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Freaky Funny Feeding

Individual whales can be identified based upon certain markings. North Atlantic Right whales are identified by the patterns of rough patches of skin on their heads, called callosities. Fin whales by the swirls of color on their shoulders, called chevrons. Humpback whales, by the pattern on the underside of their tales (or flukes). Just as each callosity, chevron, and fluke is unique to the individual, whales within their own species also have unique feeding behaviors. As you come to spend more time out on the water watching these whales, you begin to notice that certain individuals have developed their own unique way of eating. Other naturalists and captains will tell you, sometimes it is not the fluke pattern that keys you in on which individual you are looking at, but their behavior.

The other day, while out on the feeding ground, we sat and had the opportunity to watch some Humpbacks going about their daily activities. We watched as they fed, creating bubble nets and kick feeding as they usually do. I was able to identify each whale as they went down on dives by photographing their distinct fluke patterns. One whale, however, I could identify before she even showed me her fluke. It was the way she was feeding, unlike any other whale in the area, that clued me in on who she was. As she began to kick feed (a common behavior where the whale raises its fluke high out of the water and slaps it down to create bubbles to scare the fish) she threw both of her long white pectoral flippers forward, as if to give herself more momentum as she went on to raise her flukes out of the water. “Hi Tornado”, I said to myself as I witnessed this. Tornado is a 29-year-old female who is a frequent visitor to Stellwagen Bank. As far as I know, she is the only Humpback who seems to add a little flare to her kick feeding by throwing those pectoral flippers forward. Any time I see a whale do that, I know Tornado has returned.

Tornado isn’t the only Humpback to create her own feeding technique. Another female Humpback, who goes by the name of Catspaw, has also added some flare to her feeding routine. Unlike Tornado, Catspaw has created an entirely new feeding behavior as opposed to modifying an old one. When Catspaw is seen feeding, you can literally spot her from a mile away. Picture this, a clear calm beautiful day, you’re staring out into the endless ocean and out of nowhere, you see a Humpback whale coming straight up and out of the water in a behavior known as “spy-hopping”. But this isn’t your typical spy-hop. As she starts to go back down into the water, she opens her mouth creating a sort of suction that draws fish into her mouth. Catspaw does not frequent our area as often as Tornado does, so her unique feeding behavior is far less commonly seen and not as well studied. I have only managed to see her do this a couple of times. But rest assured, it is extraordinary every time it is witnessed.