September 8th included sightings of a number of humpback whales, including Valley and her calf, as well as Apostrophe, Ventisca, and Teapot. East of Stellwagen Bank, in an area we call “the Triangle”, Isthmus, a female born in 1986, was spotted with her seventh calf. As they rested at the surface, Tear, Habenero, Pipette and Banyon appeared to be feeding below the surface, emerging for breaths with the pleats on the underside of the bodies expanded. Throughout this array of enormous humpback whales, we also got a chance to see some of the smaller members of the cetacean set: Atlantic white-sided dolphins. These toothed whales, no longer than 8 feet long, leapt and played among the feeding humpback whales throughout the day!
Later, on the southern edge of the bank, we came across another humpback whale named Weave. Weave was particularly active that day, breaching, and flipper slapping, much to the delight of Dolphin VII passengers. Note that the trailing edge of this humpback whale’s long, white pectoral flipper is ridged, rather than smooth. These ridges allow for more controlled steering movements as the whale navigates its course.
On September 9th the wind had picked up, and we set off in the morning hoping that the choppier seas might inspire some of these whales to act up. For unknown reasons, sometimes more active behavior is observed during periods of rougher seas. Sure enough, on a morning trip, a humpback named Percussion lobtailed, smacking its huge tail on the water repeatedly. We are not exactly sure what causes this behavior, but it gave us the opportunity to get a great look at the distinct fluke and the powerful tail stock.
Apostrophe, Teapot, and Pipette were re-sighted throughout the day along with a number of finback whales and Minke whales.
The true star of September 10th’s trips was a humpback whale named Ventisca. Ventisca’s age and gender is unknown, as it was first documented in 2001. Ventisca is a truly unmistakable whale, with a bright white dorsal fin, and white markings all over the dorsal, as well as the ventral, or underside of the fluke. These dramatic markings are why this whale was named for the Spanish word for “blizzard.”
Ventica’s white dorsal fin
On both morning and afternoon trips aboard the Dolphin VII, Ventisca gave us what we call a “close boat approach,” swimming back and forth beneath the boat, occasionally popping its head up to peer back at equally curious whale watch passengers. Ventisca was easy to spot, even before surfacing, as the white marking all over her body reflected the green phytoplankton present throughout the water, such that she appeared almost like a glowing, green specter several feet beneath the surface. Looking at the depth-sounding device aboard the Dolphin VII (not useful for whale-location as it only tells us what’s directly below the boat), Captain George Milliken remarked that he could see the shape of Ventisca’s massive body swimming right below the boat!
Ventisca peeks at passengers
On September 11th we didn’t have to travel far before coming across several different species of fascinating marine life. Only 40 minutes into the trip, we stopped just off of Race Point beach in Provincetown and located a Mola Mola, or ocean sunfish. Mola Molas are bizarre-looking creatures with a giant, floppy dorsal fin. Considered by some to be the largest type of zooplankton, they weigh over 600 pounds and drift along with currents feeding on jellies and crustaceans. Minke whales and fin whales were also out in full force by Race Point, taking advantage of the productive upwelling that occurs as the waters of Cape Cod Bay collide with the waters of the Atlantic Ocean.
After venturing far into the center of Stellwagen Bank, we found Pepper and her calf, lobtailing and flipper slapping. Heading back for Provincetown, we came across two more mother and calf pairs. Valley’s calf and Anchor’s calf rolled around at the surface, clearly basking in the company of the other’s presence. Meanwhile, the adult humpbacks didn’t stray too far away. Anchor was born in 1983 and Valley was first seen in 1985. They have both had calves before, so they know to stay by their sides almost constantly for their first year of life!
On September 12th , in an area east of Stellwagen Bank, we encountered a small humpback whale with an enormous propeller scar across its back. Even though Stellwagen Bank is a National Marine Sanctuary, these whales aren’t free from threats. In fact, as a multi-use sanctuary, where commercial fishing, shipping, and recreational boating is particularly prevalent, there are a number threats to these whales from human activity. In fact, ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear are thought to be the leading causes of death for humpback whales in the North Atlantic. While this whale seemed to be carrying on without too much trouble, the massive scar on its back was a sad reminder of the threats these whales face, and this whale will carry these scars throughout its life.
Humpback with propellar scars
We stayed with this whale for over twenty minutes, trying to get a good photo of its tail, or fluke, for identification purposes. While we were there, this whale breached, or jumped completely out of the water, on several occasions, while continuing to chin breach for a long time afterward. A chin breach is a sort of partial-breach, where the whale slaps its chin on the surface of the water, landing on the ventral, or underside of its body. After analyzing the photos after the trip, this whale was identified as an unnamed individual, its small size suggesting that it was a juvenile. It is likely that this whale will be given a name by a group of scientists next April.
A humpback whale breaches
September 13th was a bright, sunny day, and perfect for whale-watching. Heading out on the Dolphin VII in the mid-morning, we started our trip watching an unidentified juvenile rolling and flipper slapping. After a partial breach, which created an enormous splash, this small whale approached the boat and swam back and forth beneath us.
It seemed as though we had moved into a particularly productive area as a humpback named Gunslinger started to feed, lunging though bubble clouds at the surface with a wide-open mouth, accommodating hundreds of gallons of food and water. Billions of sand lance could be seen right below the surface of the water. These six-inch long fish were doomed to be the lunch of the forty ton humpback whale right nearby!
Gunslinger flukes near the bow
Sensing the presence of food, a male humpback named Alpha joined the area, and after they had their fill, they headed towards several fin whales that were lunging through schools of fish nearby. Fin whales feed on the same food as the humpbacks, generally, but do so in different ways. Rather than using bubbles to corral the fish, they use great bursts of speed and side-lunges to gulp down large quantities of sand lance!
Meanwhile, on the midday trip on the Dolphin VIII, Weave was observed with Filament and her calf, slowly heading north. Toward the center of Stellwagen Bank, five humpback whales, including Anchor and her calf, as well as Valley and her calf, appeared to be feeding at depth, as bubbles appeared at the surface in the absence of surface lunges. Humpback whales frequently blow bubbles to corral their food, although sometimes calves will blow bubbles as a play behavior, possibly as a practice for future uses in feeding.
September 14th was another spectacular day for humpback whale calf activity as Fern’s calf lobtailed for the passengers aboard the Dolphin VII.
Fern’s calf lobtails
Later, Filament’s calf was rolling on its back, revealing the ventral pleats, or rorquals, on the underside of its body.
Filament’s calf rolls upside-down!
Salt, the first humpback in the Gulf of Maine to be named was also spotted. The last time we saw Salt she was in the presence of another mature female named Cardhu, but in typical humpback fashion, they have ended their association and gone their separate ways. Salt is a favorite whale for the Dolphin Fleet, and was even named by a Dolphin Fleet captain! Seeing her back in the area was certainly a treat for the end of this beautiful week of whale watching.