September 22nd we left McMillan Pier under grey skies, but by mid-morning the sky had brightened up just in time to see a Minke whale right off of Race Point Beach in Provincetown. Known for their elusive behavior, Minke whales can be hard to get a look at and even harder to photograph, but we were able to get close enough to this one to see the characteristic, epaulette-like white dots on this smaller baleen whale’s pectoral flipper.
Further to the North, Apex and Tectonic exhibited a behavior known as logging. Named for the log-like appearance of humpback whales as they float on the surface of the water, this is thought to be a resting behavior. Whales are voluntary breathers and need to consciously decide to open their blowholes in order to exhale and inhale, rendering it impossible for their sleep patterns to follow that of a typical land mammal. Instead, we believe that they sleep with half of their brains at a time. As they rested and floated near the boat, we got an excellent chance to see their blow holes opening and closing with every breath.
September 23rd was bright and clear and naturalists aboard the Dolphin Fleet remarked on much of the airborne as well as marine life. Monarch butterflies flitted about the DolphinVI, probably blown off-course by the higher than average winds. Meanwhile, immature gannets dove head-head first into the water in order to procure their meals. These large seabirds are the largest birds commonly seen on our whale watches, with wing spans averaging around six feet!
We were also able to add another humpback mother and calf pair to our ever growing list for the season, when Staff and her calf were spotted by passengers aboard the Dolphin VII. Staff was first seen in 1984 and this is her eighth calf. As of mid-September, there were 67 confirmed humpback mother and calf pairs documented within the Gulf of Maine!
On September 24th we couldn’t resist stopping the boat near Race Point beach on both morning and afternoon trips when we saw the number of Minke whales that were charging through the area. While numerous in Stellwagen Bank for the greater part of the year, they can be challenging from a whale watcher’s point of view due to their great speed and short surfacings. Today, however, this was not a problem, as the fifteen to twenty Minkes in the area lunged through schools of fish near the surface of the water in great bursts of speed, kicking up spray and exciting the nearby common terns in the area.
Also feeding in the area where the impressive finback whales, two of which surfaced right next to the Dolphin VI during the morning trip, displaying the bright white pigmentation patterns on their lower right jaw.
Heading north, towards the Southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, we encountered Perseid and her calf. Perseid and her calf have been present in this area for the past week, and have been accompanied by a seemingly rotating combination of other humpback whales. This afternoon, Apex and Milkweed were observed with Perseid as Perseid’s calf thrilled Dolphin VI passengers by approaching the boat!
September 25th’s morning trip on the Dolphin VI was set apart from any other trip this week due to the enormous pod of Atlantic-white sided dolphins seen near the Southeastern corner of Stellwagen Bank. Most often, these animals are seen traveling in groups that range from 10 individuals to over 100 individuals. Today, these animals could be seen jumping and surfing in the wake of the boat everywhere we looked. Generally, we can assume that for every animal seen at the surface, there are two more below the surface, and this method is used to loosely estimate the number of individuals in a group. On this trip, we estimated that there were over one thousand animals within a half mile radius—certainly the largest pod some of us had ever seen!
While dolphins and other toothed whales tend to form pods, which are relatively stable, long term, familial and social groups, baleen whales, such as the humpback, don’t tend to have such stable social groups and the group surrounding Perseid and her calf has been a good example of that group fluctuation for the past few days. In the morning, Perseid and her calf were accompanied by Pele, Milkweed and Whisk.
Whisk and Milkweed
By the afternoon, however, the dolphins were nowhere to be seen, and Perseid’s group had changed structure again. While Pele had left, Apex, a mature female, had joined. With so many questions about what causes these animals to form and break-up their groups, the study of individual animals promises to raise and hopefully answer a number of important and fascinating questions.
September 26th-Perseid’s companions had changed again once the Dolphin VIII returned the next morning to find these two whales accompanied by Whisk, another mature female, as well as Crown, a humpback with very distinct entanglement scars. As we sat in an area east of Stellwagen Bank known as “The Triangle,” these whales swam back and forth beneath the boat, appearing on the bow as well as the stern of the Dolphin VIII.
