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Naturalist Notebook 9 June to 15 June

June 9th was a gray day on Stellwagen Bank, it gave forth to an excellent day of whale watching.  On the morning trip we came across Pepper, one of the humpbacks that we’ve been watching since 1976, alongside her ninth calf.  Although Pepper is a grandmother, she is still returning with new calves every few years.  One of the questions we hope to eventually answer by our recognition of individuals is how many calves a humpback whale might have in her lifetime.  Some of our humpbacks have had over ten calves during the time that we’ve been watching them, and it’s quite possible that they’re capable of giving birth to even more! 



Pepper and her 9th Calf


In the afternoon, we came across another mother and calf pair, Perseid and her calf.  Perseid’s calf surprised us all by leaping out of the water right next to the Dolphin VIII.  While we still are unsure of why whales breach, in the case of Perseid’s calf, it may very well have been some sort of play behavior.  It’s typical for mammals to play by practicing behaviors that they will later use as adults, and as Perseid’s calf breached repeatedly, we were given an excellent opportunity to puzzle over why an adult whale might use this behavior.




Perseid's calf breaches



Perseid and her calf approach the boat


On June 10th  we were delighted to see a humpback whale named Regulus back in Stellwagen Bank, particularly as Regulus was an object of major concern several years ago, having been entangled spotted entangled in fishing gear.  Regulus has since shed the gear, but he serves as a reminder of many of the perils that our whales face, even in national marine sanctuaries like Stellwagen Bank.  It’s estimated that over fifty percent of humpback whales have had some sort of encounter with fishing gear, whether or not it has resulted in a long term entanglement.  Entanglements can impair a whale’s ability to feed and breathe, and the presence of lines on a whale’s body can cause infection and injury if it remains on the body.  We are always sure to carefully photograph whales that we know have been entangled in the past to make sure that they are recovering from their entanglement experience. 




Regulus' dorsal fin


June 11th  brought us to a number of humpbacks, including a whale named Tongs, who treated us to very close looks, even fluking right off the bowsprit.  At this point, the passengers were able to grasp the expansive width of the fluke, which sometimes reaches a fifteen foot span! 


Another highlight, particularly for the birdwatchers on board, was the return of one of our most common winged visitors to Stellwagen Bank—the Wilson’s storm petrel.  We often marvel at the length of the humpback whale’s migration, but the petrel has an arguable more impressive winter jaunt, traveling to islands off the coast of South America to nest and breed.  This is the only time that these birds spend on land.  The petrels are also notable for their diet.  While most birds in Stellwagen Bank are feeding on the same small schooling fish that our humpbacks eat, the diet of the petrel is more comparable to that of the North Atlantic right whale.  Both of these animals, one weighing a mere few ounces, the other weighing sixty tons, acquire their nutrients from tiny pieces of zooplankton in the form of copepods, which are shrimp-like crustaceans the size of a flea.  To many people, the return of the petrels to the North Atlantic signal the fact that summer is really here. 


On June 12th, our first sighting was a Minke whale.  Minke whales are small for baleen whales.  They can reach lengths of thirty feet, but in Stellwagen Bank, many of them are significantly smaller.  In fact, most of the Minke whales in the Gulf of Maine are thought to be juveniles.  Minke whales can be easily overlooked by whalewatchers because they are very fast and elusive, and don’t tend to spend the same amount of time engaging in surface behaviors as humpbacks, for example, do.  However, this particular Minke whale proved us wrong and shocked everyone on the boat by breaching!



Breaching Minke whale


Rougher seas and windy weather seem to elicit more breaching from Minke whales.  While humpback whales can be observed breaching in most any kind of weather, Minke’s are rarely seen in this type of behavior.  This leads many researchers to believe that maybe breaching is a way for these whales to make sure that they get themselves far enough out of the water to breathe on windy days.  Perhaps it helps them to move through stormy seas more efficiently also.  Either way, those passengers who witnessed the breach will not soon forget the sight of the torpedo-shaped whale launching itself through the waves.


June 13th was too stormy for whale watching, but by June 14th, Dolphin Fleet passengers were ready to brave the seas, and our passengers were treated to two species of baleen whales on our noontime trip.  Our first sighting consisted of one or two finback whales, which are the second largest animal on the planet.  After grabbing a few looks at the finbacks, we came across Lace, a humpback whale, who was fluking and displaying the lace-like pattern on the underside of her fluke. 


The afternoon trip brought us to many more humpbacks, including Photon and her calf. 

We also came across a humpback whale named Tofu.  Tofu was named for the almost all-white pattern on its fluke.  Tofu is two years old and was born to a female named Isthmus.  In the rough seas, Tofu appeared to be fighting against the surf at the surface of the water. 



Tofu in rough seas


By June 15th the wind had died down a bit but the seas were still churning.  Luckily, we were able to find active humpbacks in their usual stomping grounds.  Perseid and her calf started off the day by breaching several times, much to the delight of Dolphin VIII passengers.  Later, Milkweed and Falcon were observed traveling together.  Finally, we came across a humpback tail breaching.  When a whale tail breaches, it throws its tail out of the water and slams it back onto the surface of the water.  While we were able to identify most of the other whales in the area that day, including Dash Dot, Garland, and Thread, there were others whose identities remained a mystery.  If these whales remain unidentified and they continue to return to Stellwagen Bank in subsequent years, they will most likely receive names.  Until then, we will add them to our growing list of individual humpbacks who are using the vast productivity of Stellwagen Bank to feed.