On July 23rd we headed to the southeastern edge of Stellwagen Bank. In the morning, we encountered various groups of 3-6 humpback whales, which included individuals like Alphorn, Centipide, Infinity, and Tear. These whales were moving randomly in and out of groups, seemingly searching the area for concentrations of fish.
By afternoon, they had located the mother lode, and feeding commenced in an extraordinary display of bubble nets, kick feeding and bubble columns. A rapid succession of breaches from Strike and Dracula punctuated the feeding bout, as more and more humpbacks raced to the area. By the evening’s trip, we had over 40 humpbacks in the area!
The feeding continued into July 24th, where, west of the Triangle, there were large groups of feeding groups, while others dispersed over a one mile radius. Salt, a large female who is over 40 years old was feeding in a group of 8 humpbacks which included Colt, a male who is famous for his close boat approaches! Ratta, Cajun, Greenbean, Putter, Storm, Jumanji, Gunslinger, and Duckpin darted between groups in between mouthfuls of food, and we were especially excited to see Reflection, a female humpback who was freed from fishing gear by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies last week.
We noticed that Tracer in particular had a very unique style of feeding. This male humpback, first seen in 2002, would throw a few kicks to stun and corral schools of fish, before flopping to one side and lunging!
While his mother fed, Venom’s calf played at the surface, expressing curiosity about our boat. This little guy rolled around, flipper slapped and peered up at our vessel while its mother hunted for food. In the process of giving birth and nursing, a female humpback might lose up to 1/3 of her body weight. Venom will spend the summer trying to build up her blubber layer so she can return to the breeding grounds in the winter.
The humpbacks weren’t the only whales with food on the brain! Our first sighting of the afternoon trip was a pair of lunging fin whales. These sleek, streamlined animals use their incredible speed to encircle schools of fish before rolling on their side and grinding to a halt, forcing hundreds of gallons of prey into their inflated rorqual pleats!
Feeding and breaching mayhem continued into July 26th, when even larger groups of whales came together to blow enormous rings of bubbles around schools of sand lance. One veteran naturalist described this tremendous day of breaching and feeding as one of the best he’s ever had out there on Stellwagen Bank! New additions to the feeding frenzy included Epee, Mirror, Etch-a-Sketch, Thumper, Dracula, Alphorn and Exclaim.
In the afternoon, we headed right back towards the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank, but were distracted from our course temporarily by Galactic, a humpback first seen in 2008. Galactic was causing quite a scene, lobtailing for over 15 minutes.
When Galactic finally settled down, we aimed straight for the feeding humpbacks, which were easily visible in the distance partially due to the presence of various seabirds, all swooping down towards the water to snatch up any leftover sand lance that didn’t make it into the mouth of a hungry humpback. Four types of Shearwaters, a pelagic seabird, were seen among our feeding humpbacks. These species included the Great, the Sooty, the Manx and the Cory’s.
Later in the day, we had great looks at Ganesh’s calf, who was rolling and playing near the boat. Unfortunately, Ganesh is currently entangled in fishing gear, and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies was nearby in their vessel, the R/V Ibis, nearby trying to disentangle her. We are keeping a sharp eye out so we can report any entanglements to the disentanglement team. Any recreational boaters who spot an entangled animal should call 1-800-900-3622 immediately.
July 26th was grey and overcast in the morning, but by noon, the sun had come out and the wind had picked up enough to kick the whales into high gear! No one knows exactly why whales breach, but we notice that they tend to do it with a lot more frequency in windier weather. Cajun, Canopy, Rattan, Duckpin and Snare were all seen leaping into the air at various points, landing with resounding crashes on the increasingly choppy seas.
Meanwhile, on the Dolphin VII, another group of whales were observed closer to the beach. Dracula was traveling with an unidentified humpback for the second day in a row, while Tapioca, first seen in 2006, rolled on its side and slapped its flipper repeatedly.
Furrow, Pele, Alphorn, Spirit, Tracer, and Terrace also made appearances, often with one breach setting off a chain reaction of breaches in the distance.
Our resident bird expert, Peter Trull, also observed what he described as an unprecedented number of Manx shearwaters in the area. These are slightly smaller than the three other shearwater species which frequent Stellwagen Bank in the summer, and can often be seen at the periphery of bird rafts in between feeding bouts.
On the morning of July 27th we began our trip with a visit to Zap, named for the lightning bolt shaped marking on the underside of its flukes. Zap was rolling on its side, slapping its pectoral flipper. This behavior is thought to be convey some sort of social signal, as it often precedes the formation or dissipation of groups. Sure enough, a second unidentified humpback soon appeared in the area and the two of them dove simultaneously. Zap recommenced the flipper slapping as the second humpback floated alongside, its head completely out of the water!
After spending some quality time with Zap, we got a call from the Dolphin VIII which directed us to a group of feeding humpbacks to the north. Jumanji, Cajun, Firefly, Dome, Hancock and Touche blew massive bubble nets, encircling schools of fish through which they lunged with wide-open mouths.
The afternoon was sunny, calm, and hot! After feeding all morning, many of the whales appeared to be resting, and we watched as they lazily floated at the surface. Soon, the action picked up. We saw splashing in the distance and found Condensation and an unknown humpback breaching, nearly simultaneously! While waiting for these whales to reappear, we had a close approach from a curious baby harbor seal. This little guy stayed with the Dolphin VII for nearly 10 minutes!
Lobtailing seemed to be the name of the game on July 28th. After a massive bout of feeding in the morning, Pivot, Thumper, Dracula and Coral were all observed repeatedly smacking their flukes on the water at various points in the afternoon. Like many of the dramatic surface behaviors that humpbacks routinely engage in, no one knows for sure why a humpback lobtails, but when one starts to do it, often others in the area will follow suit.
The afternoon was filled with sightings of humpback mother and calf pairs, including Bolide, Venom, Canopy, and their respective offspring. This year, over 17 of these calves have been documented in and around the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. These calves will stay with their mothers for the first year of their lives while they nurse and grow.
With the winds and seas picking up throughout the day on July 29th, the humpbacks were breaching up a storm! Everywhere we looked, there was a humpback either leaping out of the water, lobtailing, or tail breaching. One juvenile stayed close to the Dolphin X and displayed every active surface behavior in the book. We had especially good looks at Condensation, a juvenile humpback born in 2008, who had a very unusual breaching style. This young whale would get completely out of the water with every chin breach, and open its mouth on the way back down!