SAGs are thought to play a role in mating, however, scientists are still slightly baffled by this behavior. Because calving occurs at a specific time of year, it is thought that mating should only occur during one time of year as well. However, SAGs have been observed all year round, leading scientists to believe that they may play additional roles.
In the picture above and to the left, notice the small body of a calf juxtaposed with the enormous flipper of an adult!
The right whale sightings continued into April 25th, where several right whales were even spotted feeding in Provincetown Harbor!
On the way out of the harbor, we also saw that the R/V Shearwater, the research vessel from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies was taking advantage of the calm seas and heading out for a research cruise. Throughout the winter, the Habitat Studies department of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies samples the zooplankton in Cape Cod Bay, using the data they gather to predict where right whales will aggregate, and how long these aggregations will persist. This information is valuable for conservation purposes because it allows state officials to warn mariners to avoid certain parts of the bay to prevent collisions with these highly endangered animals.
In the afternoon, we were able to locate additional species, while still getting good looks at at least 30 right whales. Further to the North, we located 2 humpback whales, including one named Anvil. In the photo below, notice the anvil-shaped marking in the middle of her fluke.
At one point, we caught up with a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. These dolphins start appearing in Cape Cod Bay in the spring and can often be spotted throughout the summer in the bay and points north.
As we left Provincetown Harbor on April 26th we noticed a small group of Harbor seals hauled out on Long Point. While seals are becoming more and more prevalent in our waters, it is important that we exercise caution in the presence of these wild animals. A recent Boston Globe article reminds seal watchers to keep a safe distance. The Dolphin VIII is the perfect platform to watch these seals without disturbing them!
As we headed north we encountered between 32 and 41 North Atlantic right whales actively feeding along the beach. Some even took a break from their meal to breach and lobtail, much to the excitement of passengers and beach-goers alike!
The right whales weren’t the only creatures enjoying a hardy meal. Our eyes were frequently drawn to the sky to watch huge clouds of gannets dropping from the sky to retrieve a fish. Only to return to the surface moments later. These amazing birds hit the water at 40 miles an hour as they plunge dive into the ocean.
After we cleared Race Point, the we started to see fewer right whales, giving us a chance to get a good look at 4 different humpbacks. We were able to identify Perseid, Centipede and Hancock in the midst.
Hancock, a 20-year old female, spent much of the time lobtailing, giving us a look at her unique fluke pattern.
With a quick glimpse at a Minke whale, and an excellent look at 2 fin whales, we saw a total of 4 cetacean species over the course of the afternoon. In this rare, nearly full-body look at a fin whale, you can just see the characteristic white coloration on its right jaw.
On April 27th, we left the Bay counting about 18 – 24 North Atlantic right whales on the morning trip. Still quite a sight, but definitely fewer than in the previous weeks. After the right whales consume a large volume of the prey in Cape Cod Bay, they move on to more productive areas. In fact, a recent survey from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center suggests that a lot of these whales might be headed to Rhode Island Sound next. Click here for the press-release.
In the afternoon, we concentrated on finding some humpback whales North of Race Point. We counted 11 humpback whales, many of them feeding. Rapier, a female born in 1989, was kickfeeding — using her powerful tail to stun and corral fish at the surface.
Meanwhile, a smaller humpback that we were unable to ID, lunged through schools of fish at the surface. Like the right whales, small schooling fish feed on zooplankton. Other baleen whales, like humpbacks, fin whales, and Minkes are one tier higher on the food web, feeding on these small fish, including herring, mackerel, and sand lance.
The gannets were out in full force again, often gathering around the areas where the humpbacks fed. Not surprising considering they eat the same type of fish as the whales!
Trips were cancelled on April 28th due to the stormy weather, but April 29th epitomized a perfect spring day, and we were up at the crack of dawn to head out for an unusual early morning whale watch. Rounding the tip of Cape Cod, we got a close look at the forty or so harbor seals that had hauled out on the beach. A flock of double-crested cormorants joined them nearby, drying off their wings in the early morning sun.
Just when we thought that our right whale numbers in the bay were dwindling, our mid-morning trip counted around 40 of them, still grazing away at the masses of copepods being pushed around by the currents and eddies by Race Point.
We headed north towards the southern edge of the bank, where we found 9 humpback whales. We first spotted Mural, a female first seen in 1980, as she rolled over on her side, repeatedly slapping her enormous flipper on the surface of the water.
This is a behavior commonly seen in humpbacks, but there is no clear reason why they do it. In the photos below, notice the rorqual folds on the ventral side of the whale’s body. These flexible pleats expand when the whales feed, but otherwise lie flat.
Pogo’s 2007 calf was also seen in the midst of all of these humpbacks. This whale doesn’t have a name yet, but now that it has been seen multiple years in a row, it is now eligible to receive a name based on some unique marking on its flukes. From the photo below, can you think of a good name for this whale?