- Research & Education
- Cape Cod
July 28th dawned bright and hazy, a beautiful summer day on Cape Cod. The Dolphin VI and VIII made way to the eastern edge of Stellwagen Bank where there was a report of feeding whales. Rounding Race Point, we passed by Race Point Beach and the Old Harbor Life Saving Station. Established in 1897, Old Harbor Life Saving Station was originally situated on Nauset Beach at the Chatham Harbor entrance. Topped by a large gable roof, one side of the building functioned as living space, containing a keeper’s room, office, kitchen and mess room with sleeping quarters above. A one-story, two-bay boat room occupied the other side and rising between the two sections along the front of the building is a four-story, lookout tower. The newly formed U.S. Coast Guard took over the duties of the U.S. Life-Saving Service in 1915 and Old Harbor Life Saving Station became known as Old Harbor Coast Guard Station until it was discontinued in 1944. It was purchased in 1947 and remained in private ownership until 1961, when the Cape Cod National Seashore was established. Threatened by extensive shoreline erosion, the Station was moved from Nauset Beach to Race Point Beach in 1977 and remains a reminder of the heroic efforts to save ship-wrecked passengers along our shores.
Lifesaving Station at Race Point
We continue on and a few miles east of the Bank we began to see spouts and splashes. On closer view, Minke, finback and several humpback whales were sighted. At first the whales seemed to be moving randomly. However forty-five minutes later they were concentrated in one area with several birds flying overhead. The humpback whales blew clouds and nets of bubbles, the finback whales lunged across the surface and small Minke whales darted about. It was a spectacular feeding frenzy. During the morning we watched several mothers and calves including Anchor, Filament, Isthmus, Reaper and Sickle. Other humpback sightings included Agassiz, Alpha, Calderas, Coral, Exclaim, Echo, Salt and a large male named Walrus. See if you can see the Walrus face in the center of this whale’s fluke.
Afternoon sightings were as spectacular as the feeding continued early on. While many of the same humpbacks were in the area, we also photographed Division, Giraffe, Mirror, Seal, Rapier and Wizard. Several finback whales were photographed as we begin to look more closely at the individuals that feed in Cape Cod waters each year.
By evening there was little surface feeding and fewer sightings of finback whales. Again the whales’ movements seemed random; the dive times longer. Agassiz, Alpha, Coral, Division, Dome, Entropy, Exclaim, Fern and calf, Isthmus and calf, Mirror, Rapier and Salt, Walrus still were east of Stellwagen Bank. A spectacular sunset completed our long day of whale watching.
July 29th was a bright and hazy day, and although our visibility was limited by the haze, it was a relief to be on the water, escaping the muggy weather on land. After taking a look at six different finback whales, several Minke whales and even a harbor seal, we headed East along the beach in search of the humpback whales that had been spotted earlier in an area east of Stellwagen Bank known as “The Triangle”. On our way, however, we were surprised to see a large number of tall, black dorsal fins moving swiftly through the water. “Are they dolphins?” we wondered, as we got closer. No, the dorsal fins were far too large and the heads were too rounded. Approaching the animals, it became immediately clear that what we were seeing was a group of long-finned pilot whales!
Pilot whales are a more common visitor to these waters in the late summer and early fall and are often seen traveling in groups numbering from tens to hundreds of individuals, pursuing small fish, or more commonly, squid. Pilot whales are sometimes called potheads, due to the broad, curved shapes of their heads. The name pilot whales probably is derived from the fact that they seem to follow a leader, or “pilot”, often a female, during their movements.
An unfortunate fact about the pilot whales traveling near Cape Cod is that they are particularly notorious for mass stranding events on beaches near Wellfleet. No one is quite sure why this happens with such frequency, but many people think that it might have something to do with the unusual, curved shape of the Cape which may be confusing. Some people have even put forth the idea that abnormalities in the Earth’s magnetic field in this area might be disruptive to these animals’ internal navigation systems.
