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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist Notebook – May 21 to May 27

Springtime is a time of unpredictable weather, especially on the Cape, and this year, a blanket of fog has refused to budge from the areas surrounding Stellwagen Bank, the feeding ground where we normally find whales.  On May 21, we decided to try our luck by looking for whales in the Bay.

We soon found Loon, one of our most frequently spotted fin whale, chasing schools of fish around the Bay.


In the photo above, you can just barely see the Loon-shaped scar to the left of the dorsal that gives this whale its namesake.   Loon would occasionally lunge through a school of fish, giving us great looks at its ventral pleats.  Fin whales typically roll 90 degrees to one side as they lunge, maximizing the amount of fish they can take in with each gulp.

Loon in the fog

On May 22 the fog remained and we began the day with a long search, which led us first to the Southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, then to Cape Cod Bay, then finally to Race Point where we had heard from another boat that two humpbacks were swimming about.  Sure enough, we came across Bayou who is Trident’s 2006 calf, as well as a second, unidentified humpback.  The sight of these animals was was met with excitement from our very patient whale watchers!

Humpback at Race Point

Bayou is a very easy whale to recognize due to the brutal propeller wounds on its fluke.  Ship strikes, are, unfortunately a sad reality for many of the whales in our region.  Some are lethal, while others leave scars.  Bayou is a young survivor of what was clearly a bad accident.


Our morning trip on May 23rd brought us to 3 humpbacks, including an 11 year old male named Aswan.  Many marine animals, especially humpback whales, are frequently attracted to objects at the surface of the water.  These three humpbacks had located a big patch of seaweed, in which they began to play.  They rolled and draped the seaweed across their rostrums, before going on a series of dives.

Today we also saw another sign of summer…the first sooty shearwater of the year!  Sooty shearwaters are pelagic birds who embark on some of the longest migration patterns of any other animal, spending their winters in the southern hemisphere.  Like the whales, they summer in the Gulf of Maine to take advantage of the rich food resources here.  A shearwater sighting is a reminder that warmer days are on the way!

Last week marked the first trips of the newest addition to the Dolphin Fleet, the Dolphin IX.  Those of you familiar with the old Portuguese Princess II, might recognize this boat, even with its new coats of paint and other renovations.

Dolphin IX

What’s that glowing orb in the sky?  Oh yes, it’s the sun.  We had our first fully sunny day in what seems like a long time on May 25th, and we left Provincetown Harbor with several schoolgroups aboard.  One activity that we have aboard for schoolgroups is the “Blubber Glove” experiment.  Students place their hand inside a glove insulated by imitation blubber–in our case, vegetable shortening.  They then submerge their gloved hand in a bucket of ice, to demonstrate how effective that insulating layer of fat is on protecting you from the cold!

Blubber Glove Experiment

After experimenting with the blubber glove for a while, we had excellent looks at two fin whales, which surfaced right next to the boat.


We also found 2 humpbacks, including a female named Leukos.  One of the humpbacks was rolling on its side, slapping its enormous flipper on the surface of the water.  These flippers can be up to 15 feet long!  Scientists are still unsure about what this behavior means, but some hypothesize that it may serve as some sort of social signal.


Two interesting bird sightings of the day included 2 Wilson’s storm petrels, birds seen in the thousands in the summer, as well as 1 Northern Fulmar.  Fulmars resemble gulls at first glance, but they have a stockier body and a shorter bill.

May 26th began clear and sunny, and after we rounded Race Point, we caught a few great looks at the two fin whales that were cruising just north of Race Point beach.  Fin whales are notoriously difficult to keep track of, but these whales were moving slowly, and stayed at the surface long enough to watch their sleek bodies travel through the water.

Fin whale

And then, the fog returned.  As we headed towards Stellwagen Bank we also headed towards an enormous fog bank.  Luckily before our visibility declined too much, we found a humpback named Columbia.  Columbia is a female who has had 8 calves since she was first seen in 1980.


Scylla, another female humpback known for bringing her calves to Stellwagen Bank in the summer, was spotted on the afternoon trip.

The visibility ebbed and flowed throughout the day, and passengers aboard the Dolphin IX had some excellent looks at a beautiful 3 masted schooler that was cruising around the area.  Todd, our captain, recognized the vessel immediately as one that his great grandfather had helped to build!


The fog continued to accumulate throughout the afternoon, and during our late afternoon trip, we searched far and wide to find the humpbacks and fin whales that were present on earlier trips.  We cruised up to the eastern edge of the bank, back down to Peaked Hill buoy, and then back along Race Point, where our sharp-eyed first mate, Mike, spotted a fin whale named Dahlia.  Dahlia, named for the flower-shaped scar on her side, has been seen in these waters for the past five years, and we were grateful to this whale for saving the trip!