- Research & Education
- Cape Cod
The skies are bright and clear as we leave Provincetown Harbor for our morning whale watches. The wind is light from the northwest wind and the seas calm; our destination is Stellwagen Bank. Once on the Bank we spotted spouts of humpback whales scattered about and only a few miles away. As we decreased our speed to look at the humpbacks, small Minke whales darted by, leaving behind only fluke prints. Nearby, Pepper surfaced with her ninth calf by her side. Also in the area was a mature female named Whisk and a seven year old named Milkweed. The whales seemed to stay in the general area with no signs of surface feeding. Percussion and Weave also surfaced nearby- a few breaths and tails in the air as they dove beneath the water’s surface. As we looked ahead, gulls and a few shearwaters seemed to gather and as quickly, two humpback whales, Simian and a new unknown of this year, began to surface feed. It was a perfect ending to a beautiful morning offshore.
By early afternoon the whales had moved further north and were fewer in number. We resighted Pepper and her calf and watched as the calf continually tail breached- jumping tail first out of the water. We also sighted another of some 39 new whales, first photographed this year. One small Minke swam by to complete the sightings.
A Minke whale surfaces
Pepper and calf
On our afternoon whale watch the Dolphin VIII headed east to search for whales. We photographed a large male named Coral, named after the black, parallel scars on his fluke. Coral was born to Silver in 1988, a few years before she died of an entanglement. Pinch and two other newly sighted whales were in the area as well as Scratch and her eighth calf. Although the winds were light, a 2-3′ ocean swell made us realize we were on the open ocean.
The distinctive tail pattern of Coral
Our sunset watch took us to the Bank where we saw several whales from the morning trip, including Weave and Percussion. We also sighted Fragment as well as Nile with her third calf, a third generation. Nile tail breached and lobtailed as she and the calf swam slowly southward. Although there were several greater and sooty shearwaters and herring gulls in the area, there was little evidence of feeding.
A tail breach from Nile
Under sunny, bright conditions we left the harbor for an early morning whale watch. As we round the breakwater, we can see the narrow hook of sand and striking white lighthouse ahead; Long Point, the very last tip of land in Massachusetts is the curled fingertips of Cape Cod. The Long Point lighthouse has illuminated the entrance to Provincetown Harbor since the early 1800’s. The first light, built in 1826, consisted of a tower and lantern room built on the roof of the keeper’s house. Its white light was visible for 13 nautical miles. The lamp was replaced with a lens in 1856, just before the building of 2 Civil war forts in anticipation of a rebel blockade of the bustling harbor. As the war progressed with no evidence of attack, the fortifications became known as Fort Useless and Fort Ridiculous and are so named in history books. From 1818 until about 1860 a community of fishermen and families established a salt works and fishing colony on Long Point. In the late 1840’s, over 200 people resided there and over 60 children attended a schoolhouse built on the point. By 1861only 2 houses and the school remained; many of the houses were floated over on scows to what we now call the west end of Provincetown. These houses are known today by the white and blue ceramic tiles they display. Today, the lighthouse has no keeper, solar panels power the lenses and its bright green light remains an active navigation aid.
Long Point Light
This morning we travel to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank and sight seven humpback whales: Pepper and her calf, Venom, Whisk, Milkweed and two new (in 2007) unknown whales. The whales seemed to move randomly through the area dotted with the highfliers of lobster buoys. While not spending much time on the surface, the whales, including Pepper’s calf, lift their tails high in the air before disappearing beneath the surface.
Curious about other areas near the Bank, the crew of the DVIII explores an area off the southeastern edge of the Bank. Their effort was rewarded as several humpback whales were sighted including Coral, Putter, Firefly’s 2005 calf, and two large females, Columbia and Salt. Salt, a grandmother and mother of 10, was named in 1976 by the late Aaron Avellar, a Dolphin Fleet captain, after the white, granular ridge on her dorsal fin. And she can be recognized at a fair distance. Our captain today is Aaron’s son Chad, back from a few months at sea on his first whale watch this year. Chad now names Salt calves, maintaining a long family tradition. As we leave the Bank, the whales are moving steadily to the North as we begin our journey home.
Salt’s dorsal fin
Our afternoon and sunset trips all take us east of Bank where several humpbacks and a few Minke whales are sighted. While most of the humpbacks are either logging (resting) or slowly traveling, a Minke whale surprises all by jumping out of the water- a rare and exciting sight! Humpback sightings included several large females-Salt, Tornado, Echo, and Columbia- as well as new unknowns and Milkweed. It was our first view of Tulip this year, who returned with her fifth calf.
Another bright, beautiful day for whale watching- and one filled with sightings of mothers and calves- most sighted on the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank. In the morning we found Scratch, Firefly, Reflection and their calves, moving about the edge of the Bank. Barb, a male born in 1987 and Sloop, a female born in 1987 and a mother of two, were traveling together, occasionally lifting their tails in the air. While her calf was slowing traveling, Scratch began to breach (jump) and tail breach. A powerful, graceful leap followed by a resounding splash on the surface.
