For the past few weeks I have been watching whales from the beaches of Provincetown, both in Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. On one particularly calm morning I drove to race Point Beach to look for whales. I no sooner stepped out of my car when I heard a loud, vacuous sound- the blow of a North Atlantic Right whale. I hurried up the path to the beach and sighted a mother and calf swimming slowly, parallel to the shore. I walked to the waters edge and then paralleled the whales as they swam towards the race. It is perhaps one of the greatest thrills for a whale watcher to be able to walk along the shore with these magnificent, rare whales, sharing time and space, each in our own environment.
harbor seals resting on the beach
14 to 20 April
Opening day is here at last! The Dolphin VIII has been worked on all winter by her Captains and is fit and ready for the 2007 whale watch season, our 32nd year. The day is bright with Northwesterly winds and passenger and crew alike are dressed for winter weather. We are anxious to see both whales and sea birds and are not disappointed. Near long Point, the last tip of land in Massachusetts, Northern Gannets fly, a startling white contrast to the deep green seas. Mature gannets are brilliant white with black wing-tips, yellow coloration on their head and blue eyes. Their wing-span is about 6’ although they appear smaller when viewed from a 100’ vessel like the Dolphin VIII. Hovering high in the air the gannets dive directly toward the water, folding their wings just before plunging. They can dive up to 30’.
In the distance tall spouts loom above the horizon and we move further into Cape Cod Bay. We move slowly as this is a prime time to view one of the rarest mammals on earth, the endangered North Atlantic right whale. Our spotter points out a low spout less than one mile away. It is a right whale- so we drift at a distance to view this remarkable creature. It appears to us as a giant island surfacing, smooth and dark with no fin on its back and curious light-colored mottling on its head. These areas are called callosities and are hardened spikes of skin. They appear where one is likely to see facial hair on humans- on the jaw, chin, below the nostrils and above the eyes. Anchored in these callosities are thousands of whale lice which give the patches a yellowish tint. Each right whale has a distinctive pattern of callosities and researchers are able to identify individuals by these patterns and learn about life histories. A hush has settled over the passengers as we watch this animal- one that future generations may never have a chance to see. But as the right whale arches and dives, lifting its smooth, expansive tail high out of the water, the cameras click, the air is filled with our sounds of awe and appreciation.
We continue on to find other whale species. At last we see the tall spouts of finback whales, then an arch of a back indicating a deep dive. We stop the Dolphin VIII and wait for the whales to surface. Today, it seems as if they will stay down forever. Twenty minutes later we hear a loud whoosh! A large fin whale surfaces nearby startling us all. Its long, sleek body seems to slide through the water with little to no resistance. After a few breaths, the whale arches and again slips beneath the water’s surface. The fin whale, second in size to the giant blue whale, is long, streamlined and one of the fastest baleen whales.
During the afternoon whale watch we find two other species of whale: the small harbor porpoise and a humpback whale.
The harbor porpoise is a toothed whale that ranges in size from 4 to 6 feet. They are inconspicuous and not likely to venture near the boat. With persistence, 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 that are feeding on zooplankton. The porpoise grabs the fish with its teeth and swallows it whole.
Atlantic white-sided dolphins
Our first humpback whale sighting of the year was a small whale named Spring. Spring appeared to be floating on the waters’ surface, a behavior called logging; perhaps a resting phase. After a few minutes, Spring surfaced head-first. Called spyhopping even though the whale’s eyes are not always visible- it is one of the many whale behaviors that remain a mystery to scientists. As Spring rolled on its side, we could see the distinctive black and white pattern of the tail- called a fluke.
Individual humpback whales can be identified readily through photographs of natural markings and scars, particularly those found on the underside of the tail flukes. These patterns, ranging in color from all white to all black, appear to be generally stable in adults, much like our thumbprints. The size and shape of the dorsal fin on the whales’ back, as well as acquired scars also are useful in identifying individual whales. To date, over 1,800 humpback whales, spanning at least 4 generations, have been documented during 31 years of data collection aboard the Dolphin Fleet.
As we head back to shore we listen to the marine forecast- a huge northeaster is heading our way and the Dolphin VIII will sit at the dock for the next five days!
On 20 April we head into the Bay, anxious to see whales and seabirds after days on shore. While mature gannets and common loons are abundant, it is several minutes before we find our first whale. We see the spouts of two finback whales and wait twenty minutes for them to surface. One spout and down, twenty more minutes go by. Despite the calm winds the seas are high from the storm of the last few days. We move towards Race Point and finally back to port for our afternoon whale watch.
By afternoon the seas are calm and the sightings more abundant. North Atlantic right whales spout in the distance, there are fleeting views of harbor porpoise and excellent sightings of finback whales.
Deep in the Bay we find our first mother/calf pair of finback whales. We watch and photograph, hoping to be able to identify the small calf if it returns to these waters in coming years. The body of finback whales is light gray to brownish-black on the back and sides. The lower jaw, gray or black on the left side, is bright white on the right side giving the finback whale the distinction of being the only animal divided in half- lengthwise- by color. Swirls of light color arise from the white jaw, giving this elegant whale a marbled appearance. This asymmetrical coloration extends to the whale’s baleen plates as well. The prominent dorsal fin, located 2/3 down its back, is sickle-shaped.
Once again it is time to head home. Our first week of whale watching has come to an end.