After a week of only passing glances at humpback whales, we were thrilled to finally get some really good looks on June 11th. We began our trip with a very large fin whale off Race Point Lighthouse. For the past few weeks, one or two fin whales have been holding court at this exact spot, although it is not always the same individuals. This probably has something to do with the confluence of currents and water bodies at this location, which tends to stir up nutrients and food for these massive animals. After watching this fin whale for a bit, we headed east where we found 11-15 feeding humpback whales! These animals had not been here the day before, but it seems as though overnight, they tracked down a source of food and began to chow down!
Stellwagen Bank and other points north of Cape Cod fall within a major summer feeding ground for humpback whales. However, their foraging range is large, and their movements are generally determined by the presence of food — mainly small schooling fish like sand lance. Over the past few weeks, we’ve watched as signs of life indicated the presence of these fish — more birds arriving in the area, schools of larger predatory fish like bluefish and bluefin tuna. Finally, the humpbacks got the hint and returned in droves. Cajun, a 13 year old female was feeding with five other humpbacks, while Etch-a-Sketch, also 13 years old, kick fed by slapping its tail on the surface of the water to stun its prey. Despite the grey, drizzly day, we all had a phenomenal whale watch!
The seas built considerably overnight and by by June 12th we were facing large swells out of the southeast. Despite the difficult operating conditions, we relocated the group of humpbacks in the morning and had some good close looks at Polaris, a male first seen in 1984. There is no exact consensus in the scientific community as to how long whales live, and the age ranges do, of course vary by species. Most scientists agree that humpback whales can probably live to be over 70. We began tracking individuals based on natural markings on their tails in the mid 1970s, and some of the whales that we are watching then are still around today!
Our naturalist aboard the Dolphin IX on June 13th described the seas as “lumpy”, certainly an accurate descriptions of the less than calm seas. We had our first whale sighting off of Race Point as a small Minke whale quickly surfaced. Luckily, many of our passengers were keeping a sharp eye out and were able to spot it as it surfaced and then quickly dove again. We continued on to watch a pair of humpbacks traveling beneath the surface. Their slow, languid movements made them easy to follow. Upon leaving this pair, we found a group of 4 humpbacks, including one named Rattan. The other humpbacks didn’t fluke so we had a hard time identifying them. As we were watching these animals, our first mate’s eyes were trained on horizon. As she peered through her binoculars, she announced that she had found a bird ball, referring to a large group of frenzied birds near the surface. This kind of thing is generally indicative of whales feeding at the surface. Although the spot she was looking at was several miles off, we headed out in that direction and our journey paid off! We spent the last 20 minutes of our morning trip watching as three humpback whales — one single and one pair — blew rings of bubbles to trap their prey, and then emerged, mouths open, their gullets filled with fish.
Sometimes humpback whales feed cooperatively and sometimes they feed alone. In this case, a young whale named Joy was feeding on its own, while two other humpbacks feed together.
The birds swooped down to grab whatever remnants of food were left at the surface. In this huge, multi-species flock, we were excited to see the first Greater Shearwaters of the year. These highly migratory birds spend their summers off the southern tip of South America, and migrate here during the summer to feed.
The feeding continued into the afternoon with a group of 7 blowing bubble rings and feeding in one tight bunch. Polaris, Harrow, Flounder, Centipede and Touche all made appearances. Touche, a female first seen in 1985, is named for a marking on the right side of her fluke that looks like two crossed swords.
We even spotted a whale with very obviously damaged baleen. Humpback whales are often victims of entanglements in fishing gear, and often the gear gets stuck in the whales’ mouth, which can easily cause damage to the pliable baleen which hangs down from the upper jaw. Baleen is made of keratin, and can grow back; however, in the mean time, this gap in baleen most likely affects the whale’s ability to feed properly.
High winds from the Northeast kept us in Cape Cod Bay on June 14th. We picked up a fin whale at Race Point and followed it back into Cape Cod Bay. Surprisingly, it was not one of the fin whales that we’ve been seeing in the past few weeks, but a new individual for the year, Rima. Rima was first photographed in 2002.
Rima had made it to Wood End by the mid-day trip, where it was picked up by the Dolphin VIII. Despite the nasty weather, we got some excellent looks at this whale and decided that it was probably sub-surface feeding. Meanwhile, on the afternoon trip aboard the Dolphin IX, we were able to find an additional fin whale, as well as a big group of gray and harbor seals just off of Race Point. In the photo below, notice their heads bobbing in the water. Also notice the ominous storm clouds!
Despite the rough seas on the morning trip, June 15th turned out to be a banner day. After rounding Race Point, we found a current line in the water that was evidently concentrating schools of fish as well. A big group of 15 humpbacks were all feeding along the line, taking in huge mouthfuls of food!
A big flock of Wilson’s storm petrels were also lining the rip line, meaning that plankton, as well as fish had concentrated there as well. Wilson’s storm petrels are trans-equatorial migrants who winter on the rocky islands off the southern tip of South America. They come here to feed on microscopic zooplankton, much like the right whales who come to Cape Cod Bay in the spring.
In the afternoon, the seas calmed, but the feeding frenzy continued. One group of nine was cooperatively bubble netting, continuously making bubble nets without taking a pause.
Unfortunately, they were so busy feeding, that they rarely fluked, meaning that we only got to visually identify a few of them. One individual who made herself audibly known was Dome, a female first seen in 1986. Dome is known for her extremely loud trumpeting noises. We always know when she’s around!
June 16th brought beautiful sunny weather. The light southwesterly wind made it so much warmer out there, as it finally began to feel like summer. Tuna spotter planes roared overhead, and we approached Race Point noticing several groups of spouts amongst the tuna fleet, each with its own accompanying bird ball. As we got closer, we found that all of the humpbacks were continuing to feed by making intricate bubble nets. Of them all, Springboard was the only kick-feeder!
Everywhere we looked there were huge rafts of birds who would flock to attention whenever a bubble net started to bubble at the surface. Birders were excited to see three species of shearwater today — the Greater, the Sooty, and the Manx.
Open mouth feeding continued with our humpbacks all day, with shifting groups of associations, although there was one consistent group of 7 – 9 individuals, including Compass, Polaris, Springboard, Anchor, Pogo, Centipede and Rocker.
On the afternoon trip, we had a close approach from a Minke whale! Quite the unusual event, as normally these whales are very elusive. This one swam right under our bow!
The action continued into June 17th, and more and more Minke whales started appearing with the feeding humpbacks — not surprising considering that they generally feed on the same small fish.
The same group of feeding humpbacks continued to scarf down the massive schools of sand lance concentrated north of Race Point. Cajun, Anchor, Abrasion, Harrow, Centipede, Flounder, Etch-a-Sketch, Rattan, Dome, Touche and Polaris were all seen feeding on the morning and afternoon trips.
As these whales blew bubble cloud after bubble cloud, we could actually see the fish getting trapped against the wall of foam. These whales come to the Gulf of Maine every summer primarily to feed. Using their baleen to trap fish and expel water, they are able to eat up to one ton of food in a single day!