September 1st– Provincetown was abuzz on Labor Day weekend as visitors couldn’t wait to spend a day out on the water with the whales. Before we even got to the whales, however, we passed a gray seal just off of Race Point beach. Sitting on many of the beaches of the Cape Cod National Seashore, it is not unusual to see one of these enormous animals cruising up and down the beach, hoping to catch a fish.
Also spotted today were a number of humpback whales. Fracture, a male first seen in 1990, was accompanying Anchor and her calf. This is Anchor’s fourth calf since her birth in 1983, and this calf rolled and played near the boat as the adult humpbacks watched from a few feet away. Other humpbacks spotted today were Orbit and Spike. At this time of year, the environment is particularly dynamic as humpback whales sometimes slowly begin to move farther south, allowing us the opportunity to see whales not seen for months, and Orbit and Spike were certainly whales that hadn’t been spotted for some time from the Dolphin Fleet.
On September 2nd we came across 5 different species of cetacean over the course of the day, including the humpback, finback, Minke, Atlantic white-sided dolphin, as well as the elusive harbor porpoise. The smallest of the cetaceans expected in Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank, the harbor porpoise is a toothed whale, and like other toothed whales, uses its teeth to grasp prey. Unlike dolphins, however, porpoises have squared, flat, teeth, while dolphins have more conical teeth and tend to have more elongated rostrums. The harbor porpoise is rather elusive, and is occasionally seen in nearshore waters, more frequently in the spring and fall.
Later, we had an exciting look at Firefly and her calf, who appeared to be nursing. When a calf gets hungry, it nudges the underside of its mother’s body next to the mammary slits. This causes thick, fatty milk to squirt out of the whale’s mammary slit into the whale’s mouth. From the vantage point of the whale watch boats, we can tell when this is happening when we see the calf swimming back and forth underneath the mother’s body, surfacing on alternate sides.
September 3rd began with spectacular looks at fin whales and Minke whales between Race Point and Highland Light. Hoping to find a humpback, we headed north until we saw a spout on the horizon. Experienced whale watchers know that sometimes it’s possible to determine the species of the whale simply by the shape and size of the spout. Humpback whales have a tall, but bushy spout, and this particular spout certainly looked promising.
Upon reaching the area, however, splashes off the starboard side of the boat caught our eye, and we realized that we were about a quarter of a mile away from a group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. Pods of dolphins can range in size from just a few to a few hundred animals, and this particular group consisted of approximately 75 dolphins. Soon, a pair of humpback whales, Springboard and Falcon swam into the area. They swam among the dolphins for approximately a half an hour before leaving the area, but as we stayed with the dolphins, we encountered the humpback that we were waiting for in the first place, which turned out to be a humpback named Gunslinger, next to a finback whale. Finback whales can reach lengths of almost ninety feet and their astounding size provided a stark contrast to the eight foot long dolphins that had been surfing in the boat’s wake. Having seen a diverse array of cetaceans, ranging from some of the smallest to some of the largest, we headed back to Provincetown knowing that we had experienced a remarkable representation of the life on Stellwagen Bank.
September 4th was another great opportunity to see mother and calves in their element. The Dolphin VI’s first stop was on a whale named Crown, named for the crown-like white trim on the whale’s central fluke. Crown moved slowly along the Southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, taking shallow dives, and rarely raising her fluke or tail. While watching Crown mosey along, we noticed two spouts in the distance, a larger and a smaller one side-by-side, and decided that it must be a mother and calf.
Sure enough, upon arriving, we found that it was a humpback whale named Valley and her calf. This was especially remarkable as this was the first time we had spotted Valley for the entire season, and this meant we got to add a new individual to our growing list of mothers and calves!
Soon after leaving Valley and her calf, we came across another mother and calf pair. We have been watching this pair throughout the summer. These whales were floating just below the surface, such that we could see the shimmering green patches in the water from their bright white pectoral flippers. These long white flippers on either side of their bodies help them steer, and on adults, they might be up to 15 feet long! Slowly and deliberately, Reflection’s calf swam back and forth beneath the boat, emerging on either side to roll on its side and peer up at us. When it was time to leave, passengers were thrilled as the calf rolled on its side one more time, smacking that long flipper on the surface of the water!
