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August 11th – While navigating through the August hustle and bustle of Provincetown, it’s easy to forget that Provincetown borders a pristine natural habitat for numerous species. This unusual juxtaposition of human and natural habitats often becomes most obvious around the Race Point beach area and points east. This is an area known to whale watchers as “Finback Alley” because it is not unusual to see fin whales feeding in the upwelling that occurs along the backside of Cape Cod near the border between the Provincetown dunes and Truro.
Finbacks are not the only creatures that can be seen near the beach, however. Today, a male humpback whale named Walrus was spotted just off the beach as well. The building in the background of the photo is the Provincetown Lifesaving Station right near Race Point Beach, which is part of the Cape Cod National Seashore.
Walrus flukes off of Race Point Beach
While it is exciting to see whales so close to land, many passengers enjoy the experience of exploring areas farther offshore. This adventurous spirit certainly paid off on our morning trip. After stopping near two humpback mother and calf pairs, including Fern and her calf, several of these whales became very curious about the boat and began to swim back and forth under the bow. Passengers on either side of the Dolphin VII got a great look at these inquisitive humpback whales!
Close Boat Approach
These whales continued to display their curiosity, and one of them even spy-hopped! A spy-hop is when a whale lifts its head out of the water so that its entire eye breaks the surface, presumably to get a better look at whatever it is that may be above water.
A humpback whale calf spyhops
As these humpbacks continued to frolic near the boat, we noticed another species that had joined the area—the Atlantic white-sided dolphins! Seemingly as playful as the humpback calves, 20-40 of these animals surrounded the boat, some of them leaping completely out of the water, displaying the characteristic markings for which they are named.
By August 12th, the exciting calf sightings were still going on. On the first trip of the day, the Dolphin VIII came across Tulip and her calf. Tulip’s calf was lobtailing, or repeatedly slapping its tail on the surface of the water. Later in the trip, we found Isthmus’s calf doing the same thing. There is so much about humpback whale communication and social interactions that we don’t understand. We don’t know why humpback whales lobtail, but when we see many of them doing so within a brief span of time, we wonder whether it is a coincidence or whether these calves are engaged in some sort of complex social interaction.
While active humpback whales are always a welcome sight on our excursions, it is even more unusual to see finback whale calves, which is why our morning trip on the Dolphin VII was particularly thrilling. Amongst feeding humpbacks, we also located a finback whale named Ruby and her calf. As we noticed Ruby swimming in circles, we suspected that she was feeding. This was confirmed as she lunged, and dramatically rolled to her side while she swallowed a mass of sand lance, allowing us a chance to see the underside of one of her flukes. We use different identification techniques for finbacks because, due to their negative buoyancy, they rarely fluke. In most cases, we will use the size and shape of their dorsal fins to identify them as unique individuals. Notice, however, how different the fluke pattern is on the finback below compared to the highly contrasted black and white patterns on our humpbacks.
August 13th began as a rainy morning. Once we got to Race Point, we considered our options. We could go East, where there had been sightings the evening before, or we could go North, towards the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, where the skies appeared to be clearing. After deciding on the latter, we were not disappointed. Our first humpback whale sighting was of Salt and Cardhu, both of whom are mature females that we have been watching since the mid 1970s. Salt and Cardhu are going against the trend of commonly observed humpback whale behavior, as they have been seen side-by-side for weeks on end. With the exception of mother and calf pairs, most humpback whales won’t associate exclusively with the same individuals for more than a few hours or a few days.
Some of the naturalists and crew have noticed the large amount of scuff markings on Salt’s right lower jaw, meaning that she has been digging on the ocean floor for sand lance, and hypothesized that perhaps Salt is a particularly successful forager and that Cardhu is exploiting that food source, even letting Salt do all the work! Others wonder if maybe there is something more complex going on. Both Salt and Cardhu had calves last year, and it’s possible that they are pregnant again. Perhaps there is some sort of bonding that goes on between reproductive females. These questions highlight how little we know of the social behavior of our whales.
Heading further north, the skies began to clear and we came across Tulip and her calf. Seeing a number of birds in the distance, we decided to see if there was any feeding going on.
This week there have been a particularly striking number of Shearwaters in the area. Shearwaters are a type of pelagic bird and the most commonly seen species in Stellwagen Bank are the Greater Shearwaters, the Sooty Shearwaters, and the Manx Shearwaters. Named for their flight pattern, in which they fly so low to the water that their wing tips sometimes “shear” the water’s surface, the shearwaters are often seen associated with feeding humpbacks as they take advantage of any of the leftover sand lance that these whales might fail to ingest.
Sure enough, there were a number of humpback whales feeding, including Eruption and Dome. We knew Dome was in the area before we even saw her because, for whatever reason, Dome makes an extremely loud noise with her blowholes, creating a sonorous tone that sounds almost like a tuba!
Toward evening, the feeding had mostly subsided, but the activity continued. Most notably was Sirius’ display on the evening’s trip. Sirius is named for the bright white dot in the middle of his fluke, which resembles the star. We ended our trip watching Sirius lobtail, which he continued to do as we began our sail back to Provincetown!
August 14th was a bright and windy day, and we began the morning by heading toward the Triangle, an area to the east of Stellwagen Bank where we often find a great deal of wildlife. Sure enough, we could see a flipper slapping humpback in the distance, which turned out to be Filament’s calf. After spending some time with Filament and her calf, as well as Fracture and Barb, two adult males, we noticed something floating nearby. This white mass turned out to be the decomposing carcass of a basking shark.
