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Dolphin Fleet Naturalist’s Notebook – April 10 through 16

Saturday April 10 is bright, windy and cold but we are anxious to head into Cape Cod Bay after a long winter onshore. Over the past month we have been watching whales from shore both in the Bay and off Race Point Beach. As we round Long Point we see low, V-shaped spouts in the distance and our whale spotter confirms that they are from North Atlantic right whales. We slow down, keeping a minimum distance of 500 yards (a federal regulation) as we watch one of the rarest whales of all feeding on the small animal plankton in the waters of the Bay.  Closer to shore we spot 2 finback whales moving swiftly North and the splashes of two humpback whales, Reflection and Eraser kick-feeding. Reflection is a mature female first sighted in 1993. She has returned with 3 calves.

reflection kick feeding IMG_8476

By the afternoon, we venture north towards Race Point.  Race Point was named for its powerful crosscurrent, known as a ‘race’. It is here that the flow of the Atlantic meets the countercurrent of Cape Cod Bay, and where treacherous bars lurk beneath the water’s surface and hundreds of ships met their fate. The HMS Somerset, the most notable shipwreck near Race Point, is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

In the waters of the race we see tall spouts. The whales here are finback whales, the second largest animal on earth. They move fast and effortlessly through the rich waters off Race Point.  Back towards Provincetown we see more splashing- Reflection has started to kick feed but this time with a small unknown humpback. Eraser is nowhere in sight.  Deep in the Bay we see 4 to 5 North Atlantic right whales and towards Long Point 2 small humpbacks. One of the humpbacks is a whale first photographed last year and will be named this spring.

April 11 dawns overcast with steady southwesterly winds. The Dolphin VIII ventures into the Bay where there are several spouts. Our first sighting is the smallest whale in our waters, the harbor porpoise.  The harbor porpoise is a toothed whale and ranges in size from 4 to 6 feet. They are inconspicuous and not likely to venture near the boat. Unlike the dolphins, the porpoise rarely if ever bow rides and is seen in small groups of a few individuals. The porpoise feeds on small schooling fish that are feeding on zooplankton. The porpoise grabs the fish with its teeth and swallows it whole.

Several humpback whales are in the area as well as 2 or 3 finback whales and a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Although most of the humpbacks are small, perhaps only a few years old, 3 seem much larger. We identify them as Pisces, a mature female first sighted in 1998 and a mother of 5, Whirligig, a ten year old born to Pinball in 2000 and Nazka, first sighted in 2001. The small humpbacks are elusive, rarely lifting their tail flukes, but Pisces and Whirligig are feeding on fish near the surface with their mouths wide open.


By afternoon the winds have decreased, the sun is shining and the seas are calm and welcoming. We see a few small humpback whales close to shore but they are diving for over 10 minutes. North of Race Point we see the spouts of finback whales, humpback whales and numbers of marine birds.  As we move closer to the activity we see several humpback whales surface feeding. Suddenly, a humpback whale lifts its tail in the air and slaps it on the waters surface, a behavior called ‘kick feeding’. Soon a large cloud of bubbles turns the water a light green and two humpbacks surface, mouths open. We can see the baleen, a living strainer, hanging from the whale’s upper jaw. It will be used to strain the small fish out of the gallons of water inside its mouth. The fish are then swallowed whole. The whales dive again and we see by their tail pattern that we are watching Tracer, a mature male and Habenero, a mature female born to Pepper in 2000.  Also feeding in the area were Mars, Cosmos, Pisces, Nimbus, Broomball and Buzzard.

A humpback surfaces with a mouth full of food
A humpback surfaces with a mouth full of food

Individual humpback whales can be identified readily through photographs of natural markings and scars, particularly those found on the underside of the tail flukes. These patterns, ranging in color from all white to all black, appear to be generally stable in adults, much like our thumbprints. The size and shape of the dorsal fin on the whales’ back, as well as acquired scars also are useful in identifying individual whales.

We recognize Mural by her distinct fluke pattern
We recognize Mural by her distinct fluke pattern

Several dolphins are with the whales and Northern Gannets, a variety of gulls and kittiwakes all hover and dive in to catch the fish brought up to the surface.

On April 12 we leave Race Point and continue north, venturing into the North Atlantic to New England’s only Sanctuary-the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  An ocean treasure, the sanctuary was designated by Congress in 1992 and is one of only 13 sites deemed to be of such special national significance.  In these productive waters, a myriad of marine life lives, from the single-celled plankton to the great whales. Among its most well known species are humpback and right whales, northern lobsters, Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna.