Humpback off the bow
Humpback off the stern
After spending most of our morning with these whales as well as another group of three humpbacks, we started to head home. Passengers on our trip home learned to always keep an eye open, however, as we ran into a group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins on the return trip!
In the afternoon, the dolphins were nowhere to be found, but the presence of several hundred terns near Race Point suggested that we would probably find some active whales in “Finback Alley”. Terns use their sharp beaks to pick up fish near the surface of the water and are often seen plunge diving in order to obtain their food. Because terns and baleen whales both feed on small fish, they are often found in the same area, and today was no exception. As terns dove head-first into the water, Minke whales charged through schools of fish. Feeding behavior in finback whales can be a little bit more subtle, but fin whales tend to circle as they feed, and as they appeared to make a sharp turn with every surfacing, we assumed that they were after the same things that the Minkes and the terns were after, despite the enormous size discrepancy among the three animals.
On September 27th, Perseid’s calf kept up its reputation of gregarious surface behavior by chin breaching and tail breaching. When calves exhibit these various behaviors, scientists believe that it is probably some form of play. Many young mammals, including humans, of course, display play behavior, usually practicing for real-life situations. Adult humpback whales exhibit these dramatic behaviors as well, however, we don’t know what they mean when displayed by an adult.
Perseid’s calf tail breaches
Nearby, we located Draco and Whisk, two whales recently seen in the company of Perseid and her calf. We weren’t surprised to see that these animals had split from one another, as humpback whale groups don’t tend to stay together for very long at all.
On the way home, we were struck by the appearance of a smoky-looking mist forming over the water just by Race Point Light. Race Point is the place where the waters of Cape Cod Bay meet the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. Even adjunct water bodies can have very different characteristics, and frequently the boundaries between two water bodies can be very dynamic places. It’s not uncommon to see a turbulent patch right by Race Point as the tides and currents of these juxtaposed water bodies interact with one another. Such thick, smoky mist, however, is not often seen this early in the year, is more typical of winter than early fall. Checking the instrumentation on board, the captain discovered that there was an 11 degree temperature difference between the two water bodies, which must have contributed to this unusual atmospheric phenomenon.
September 28th’s morning trip started out with a small whale, probably a juvenile. As this whale was relatively elusive, we decided to see if we could find the group that we had been watching throughout the week. Perseid and her calf were with Draco, Milkweed, Whisk, and Conflux. Passengers looking off the port side of the Dolphin VII even got a chance to see Whisk breach!
Having spent almost a half an hour watching these whales surface and fluke, we decided to investigate the other spouts in the area, which turned out to be three more humpbacks including Trident’s 2006 calf. We were soon drawn back to the previous group of whales, however, as soon as it became clear that they had started to feed!
Humpback whales are largely opportunistic, and will feed during the day as well as the night. Recent research has even suggested that some of their nighttime feeding behaviors incorporate sounds in order to corral their food! This morning, however, they were using bubbles as a primary method of trapping their prey—millions of tiny sand lance that were visible to the naked eye swimming and schooling all around the Dolphin VII! In the photo below, you can just make out some of these small fish making a last ditch attempt to flee the enormous mouth of the humpback whale!
Sand Eels escaping!
Throughout the day, more whales moved into the area, lured by the enormous schools of fish, and employed other methods of trapping food. Below, a humpback whale named Isthmus “kick-feeds” or uses her tail to create bubbles and stun fish so she can then lunge through the stunned school with her mouth wide open
Humpbacks lunge through schools of fish
Perseid’s calf, still feeding on its mothers milk, stayed on the periphery of this feeding group of humpbacks, intermittently rolling and flipper slapping. Next year, Perseid’s calf will also be able to enjoy the bounty of food here in Stellwagen Bank.
Perseid’s calf rolling