July 14th was a calm and hazy—a perfect day to be out on the water rather than on land, where it was hot and humid. On a morning trip, finbacks were identified in the distance on account of their tall, columnar spouts and long, sleek bodies. Despite the presence of these beautiful animals, the captain was intrigued by some whitewater on the horizon. Sure enough, as we approached, we came across Eden, a humpback, who was lobtailing, or repeatedly smacking her tail on the water. Eden was the first great-grand calf observed since we’ve been following humpback whale genealogy in Stellwagen Bank!
Later in the afternoon, our humpback whales had become more active, many of them congregating in the center of Stellwagen Bank to feed. In general, large groups of humpbacks are not observed in one discrete location unless there is an enormous amount of food in that particular area. Today, that seemed to be the case. Trident, Echo, Columbia, Underline, and Percussion were all blowing bubbles from their blowholes to create bubble nets which would trap and confuse fish, so they could ultimately lunge through these bubble clouds and emerge with an enormous mouthful. Abrasion, instead of blowing bubbles, was kickfeeding, or using his tail to stun and confuse fish. In the photo below, notice Abrasion’s strong, powerful tailstock as well as the baleen hanging down from his upper jaw as he strains water through his baleen plates.
Abrasion uses his tail to create bubbles and stun fish
Abrasion lunges through a school of fish
On July 15th, the wind had picked up but the whales remained active. We took particular note of the fact that Salt and Cardhu were still traveling together. Salt and Cardhu are both female whales that we have been watching since the 1970s. Both of them gave birth to calves last year and have been observed in association with one another quite a bit this summer. For the most part, associations between humpback whale tend to be short-term and relatively unstable, but for whatever reason, these two are choosing to travel together for longer periods of time than expected.
This prevalence of short, unstable groups was particularly evident on the morning’s trip, and the naturalist noted that it was whales like Tongs, Fracture, and Colt kept coming together and separating, continually changing associations.
An exciting morning trip on July 16th brought us to four different cetacean species! After getting excellent looks at a Minke and a 3 finback whales, we stopped with Roswell, a female humpback and her calf. Finally, an unidentified humpback whale was observed traveling with 5-7 Atlantic white-sided dolphins!
Later in the day, several humpback whale sightings reminded us of our impact on our cetacean populations. Springboard, a humpback whale, was observed with squid gear embedded in its body. Later, Timberline was also observed with fishing gear on its body. Over 60% of humpback whales show signs of encounters with fishing gear, and entanglements can range from the benign to the severe, sometimes impairing feeding or breathing. Fisherman and scientists alike are currently working on new and innovative ways to improve fishing gear to prevent accidents like these from occurring, but sightings of Timberline and Springboard remind us of the urgency of this problem.
Timberline with gear
Visit www.smartgear.org for information on a contest which includes rewards of up to $30,000 for innovative ideas on how to reduce fisheries bycatch!
July 17th brought us to a humpback with an unidentified injury. Tectonic, a humpback whale, now has a large piece missing from his right fluke. Whether or not this was from a human source, such as an entanglement or encounter with a boat propeller, or whether it was from a shark bite, we are not sure. What we are sure of, however, is that this injury occurred during the past year.
On a happier note, Tuesday’s trips allowed us the opportunity to see a number of mother and calf pairs, including Reaper and her calf. As we stopped the boat, Reaper and her calf swam back and forth beneath the bowsprit, delighting passengers aboard the Dolphin VII!
Reaper near the bowsprit
A large aggregation of humpbacks later in the afternoon gave us the opportunity to see many mother and calf pairs in the same area. Staff, Anchor, and Perseid all searched for food as their calves played at the surface. Still too young to feed on fish, calves will play and observe their mothers until it is time to wean themselves from their mother’s rich milk.
On June 18th, we found ourselves on Stellwagen Bank, encased in fog. Passengers wondered whether or not we would be able to find anything with such limited visibility. Stopping in an area east of Stellwagen Bank where whales had been spotted the evening before, we stopped the boat and turned off the engines and waited, silently, hoping to hear the distinct exhalation of a large whale. When whales come to the surface and exhale, the air in their lungs is depressurized, creating an unmistakable sound that can be heard from hundreds of feet away, particularly on calm days.
Luckily, we happened upon Roswell and her calf. As Roswell fed intermittently, kick feeding and open mouth lunging through schools of fish, her calf, no more than 6-7 months old, approached the boat, frequently rolling around on his back.
Roswell and calf
Soon afterward, Putter, a large male, joined the two and started to feed with Roswell. Noting the presence of bait fish on the depth sounder, we decided that this was a great time to do a plankton tow, which is attempted on every Dolphin Fleet boat once a day, time and weather permitting.
Because the humpbacks in the area eat small fish, and these fish feed predominantly on plankton, we like to sample the plankton in the area to give a more complete picture of the food web interactions in Stellwagen Bank. Today’s plankton sample was thick with copepods, which are shrimp-like crustaceans, demonstrating once again that there is a vast array of life in Stellwagen Bank.
Our intern, Daniel, with the plankton sample
By June 19th, the fog was still heavy over Stellwagen Bank and we had no choice but to repeat the efforts of yesterday by returning to the same general area and hoping that the whales hadn’t traveled too far.
Listening closely, we could discern that there were a number of whales in the area, but with less than 200 feet of visibility, we weren’t sure if we were keeping after the same whale, or changing directions every time a new whale spouted. Finally, it became clear why we were having so much trouble tracking down the whale. A finback whale surfaced off the bow, looking even more enormous emerging from the fog. Finback whales often swim in circles as they feed. No wonder we felt like we, too, were going in circles!
After heading north, the fog cleared enough such that we could see almost a dozen whales feeding everywhere! Our diligent watching and listening had paid off, and Dolphin Fleet passengers were treated to spectacular views of feeding humpbacks, including Underline, Calderas, Eden, and Cygnus!
By Friday, June 20th, the fog had lifted and we had incredible humpback whale sightings on every trip. In the morning, Pepper’s new calf was rolling around on his back and lobtailing! Humpback whale calves stay with their mothers for about one year before they venture out on their own. In general, it’s rare to see a calf leave its mother’s side at all. Pepper’s calf, however, has been spotted on several occasions, playing at the surface for long periods of time before we get a glimpse of Pepper herself. We’ve been watching Pepper since 1976, and she has had nine calves since then, so by this time, she is an experience parent, and her calf’s apparent independence seems to reflect this.
On the afternoon’s trip, we saw Habeñero, another one of Pepper’s calves from 2001. In general, humpback whales come back to the same feeding grounds year after year, affording us the chance to see members of the same humpback whale families year after year!