The Sanctuary is renown among the world’s premier whale watching destinations. Located near major population centers, the sanctuary attracts marine scientists, educators, recreational enthusiasts and commercial users.  It is a repository of historic shipwrecks, including the side paddle-wheel steamship Portland, commonly referred to as “New England’s Titanic.”

On the way, we sight 2 North Atlantic right whales feeding in the waters off the Bay. We give these rare whales a wide berth and move north to the Bank. On the edge of the Bank there is a flurry of activity. Clouds of gulls hover near the surface, gannets dive and whales surface, mouths open, to feed on small schooling fish called sand eels. Two large females, Scratch and Mural, and a large whale named Wyoming feed through clouds of bubbles. Two smaller whales, perhaps calves of 2009 began to feed along side the larger whales and a small group of dolphins.

April 13 is hazy and overcast but the winds are light and the seas reasonable- our destination, just North of Race Point. This time of the year and until mid May we are under the 10 knot rule. This slow speed is mandated to protect the rare North Atlantic right whales found in this area in the spring. Some of the whales however have moved south and are just north of Race Point.  We see a few finback whales in the distance, but there are several small humpbacks in the area surface feeding. Birds and whales alike are in a ‘feeding frenzy’- with all eyes on the prize- the American sand lance or sand eel. Sand lance can reach lengths of six inches (15 cm) and can live to be five years old, an amazing feat considering they are feasted on in all stages of their life, from larvae to adult. Sand lance burrow into loose sand, hence their common and descriptive name. In the sand at the bottom of Stellwagen Bank, they burrow to escape predation, to rest and to hibernate after spawning.

In the afternoon, 3 small unknown humpback whales approach the Dolphin VIII and continue to circle the boat giving all a close view. Buzzard, a male born to Reflection in 2000 also is in the area but heading steadily North. One of the small humpbacks begins to breach, jumping out of the water, spinning in mid air and landing with a resounding splash on the surface.

breach IMG_8782

April 14 is bright but again the seas are calm. We see several whales spouting between Long Point and Race Point Light. Again, most of the  humpbacks are small in size and we recognize 3 that are to be named this year.  Eight to nine finback whales are in the area moving fast, occasionally lunging on their side, mouth open. The finback is long, streamlined (called “razorbacks” by whalers ) and one of the fastest of all baleen whales. It is second in size only to the giant blue whale and can reach lengths of 85 feet (25 meters). Its body is light gray to brownish-black on the back and sides. The lower jaw, gray or black on the left side, is bright white on the right side giving the finback whale the distinction of being the only animal divided in half- lengthwise- by color. This asymmetrical coloration extends to the whale’s baleen plates as well. The prominent dorsal fin, located 2/3 down its back, is sickle-shaped.

Finback mother with her calf
Finback mother with her calf

April 15 is bright and clear. We move slowly through the Bay as there have been reports of several right whales off Wood End Light.  Today there is little feeding and the finback, humpback whales and dolphins move randomly through the Bay. Some are close to shore and we have a chance to see the beautiful dunescape of Provincetown, Truro and Wellfleet. Not so long ago it was believed that Cape Cod had risen from the sea, its ever changing dunes and sandbars sculptured into being by the currents and tides. In fact, the Cape as we see it today is the result of glaciers passing, a series of massive ice sheets that swept over our continent carving out the geology of its land and ocean floor, covering the dry coastal plains, hills and marshes. The last continental glacier in North America was the Laurentide ice sheet, sculpting out the land as it advanced towards New England. As the glacier retreated, two glacial lobes emerged, one forming Cape Cod Bay, the bordering land and Stellwagen Bank. The other lobe, extending east of the Cape formed the area known today as the Great South Channel, as well as Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket and George’s Bank.

April 16 is overcast with occasional showers. Although the past 2 days of whalewatching were an example of how dynamic the Bay can be this time of year, most of the bids and whales have dispersed. We sight 2 small humpback whales that swim close by the Dolphin VIII affording us an exceptional view. Humpbacks have bumps on their heads called tubercles that are enlarged hair follicles. Each has a stiff bristle or hair, much like a whisker, that helps the whale to sense its immediate environment.” Yankee whalers called the bumps ‘stove bolts’, believing they held the whales’ upper and lower jaw together. The humpbacks’ most distinctive feature is the long wing-like flippers, up to one third of the whales’ body length- a feature for which the whale was named. For its scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to ‘the big-winged New Englander’.  Also in the area were Northern gannets, known for their plunge diving. At first we see only splashes and then, hovering birds plunging into the water. Mature gannets are brilliant white with black wing-tips, yellow coloration on their head and blue eyes. Their wing-span is about 6’ although they appear smaller when viewed from a 100’ vessel. Hovering high in the air the gannets dive directly toward the water, folding their wings just before plunging. They can dive up to 30’.