- Research & Education
- Cape Cod
Saturday 12 April dawns gray with occasional drizzles. However the winds are light and the seas are calm for the first day of whale watching. The Dolphin VIII travels into Cape Cod Bay where whales have been sighted by locals and visitors alike since March. It is from the dunes of Herring Cove Beach and Race Point Beach at this time of the year that one can look and listen to whales as they return to feed in our rich waters. By Long Point, the last tip of land in Massachusetts, we see the small, triangular fin of a harbor porpoise, common to our waters in the spring. The harbor porpoise, a toothed whale or odontocete, is the smallest whale we are likely to see on our whale watch.
In the distance we see a low, V-shaped spout and our whale spotter confirms that they are from North Atlantic right whales. We slow down, keeping a distance as we watch one of the rarest whales of all feeding on the small animal plankton abundant in the waters of the Bay.Numbering less than 400 remaining in the world, it is against federal regulations for a boatto approach closer than 500 yards (457.5 meters). We will stay a safe distance away so as not to interfere with the movement or behavior of this animal, one of the rarest on earth”. Yet, just a few centuries ago, thousands of right whales lived in our waters. Pilgrims on the Mayflower in the early 17th century noted that there were so many it seemed one almost could walk on their backs to cross Cape Cod Bay.
V-shaped spout of the right whale
Right whales were given their name by whalers as they were the ‘right’ or easy whale to kill. They seemed unafraid, were slow moving so easy to approach. Their large bodies- up to 50 feet (15 meters) and weighing 70 tons (63,502 kg)- floated when they died. Their extremely long baleen plates were highly prized and oil rendered from their thick layer of blubber lit the lamps of the western world. Right whales have been hunted since the 1500’s and by the 1750’s right whales were so depleted they were in danger of becoming extinct. Although protected since 1935, their numbers continue to decline, primarily from ship strikes and entanglement in fishing gear.
Much closer we see the large, conical spouts of finback whales, the second largest animal on earth. With the finback whales are the second species of toothed whales commonly found off Provincetown; over 250 Atlantic white-sided dolphins swim near the large finbacks, all feeding on the same small fish. Nearby, common loons call and large gannets plunge-dive into the water.
By Herring Cove Beach, we see a small whale arch and lift its tail flukes in the air. As we slowly move towards the whale, it surfaces. A humpback whale! The humpback is relatively small and by looking at and photographing its dorsal fin and tail, we identify it as a whale first sighted in 2007- yet to be named. Another small humpback whale swims nearby and although we were able to photograph its tail, we do not recognize the small whale. We leave the humpbacks and slowly make our way back to port always on the lookout for right whales. It has been a cold- but successful first day.
No trips on Sunday.
By Monday the sun is shining, but a steady, Northwesterly wind makes the seas choppy and the air temperature cold. While we see several right whales spouting in the distance, the whales close to shore primarily are harbor porpoise, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and two species of baleen whales: finback and humpback whales. It is difficult to photograph the finback whales as little of their back is visible through the waves. The humpback whales were easier to photograph as they lifted their tails high in the air. Once again we photograph the small unknown humpback whale sighted on Saturday as well as another small, unknown whale.
By afternoon the winds and seas have calmed and we make out way into the Bay where several harbor porpoise are sighted. The harbor porpoise is a small, toothed whale reaching lengths of 6 feet (1.7 meters). It is inconspicuous and not likely to venture near the boat. With persistence from the naturalist and captain, we finally are able to see the small porpoise with its triangular dorsal fin and dark gray body. Unlike the dolphins, the porpoise rarely if ever bow rides and is seen in small groups of a few individuals. The porpoise feeds on small schooling fish such as herring that feed on zooplankton. The porpoise grabs the fish with its teeth and swallows it whole. Also in the Bay are large finback whales, a small pod of dolphins and small, probably juvenile, humpback whales. Just beyond Race Point we stop and wait for two or three humpback whales to surface. We hear the whales before we see them and soon after they approached the DVIII. For fifteen minutes the humpbacks circled and swam under the boat to the delight of all. As suddenly as it occurred, the whales moved away from the boat and continued North towards Stellwagen Bank.
We left the harbor Tuesday morning under sunny skies and light Northwesterly winds. As before, small harbor porpoise seem to dot the water’s surface, staying a distance from the boat. In the Bay, large finback whales moved rapidly in search of food. Looking North we spotted some splashing near race Point, our next destination. Race Point was named for its powerful crosscurrent, known as a ‘race’. It is here that the flow of the Atlantic meets the countercurrent of Cape Cod Bay, and where treacherous bars lurk beneath the water’s surface and hundreds of ships met their fate. The HMS Somerset, the most notable shipwreck near Race Point, is immortalized in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride.” In the waters of the Race we see spouts and Northern Gannets plunge diving for fish. The whales here are humpback whales and one is easily recognized by not only her tail pattern but by her method of feeding! Reflection, a female humpback whale, has returned to our waters with two calves; one born last year. She feeds by slapping her head and then tail on the water’s surface- a unique spin on a feeding ‘technique’ called kick-feeding.