Driving through Wellfleet on Route 6 during the summer, it is almost impossible to miss Blackfish Creek, referring to the fact that these whales, sometimes known as Blackfish, seem to gravitate toward the Wellfleet area.
Once we left the pilot whales, we went on to see our fourth whale species of the day, the humpback whale. Our trip was complete as Eden dramatically tail-breached in front of the boat!
Eden tail breaches
July 30 was another foggy day, so we decided to start our trip by heading East at Race Point, hugging the beach. Cape Cod was formed when the Laurentide ice sheet retreated and left behind a rocky deposit of sand and gravel. As such, the drop-off from the land to the ocean is very steep, and the vertical edge of the land is a perfect spot for upwellings to occur. The area between Race Point and Highland light is often known as “finback alley” because the upwelling that happens there is often the perfect place to find feeding finback whales.
Again this year, the Captains and naturalists of the Dolphin Fleet are making a considerable and steady effort to observe finback whales. The respective skills at both boat handling and camera handling are invaluable. Finbacks are easily overlooked by both field researchers and educators. The reasons for overlooking them are simple: they are fast and seemingly aloof. Even with excellent sightings, individuals are difficult to distinguish from one another. The technique of identifying individual finbacks is simple; recognize differences in pigment markings, dorsal fin size and shape and scar patterns. The difficulty is that the pigment markings are not highly contrasting black and white but rather many different shades of grey.
Blaze and chevron pigmentation on a finback whale
Dorsal fin and scar patterns are more obvious. But ultimately observers must come to grips with the finbacks speed. Finback whales can cruise up to 10 to 15 miles per hour. On occasion, they hit even higher bursts of speed. One day, our Captain tried unsuccessfully to get a look at a finback that was cruising at 16 knots (or 18 miles per hour). Not bad speed for a more than 60 foot long, 60 ton animal moving through water.
Nicks on finback dorsal fin
This year, we photographed finback whales sighted last year, including Spike, Loon and Scorpion and one large, well-recorded whale- Hercula, missing a dorsal fin-not photographed in 2006. This year Scorpion was photographed several times–with a calf by her side. Her thin and double nicked dorsal fin makes her easy to identify. Her only other recorded calf was sighted in 1985. Scorpion is one of the most consistently sighted finback whales in the Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank area, having been recorded here in at least 12 of the 25 years between 1981 and 2006.
July 31st – Frequent visitors to the Cape Cod area know that the weather can change in the blink of an eye, particularly when it comes to fog. Today was no exception. With fog banks rolling in and out of Stellwagen Bank, we had ranges of visibility between a quarter of a mile to 8 miles! The rain and fog on our morning trip hardly mattered, however, as we came across feeding humpback whales. Salt, Cardhu, Anvil and Tear fed voraciously and continuously, giving Dolphin Fleet whale watch passengers the chance to see humpbacks doing what they do best in Stellwagen Bank—eat!
Just like the weather, however, whale behavior can often vary from trip to trip, and by the afternoon, it was as if the feeding in the morning had readied our whales for an afternoon siesta! Bobbing dorsal fins speckled the glassy seas, as logging humpbacks floated near the surface. Although we don’t know whether or not whales sleep (dolphins in captivity have been known to sleep with half of their brains at a time), we suspect that the logging behavior of humpback whales is some form of rest. Humpback whales rest near the surface, moving only slightly to exhale and inhale every so often. A far cry from the active feeding behavior, logging can be just as exciting, giving whale watchers a chance to see the length of the humpback whale and its breathing apparatus at closer proximities.
Logging humpback whales
In the evening, the weather had cleared and feeding had commenced again. After a bright and clear evening of whale watching, we were amazed to see that during our time at sea, the fog bank had moved over Provincetown. Even at Long Point, the harbor was barely visible! After such a successful series of whale watches that day, however, such weather was hardly an issue.
August 1st– Visitors new to whale watching are often pleasantly surprised to learn that birds are also an important part of the Stellwagen Bank ecosystem and are frequently pointed out and emphasized by Dolphin Fleet naturalists, some of whom are bird experts. This becomes particularly evident when feeding baleen whales are present. Humpbacks, finbacks, Minkes, as well as winged visitors such as gulls, terns, shearwaters and jaegers have similar diets in the form of small, schooling fish, such as sand lance.
