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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook June 27-July 3

On June 27th we sailed to Stellwagen Bank with ideal whale sighting conditions, bright skies, light wind and glassy calm seas. We observed 8 humpback whales including Cardhu, Pixar, Snare and Ventisca. The whales demonstrated a myriad of active behaviors such as flipper slapping, breaching and lobtailing. Ventisca even became curious of our boat. She swam around the Dolphin VIII for over twenty minutes, diving a few feet below us and popping up on either side of the boat. With her close approaches it became clear why her name means blizzard in Spanish—she is mostly white with pigment on her dorsal fin and dorsal flukes. She was so close that many passengers felt the spray from her exhale, a combination of water vapor and seawater.


We headed towards the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank on June 28th with gray skies, moderate wind and calm seas. We observed 11 humpback whales. Today was another active day for the whales; we observed various behaviors including tail breaches, lobtailing, spinning breaches, flipper slapping and close boat approaches. The highlight of the trip, however, was when a humpback whale did a headstand in front of the Dolphin VIII and slapped the bow with its flukes! Undoubtedly, the passengers on the bowsprit became covered in seawater as the whale made quite a splash. It is unusual for whales to interact with the boat in such a way, as it was the first time that both the captain and naturalist had ever seen such a behavior.

We left Provincetown Harbor on June 29th with light rain, light wind and moderate seas. Despite the unfavorable conditions we had fantastic whale sightings, with 12-16 individual humpback whales. Several of the observed whales were well known humpbacks including Colt, Tongs, Echo, Tornado, Whisk, Crystal, Stub, Fern and calf and Reflection and calf. The whales put on quite the feed show, as many of the whales were displaying surface feeding behaviors including kickfeeding, bubble clouds, bubble nets and surface lunges. Tongs and Whisk appeared to be feeding cooperatively as they would dive under a school of fish and release large columns of bubbles forming a bubble net. Once the net was formed and the fish had aggregated into a tight ball, Tongs and Whisk would surface lunge with their mouths wide open. Humpbacks typically reserve this behavior for when sand lance is numerous and concentrated at the surface.

Open Mouth Feeding

On June 30th we went back to the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank where the whales have been aggregated for the past several days. The weather was moderate with gray skies, fog, light wind and light seas. Although our conditions were not ideal we had outstanding sightings with 19-25 humpback whales. The whales were putting on another excellent feed show as we observed diverse feeding behaviors from Echo, Stub, Coral, Alphorn, Tornado, Release and Salt. Echo and Stub were feeding together with both bubble clouds and bubble nets and Alphorn and Tornado were kickfeeding with surface lunges. Perhaps the most spectacular sighting was Salt’s bubble nets and open mouth feeding. As she surfaced beneath a school of fish she would expand her ventral pleats and open her mouth wide. Once at the surface we could see hundreds of fish inside her mouth, just waiting to be trapped by her baleen and swallowed whole. Humpback whale feeding is truly dynamic!

Cooperative Feeding

We headed to familiar territory on July 1st with gray skies, calm wind and calm seas. It appears as though the whales have remained in the Southern portion of Stellwagen Bank as we observed 4 humpback whales. In the afternoon, Freefall and Nile were displaying varied behaviors including sub-surface feeding, nursing, tail breaches and spinning breaches. Although it is generally impossible to know exactly what whales are doing while sub-surface there are some clues that can provide insight as to what they are likely doing. When humpbacks are continuously diving and surfacing in a general area it is often assumed that they have found a school of sand lance and are sub-surface feeding. Many of the humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine have scuffmarks on the side of their jaw from scooping up the sand lance from the sea bottom. When the prey is located towards the middle of the water column the whales will employ different techniques, sometimes scarring the fish up to the surface, consequently allowing sea birds to feed as well. It is imperative that Nile gets enough food to eat so that she can continue nursing her young and replenish her blubber reserves from a winter of fasting.

Nile and Calf

Nile’s Calf (Breaching)

On July 2nd we sailed out to the Southern Edge of Stellwagen Bank with gray skies, high winds and moderate seas. We observed 9-12 humpback whales and identified two of the most famous whales in the Gulf of Maine: Salt and Cardhu. Salt and Cardhu are longtime friends and hold the record for the longest association. Unlike tooth whales, baleen whales are solitary meaning that they don’t form long-term associations or pods. Baleen whales, however, do form short-term associations on the feeding ground. It is likely that Salt and Cardhu were sub-surface feeding as they were going on high-fluking dives and were traveling randomly. There were also several birds in the area, perhaps waiting for a few scared sand lances to swim up to the surface in hopes of avoiding predation. We also identified Stump and Colt. Colt quickly became curious of the Dolphin VI and almost rubbed his belly against the side of our boat. Colt has a reputation for close boat approaches, as he seems to display signs of curiosity quite frequently. In the afternoon we observed various active behaviors, including spinning breaches and chin breaches.

Chin Breaching

On July 3rd we set out to the Southern Edge of Stellwagen Bank with fog, light wind and calm seas. Despite the poor visibility we had amazing sightings with 15 humpback whales, 2 basking sharks and 1 gray seal. We identified Pipette, Stump, Habenero, Tornado, Isthmus, Anvil and calf, Fulcrum and calf and Reflection and calf. The humpbacks were displaying a wide array of behaviors throughout the day, including many feeding and active behaviors. Anvil and Stump were kick and open mouth feeding, while Habenero was surface lunging and Reflection was breaching! Although one might assume that whales will eat whenever the opportunity presents itself the difference in Habenero and Reflection’s behavior suggests otherwise. In the early afternoon we got excellent looks at two basking sharks, both of which had their mouths wide open to filter feed.