While this can be a sad sight on a wildlife viewing excursion, natural mortality is part of the ecosystem, and decomposing plant and animal matter can end up nourishing the plant life which supports the rest of the food web. Other foraging animals, like gulls and sharks also feed on these carcasses.
Responding to reports of a blue shark in the area that afternoon, we headed back to the basking shark carcass. While we were unable to relocate the blue shark, which is a shy and elusive creature, we were able to observe a number of dogfish which had picked up where the blue shark had left off. Dogfish are another type of shark, approximately a foot in length, and their small, triangular dorsal fins can often be seen off the waters of Cape Cod, frequently even in Provincetown Harbor.
Although we couldn’t locate the blue shark, expectations remained high and we were not disappointed, as we soon located a group of feeding humpbacks, including a humpback named Ember. Ember is a male, born in 1982 to Cardhu, a humpback that had been spotted just the day before!
By the evening trip, the feeding had continued, there were humpback whales all around the boat, blowing bubble clouds, and lunging through schools of fish with their mouths wide open at the surface of the water. In fact, Ember’s mother, Cardhu was spotted feeding in the area along with Salt, Dome, Mirror, Barb, Underline and Fracture.
Upon seeing a fin at the surface about a quarter of a mile to the north, we decided to take a detour. After finding the dead basking shark on earlier trips, we were much relieved to find a live basking shark on the evening trip, healthy and feeding on plankton, its mouth wide open, using a filter-feeding method not unlike that of some of our baleen whales.
Once we left the shark, the feeding had subsided, but the excitement had not ended. We ended our trip with Mirror breaching, and were still able to see her leaping out of the water as we headed back to Provincetown.
On the morning of August 15th, Fern’s and her calf were certainly a highlight of the day. Fern’s calf was breaching, or repeatedly jumping out of the water, as well as rolling around on its back. Although we never saw Fern’s fluke, Fern’s calf has a very distinct dorsal fin with a lot of white pigmentation, making her very easy to identify.
Fern’s 2007 Calf rolls at the surface
By the afternoon, the wind had picked up and we headed towards an area where there was quite a bit of whitewater. Expecting to see a breaching humpback whale, we were surprised to see that the disturbance on the water was caused by a breaching Minke whale!
Breaching Minke whale
While it is not particularly uncommon to see humpback whales breach under many types of circumstances, leading us to believe that this dramatic behavior might serve a variety of purposes, we tend to only see Minke’s breaching under rougher sea conditions. This leads us to believe that maybe this behavior helps the whale to breathe or move when the water conditions would otherwise hinder this movement.
On August 16th, we witnessed breaching behavior that seemed to serve another purpose—communication between a mother and her calf. Like the previous day, whitewater in the distance led us to an area where we located a humpback whale leaping out of the water. The whale looked like a calf, but where was the mother? Most of the time, a mother won’t leave her calf’s side for about a year, so we assumed that she was close-by, but sub-surface.
Suddenly, we saw another breach in the distance. It looked like an adult. Could that be mom? We watched, enthralled, as these two humpbacks would breach or tail breach, and with every surfacing would appear closer to one another. Finally, after about 20 minutes of this behavior, we watched these whales reunite and swim away together.
Later in the evening as the fog rolled in, we had to use more creative ways to find whales, as our visibility had decreased greatly. Eventually, noticed flat, smooth patches on the surface of the water—flukeprints! When whales swim, they move their tails up and down, and the upstroke of their tail sends a spiraling column of water to the surface. This interferes with the wave pattern on the surface and they cancel each other out, creating flat, smooth patches indicating that whales are in the area. Sure enough, we were soon able to locate Filament and her calf right nearby.
On August 17th we were drawn toward the southwestern corner of Stellwagen Bank when we saw the enormous white flipper of a humpback whale slapping the surface of the water. On an adult humpback, these flippers are almost 15 feet long—about one third of the whale itself! This makes it very easy to see that flipper-slapping behavior from great distances.
When we arrived, we found ourselves with three whales: Sickle and her calf, as well an unidentified juvenile. Both the calf and the juvenile writhed and wriggled at the surface, as Sickle lingered nearby. Sickle’s calf even rubbed directly up to her mother, displaying the close bond that exists between a mother humpback and her calf. Passengers frequently remark on the amount of scratches on calves’ bodies, but many of those scratches occur from contact with the barnacles on the mother’s body!
Unknown juvenile rolls near the boat
For most of the day, we had a number of humpback whale sightings, although most of them appeared to be logging. Logging is what we assume to be a resting behavior, as the whale remains nearly motionless at the surface, breathing every so often. On our way back into Provincetown Harbor, our captain, Todd, remarked that after all the resting the whales had been doing all day, surely they would wake up and start feed by the evening. He barely had time to finish that thought, however, as we came across a pod of Atlantic-white sided dolphins in a highly unlikely place—Provincetown Harbor!
Dolphins in Provincetown Harbor
Naturalists will often tell passengers that it’s possible to see a whale at any point during the trip, and this sighting certainly brought that point across!
Heading back to the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank that evening, Captain Todd was sure that the humpbacks would wake up and feed after their lazy afternoon. After 18 years out on the water, such instincts are often right on. The evening trip was filled with feeding humpbacks, including Alpha, Liner, Cygnus, Grackle and Leukos. Fern and her calf had picked up their activity, and were also joined by Reflection and her calf. Finding the jackpot of humpback whale behavior that evening, we sat among these humpbacks for most of the trip, as they blew bubble clouds and came up with mouths full of food all around the boat, ending another busy week of whale watching on Stellwagen Bank.