Reflection and other humpbacks feeding
The afternoon track was much the same as the morning trip. We searched the bay and found harbor porpoise and finback whales. One of the finbacks had a large scar across its back and we recognized it as a whale sighted last year. Heading North towards the Race we sighted more finbacks and near the race, humpback whales. Reflection was kick-feeding in the waters of the rip, this time, with a small humpback whale named Tapioca. Gannets and gulls were abundant and seemed to be grasping small fish from the water as they fed near the whales. In the midst of it all, about one hundred Atlantic white-sided dolphins milled about, some with small calves by their side.
Atlantic white-sided dolphin mother and calf
Wednesday April 16 dawned bright and clear with little wind. The Bay and ocean seemed more like a lake. Again, several right whales were seen in the distance and spouts of finback whales and the small fins of harbor porpoise were everywhere we looked. We ventured out of the Bay to the southern edge of the Gerry Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Several humpback whales and dolphins were feeding in the nutrient-rich waters off the edge of the Bank. It is the dynamics between the physical and biological that vitalizes and maintains the Stellwagen system. Cold water constantly flows south from the Gulf of Maine distributing nutrients, plants and animals. Nutrients are also brought to the Bank by local currents that move east to west, driven by the tides. Underwater currents and tide form areas of upwelling as they are deflected off the walls of the Bank, bringing nutrient rich water to the surface. Microscopic plants multiply rapidly in the sunlit, nutrient rich waters, small animals rise from the depths to eat the plants, fish eat the tiny animals and in turn are eaten by other fish, seabirds and whales. We photographed Entropy, Glo, Lavaliere and Jabiru, all humpback whales that we knew from previous years.
On the afternoon whalewatch we moved through the Bay towards the southern edge of Stellwagen. We sighted six species of marine mammals: right, fin and humpback whales; harbor porpoise; white-sided dolphins; and a small harbor seal. The small seal looked odd and we realized on closer view that it was swimming on it back much like a sea otter. We sighted a few small humpback whales- all unknown- as well as Anchor, Ganesh and Filament, all females that returned with calves last year. The calves generally leave their mother’s side after one year or less. Occasionally, a calf will stay with its mother for two years but it is not a common occurrence. The water is so calm that we could see the striking color pattern of the white-sided dolphins as they swan near and under the boat.
Thurday morning is bright and clear and we are bound for Stellwagen Bank. On the way, we turn wide around Race Point- our spotter has sighted several North Atlantic right whales feeding in the waters off the Race. We give these rare whales a wide berth and move north to the Bank. On the edge of the Bank there is a flurry of activity. Clouds of gulls hover near the surface, gannets dive and whales surface, mouths open, to feed on small schooling fish called sand eels. Jabiru, first photographed in 2002, feeds through clouds of bubbles. Nearby are Reflection, Tapioca, Ganesh, Pices and Filament aswell as several, large finback whales.
Just off the edge of the Bank during our afternoon whalewatch, we spotted finback whales, humpback whales and countless numbers of gannets and gulls. Suddenly, a humpback whale lifts its tail in the air and slaps it on the water’s surface, a behavior called ‘kick feeding’. Soon a large cloud of bubbles turns the water a light green and two humpbacks surface, mouths open. We can see the baleen, a living strainer, hanging from the whale’s upper jaw. It will be used to strain the small fish out of the gallons of water inside its mouth. The fish are then swallowed whole. The whales dive again and we see by their tail pattern that we are watching Filament, Gannesh, Reflection, (all females) and Seal and Putter (both males). Two large humpback whales surface behind us. As they lift their tails to dive, we recognize two whales that have been sighted in our waters for several years: Glo and Isthmus. Both are large females and like all humpbacks, named after natural markings or scars on their body. Each name is descriptive, some requiring more imagination than others. The names are not gender related.
Feeding humpback whale
Friday, April 18 is bright and the seas remain calm. Our whalewatch takes us to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank in the midst of the Stellwagen bank national marine Sanctuary. An ocean treasure, the sanctuary was designated by Congress in 1992 and is one of only 13 sites deemed to be of such special national significance. In these productive waters, a myriad of marine life lives, from the single-celled plankton to the great whales. Among its most well known species are humpback and right whales, northern lobsters, Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna.
The Sanctuary is renown among the world’s premier whale watching destinations and is a repository of historic shipwrecks, including the side paddle-wheel steamship Portland, commonly referred to as “New England’s Titanic.” Approximately the size of the state of Rhode Island, the sanctuary includes the submerged lands of Stellwagen Bank, all of Tillie’s Bank and Basin, and the southern portions of Jeffrey’s Ledge. It rises up from depths of 600 feet (183 meters), leveling off at an average depth of 100 feet (30.5 meters) below the water’s surface. Here we find feeding humpback whales and fin whales and several North Atlantic right whales. While maneuvering at a safe distance from the right whales, we photograph several humpback whales including Filament, Moustache, Anchor, Blackhole, Tunguska and Putter.
We return to the Sanctuary in the afternoon. Although we saw only a few finback whales in the morning, there now are several feeding in the same area with the humpback whales. The finback whales occasionally lunge on their side, but for the most part, there is little evidence of their feeding behavior. The humpbacks however are kick-feeding, blow clouds or nets of bubbles and surface with mouths wide open- a great surface indicator that food is near the surface. Gulls try to catch the missed fish, some actually hitching a ride on the whale’s head. Fern, Thread, Ganesh, reaper, Blackhole and Tunguska seem to be thriving in the waters off our shore. It is time to return to port after an incredible first week of whalewatching!