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whale-game-cape-codThis minke whale is a typical baleen whale. Baleen whales are generally solitary animals. They use their baleen plates (called “whalebone” by early whalers) to filter small fish and plankton from the water.

The humpback whale (Megaptera novaengliae) spends its spring, summer and fall months in northern waters, where it feeds on the small schooling fish which occur here. Late in the year, humpbacks migrate to the waters of the West Indies where they mate and bear their calves. Humpbacks are easy to tell apart, using the black and white pattern on their tail flukes. The tail pictured here belongs to a famous female humpback named Cat’s Paw. The names we give to these humpbacks are based on natural field marks on their bodies. Cat’s Paw was named for the white paw-like mark on her nearly all black tail. There are about 550 humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine, many of which frequent Cape Cod waters. The humpback is a large whale, often reaching lengths of 40-50 feet. It is distinguished by its long white flippers and the fact that it often raises its tail high out of the water when it dives.

The fin whale, or finback (Balaenoptera physalus) is somewhat larger than the humpback, reaching lengths of 50-75 feet. It is also a more streamlined animal, moving quickly through the water. Fin whales can be individually identified by using a combination of body characteristics: dorsal fin shape, scars, and — the most telling characteristic but also the most difficult to photograph — the subtle shadings and swirls on the right side of the whale called the blaze and chevron. Fin whales are unique in that they are asymmetrically colored; the whale’s lower right jaw is white and its lower left jaw is dark grey or black.

The North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) is the most endangered of all the world’s great whales. Once found in Cape Cod Bay in huge numbers, there are fewer than 350 North Atlantic right whales remaining in the world today. The right whale’s long baleen plates covered in a thick mat of fine hairs, help this 45-50 foot animal to strain tiny plankton from the water for food. Right whales can be identified by the differences in “callosity” patterns on their heads and lips; these callosities are actually bumps covered with tiny whale “lice”. Right whales are found in the Massachusetts area in the late winter and early spring months. They use these waters as a feeding ground and nursery for mothers with young calves.