Later, on the afternoon trip aboard the Dolphin VII, Reflection and her calf had picked up speed and were traveling in a linear destination. With a seeming destination in mind it seemed that they had little time for play. However, it’s not only humpback calves that act up! Apostrophe, an adult female, displayed a wide range of active humpback whale behavior by tail breaching and lobtailing. An adult female humpback is a powerful creature and the wall of spray she created with each forceful strike of the tail reminded us of that fact.
On September 5th we traveled to the Southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, encountering two female humpbacks named Trident and Wizard. After observing these animals together in standard travel mode, that is, fluking and resurfacing at regular intervals, we decided to move on to another, smaller spout in the distance. Remarking that the humpback we came across looked too small to be an adult, we wondered whether or not it was a calf, and if so, where its mother was. It was certainly displaying calf-like behavior as it rolled on its side, and played with marine debris, such as seaweed and buoys in the area. Still, its mother was nowhere to be seen! Later photo-analysis showed that this animal was actually the 2006 calf of Trident, one of the females spotted earlier in the trip!
Trident’s 2006 Calf
Playing with seaweed
While these two animals have long-since left each others sides, it is not uncommon to see them in the same feeding grounds. Trident’s calf has clearly learned well, returning to the same feeding ground that its mother brought it to in the first year of his life, displaying what we call “sight fidelity”.
Stellwagen Bank’s productivity was further evidenced as a later trip came across a humpback named Isthmus feeding on large schools of fish. Isthmus has a calf with her this year so she especially needs to concentrate on replenishing her blubber stocks. In the photo below, see if you can distinguish the individual baleen plates in Isthmus’ mouth. Humpback whales have 400 of these baleen plates on either side of their jaw, and the cumulative effect of these parallel plates is that of a giant strainer, which retains fish but allows water to flow out between the plates.
September 6th’s first trip on the Dolphin VII stopped on Nile and her calf. Nile is a female humpback first seen in the late 1980s. Her calf was extremely active, breaching, flipper slapping, and lobtailing, much to the delight of Dolphin VII passengers.
Nile’s Calf Lobtails
Later, on the Dolphin VI, we began our trip just off of Race Point Beach, in an area we call “Finback Alley,” where we encountered approximately 8 finback whales and at least a half a dozen Minke whales. Though similar in shape, these animals are drastically different size-wise. Finback whales are the second largest baleen whale, sometimes reaching lengths of over 80 feet, while Minke whales are the second smallest baleen whale, maxing out at lengths of 30 feet.
After heading north, we encountered two humpback whales named Sirius and Gunslinger. We concluded that they must be feeding below the surface. Schools of fish can amass at different levels of the water column, and humpback whales will feed wherever and whenever they can. They will often use bubbles to startle, stun, and corral fish. These bubble clouds are followed by open-mouthed lunges through these fish schools. We observed bubbles at the surface, but by the time the whales surfaced, they had dissipated, indicating that the feeding must have occurred deep and out of sight.
Typically, humpback whale associations are short-term, and this was certainly the case today. Sirius soon left Gunslinger’s side, and headed towards the finback whales near Race Point, perhaps sensing a more abundant food source in that area. As we headed for home, we passed Sirius traveling towards the previously-spotted finback whales, as Gunslinger continued to feed behind us.
September 7th –Besides looking for spouts, we look for other clues which point to the presence of cetaceans. Because many of our pelagic birds feed on the same small schooling fish as our whales, sometimes we look to large groups of birds to guide us to the whales. As we watched a large group of common terns swooping down to the water, we wondered whether or not we would find whales among them. Seeing splashing below the birds, the thought of dolphins even crossed our minds. Instead, we came through a group of bluefin tuna! Because of their size and shape, tuna are often mistaken for dolphins, particularly when they jump! Marveling at the size and speed of these enormous fish, we moved on to find several adult humpbacks including Habeñero, Fracture, Isoceles and Ventisca.
Later, on the afternoon trip aboard the Dolphin VIII, we came across another smaller humpback, thought to be a juvenile. Upon further photo analysis, we matched it to an unnamed animal slated for naming next April. All the scientists who study this population of humpbacks gather every April to reach a consensus on humpback whale names. We carefully photograph these animals so that we will be able to distinguish a distinct feature on their flukes which will serve as a mnemonic device to remember the identity of these individuals. Looking at the fluke of this whale, what name might you give it?