This was obvious on many of today’s trips. Humpback whales, including Echo, Salt, Filament, Onyx, Splice, and Dash-Dot blew clouds of bubbles to trap schools of fish. Birds in the area swooped down to scoop up any of the fish that had been driven to the surface by these bubble clouds.
Animals feeding in saltwater environments face a challenge in dealing with the excessive amounts of salt that inevitably end up in their systems. Whales deal with this by having proportionately larger and more efficient kidneys than land mammals. Baleen whales in particular are able to squeeze out a great deal of salt water as they feed by pushing it out of their mouths between their baleen plates.
Water drains between humpback whales’ baleen plates
Many pelagic birds, however, have external, tube-like nostrils which help the bird to secrete excess amounts of salt. Consequently, these birds can often be seen vigorously shaking their heads in attempts to shed their nostrils of excess liquid and salt.
August 2nd was another hazy, calm, day and we started the day by passing a tail-breaching humpback in favor of increased activity to the North. Our patience was rewarded when we came across Reaper’s calf rolling over, breaching, and flipper slapping. Most of the time, calves will stay by their mothers sides for the first year of their lives, but at this time of the year, many of these calves will begin to explore their independence. Indeed, once we had identified the whale as Reaper’s calf, we began to wonder where Reaper herself was.
A humpback calf rolls and flipper slaps
We didn’t have to wonder long. Soon we saw another breach several hundred yards away, this time from an adult humpback. As Reaper continued to breach, we saw her calf chin breach toward her. As they reunited, we left the area, in search of other whales. We were not disappointed. Pepper’s calf squirmed and rolled at the surface, testing out all the ways its seven month old body could move.
Pepper’s calf does yoga
Every so often, we see a calf that stays with its mother for longer than a year. This summer we noticed that Rapier’s 2006 calf was lingering by her side and we wondered when they would finally part ways. This occurred sometime during the past few weeks, as Rapier’s 2006 calf was spotted today in the absence of its mother.
The Dolphin VI also was treated to a large group of humpback whales, all congregated in the Triangle to feed. Ember, Cardhu, Salt, Trident, Dome, and Entropy were among the 35 to 40 humpbacks all feeding within a half-mile radius of one another.
Ember and friends
Although the whale watches were fantastic all day long, the evening trip on the Dolphin VII was truly a stand-out. Everywhere we looked, humpback whales were breaching, or leaping completely out of the water. Peninsula, Dash Dot, Fern, Fern’s 2007 calf, Dome, Rune, and Rune’s 2007 calf all wowed whale watchers by throwing their enormous bodies out of the water, landing with a towering wall of spray. Whether or not this was some sort of sophisticated and coordinated communication between the whales or whether or not this behavior was related to some other external factor, we can only wonder.
August 3rd started off with another morning of intense feeding activity from our humpback whales. Tear, Salt, Cardhu, Sirius, Alpha and Mirror were all observed feeding during the morning. Many people wonder when the best time to see feeding occurs, but truthfully, we see it just as often in the morning as we do in the evening.
Certainly, humpback behavior changes from trip to trip and today was no exception. Although the feeding had subsided by mid-day, activity continued. Tracer lobtailed, giving us good looks at both the dorsal and ventral side of the flukes. Passengers remarked that in Tracer’s case, the underside of the flukes closely resemble the dorsal side, making it difficult to tell if the whale was upside-down or right side up!
Division chin-breached in such a way that she actually managed to travel in a linear direction as she slapped her chin down over and over again. Scratch was also observed chin breaching on Friday afternoon, but what was particularly unusual about this was that she seemed to open her mouth every time her chin hit the water. One passenger suggested that perhaps in doing so, she was trying to extract something caught between her baleen. As we know so little about the reasons behind such behavior, a range of creative ideas are certainly welcomed!
Division chin breaches