All of the calves of 2007 will be named in the spring of 2009 IF they are sighted in 2008. The new, unknown (no sighting history) whales of 2007 will be named in the spring of next year. 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.
Pepper’s calf will be named in 2009 if sighted in 2008
Scientifically, following individuals of any species throughout their life is the key to answering basic, biological questions. To date, over 1,800 humpback whales, spanning at least 4 generations, have been documented during more than 30 years of data collection aboard the Dolphin Fleet. While we do not know how old humpback whales live to be, we do know that they can reach sexual maturity at an early age and have documented each year they return with a calf. The answers to basic questions are necessary to not only better understand the species, but to promote their protection and conservation.
Later in the afternoon, Pinch, Tongs, Reflection and her calf, Jabiru, Compass, Trident, Columbia, Percussion, Circus and Weave were sighted. Again, most of the whales appeared to be slowly traveling, spending little time on the surface. The late afternoon light highlights the spouts as they hang in the air, a constant reminder of our living oceans.
The weather continues to be perfect as we leave for our morning whale watches. We head east, to an area where we sighted whales the evening before- never a guarantee that they will still be there! But again we see humpbacks and Minke whales. The humpback whales again were traveling with the exception of Bullet and her fourth calf who breached and lobtailed continually. Also in the area were Firefly and her calf, Dome, Whisk, Obtuse and Milkweed. Whisk and Milkweed often have been seen associating with mother/ calf pairs this week.
Our afternoon sightings were as remarkable as those of the morning. Several humpback whales were in an area east of the Bank. Dome, Sloop, Columbia, all large females and Bullet and Lavaliere with their calves. Lavaliere’s calf rolled along the surface as mom swam close by. Last week, this small calf was over 1/2 mile away from Lavaliere and appeared to be feeding- alongside two large finback whales!
On our evening watches, Garland, a male first photographed in 1988, was flipper slapping and breaching. Sloop and Columbia were resighted as well as Milkweed and Whisk, who accompanied Firefly and calf. All in all, it was a great, energetic day of whale watching.
4th of July
The day started off bright but with weather predictions of rain and storms to come. We sailed east, off of Highland Light in Truro and sighted finback whales, Minke whales and humpback whales. The finback whales were swimming fast and to us randomly. Suddenly, one of the whales turned and lunged across the water’s surface, mouth open. Finback whales feed in fifth gear and seem to part the seas as they engulf thousands of gallons of bait-filled water into their mouths. Two humpback whales, Sloop and Fracture blew occasional bubble clouds. Sloop is easy to recognize by her feeding behavior- she slaps her head on the water’s surface before diving and blowing a cloud of bubbles.
A finback lunges off Peaked Hill
By afternoon there were reports of whales on the Bank. As out east, there were three species in the area: finbacks, humpbacks and Minkes. Anvil, a large female was breaching, flipper slapping, lobtailing and tail breaching. All exciting behaviors to watch, but ones we know little about. On the way back to Provincetown, a Minke whale breached- a perfect end to the afternoon watch.
We returned to the Bank for the sunset whale watches. The whales continued to be active. Banyon, born to Glo in 1998 was breaching and flipper slapping. Garland and Doric were in the area and occasionally would slap their flippers on the surfaced as they traveled along. Other humpbacks in the area included Fracture, Whisk, Milkweed and Percussion. And, another breaching Minke! We returned to Provincetown to watch the fireworks – they were spectacular despite the rain showers.
Despite a busy schedule we decided to cancel all trips due to the high southwesterly winds and predicted high seas.
The morning was grey and fog covered the Pilgrims Monument in Provincetown. However, a land station survey showed visibility offshore and we left on three morning whale watches. Today we ventured to the area of Stellwagen near the old shipping lane and found a group of three humpback whales: Whisk, Dashdot and Etchasketch. Etchasketch was born to Thalassa in 1998 and is one of Salt’s grandcalves. As we traveled down the bank we could see more birds and surface activity. The humpback whales were surfacing feeding. Clouds and nets of bubbles, mouths open, birds hovering, and fast movement. We photographed Rocker, Sloop and Anchor and her fourth calf in the group of feeding whales.
Surface feeding humpback whales
In the afternoon the feeding continued. Sloop, Anchor and calf, Nimbus, Seal, Fracture, Tongs, Weave, Compass, Sirius, Tear, Seal and Reflection and calf were surface feeding. Some whales were kick feeding, slapping their tails (or sometimes heads!) on the surface before diving and blowing a cloud or ring of bubbles. It was a spectacular view of perhaps the most interesting of all humpback behaviors.
By sunset the whales had moved southeast but still were actively feeding. Reflection and calf were accompanied by Colt and Sloop and Tongs, Sirius, Jabiru, Rapier and her 2006 calf, Etchasketch and Pipette. It was an exciting end to a spectacular week of whale watching.
Reflection and calf