The 2012 season kicked off on April 12 aboard the Dolphin VIII. It was clear and cold with winds blowing from the NNE, and as we made our way out to Stellwagen Bank we watched dozens of plunge diving gannets drop from the sky in Cape Cod Bay all the way out to Race Point.
On the morning trip, we were mugged by a solo humpback very curious about the boat. Suddenly, there were three humpbacks circling the boat! We also found one juvenile grey seal hanging out in a patch of seaweed. Young animals will play in plant matter and other objects at the surface to explore and learn about their environment.
In the afternoon, we found Reflection, a female humpback, feeding in the Race Point rip. Nearby, there was a small entourage of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. The group consisted of about 11 – 16 individuals and were no doubt attracted to the same patch of food that had lured Reflection to the area. As the day went on, we saw a total of 7 – 11 humpback whales, including Storm, Fern, and Mostaza. Many of the humpbacks were small and it was hard to keep track of these juveniles as they embarked on long dives.
We even had the opportunity to catch a glimpse of a critically-endangered North Atlantic right whale. The animals that we see in Cape Cod Bay are part of a global population consisting of less than 500 individuals. Due to their vulnerability to ship strikes, we are barred by federal law from approaching them within 500 yards, but occasionally when they surface, we are able to get a quick look.
North Atlantic right whale
April 13 was another chilly one with moderate winds out of the Northwest. We had small groups of Atlantic white-sided dolphins everywhere, often times right up along side the whales. Getting to see these whales and dolphins cavort next to one another accentuated the enormity of our baleen whales. Dolphins, about 8 feet in length are dwarfed by our 35 – 45 foot humpbacks!
One of the dolphins had a tag on its dorsal fin, indicating that it was probably one of the individuals that successfully rescued from a stranding this winter. IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue and Research Team had a busy winter as reports of cetacean strandings were high on Cape Cod. In some cases, researchers will tag dolphins to track their progress after they have been re-released into the wild. We tried to get a picture of this dolphin’s tag to send to the research team, but it was moving too fast!
Dolphins and fin whales were prevalent throughout Cape Cod Bay, with one enormous fin whale surfacing right next to the Dolphin VIII.
Reflection, proving to be our most-seen whale so far this season, seemed to be everywhere today. In the morning, she was seen kick-feeding near Race Point. We relocated her there in the afternoon, but soon after she moved fast to the south. Many humpbacks, including Midnight and Blackboard were seen feeding very close to the beach.
For bird enthusiasts, Cape Cod Bay has been just as exciting, with a sighting of two razorbills. Other birds seen early this spring include occasional sightings of surf scoters and black scoters. Red-breasted mergansers, easily identified by the spiky tufts of feathers on their head are still seen pretty regularly in the Bay, along with Common Loons. We are still having fairly regular sightings of Iceland and occcasional sightings of Glaucous gulls between Long Point and Wood End.
April 14th was characterized by calm seas and light, warm winds from the Southwest. On our way out to Stellwagen Bank, we spotted several fin whales and a few Minke whales in the bay, with a small group of dolphins scattered among the larger whales. As we passed Race Point Light we saw that the beach was a busy place, with whale watchers lined up along shore watching whales with through their binoculars!
Even without binoculars, from shore it was easy to see diving gannets and three humpback whales feeding in the Race Point Rip. Although we watched a fleet of kayaks near the Race Point, we want to remind people that all boaters should make sure to keep a safe distance from whales, especially if they are feeding, even if you don’t have a motor!
Just around the corner, Bombay was kick-feeding along side of three smaller humpbacks close to shore. Nearby, the kick-feeding continued. Reflection was back in action and was joined by Gladiator.
On our second trip, we had our first sighting right away with a harbor porpoise in, you guessed it, the harbor. We only saw it from a distance, but these small cetaceans are rather elusive and hard to spot. As we made our way out to Stellwagen, we once again had a number of dolphins scattered in small groups throughout the bay.
After watching the dolphins for a few minutes, we had a group of three fin whales surface among the dolphins. In behavior somewhat uncharacteristic of fin whales, they stayed at the surface for a relatively long time, giving us time to notice that one had a rather fresh propeller wound on its back. Sadly, even these fast-moving “greyhounds of the sea” can’t always escape the frequent boat traffic in and around Cape Cod.
The wind picked up in the evening making the seas choppy for our April 15th trip. On our way out, we saw a few spouts in the bay on our way out, but had our first really satisfying sighting of Blackboard and Storm at Race Point.
We ventured offshore to get out of the chop, and as soon as we made the turn at Race Point, we saw a mass of birds in the distance. Large groups of diving birds often lead us to feeding whales, and sure enough, we found Echo and Division kick-feeding in one spot, and Ventisca kick-feeding with two smaller unknown just a few hundred feed away. Ventisca is easily recognized by her solid white dorsal fin.
In the afternoon, we were excited to document the first humpback mother and calf of the season! Mural was back with her calf after a winter calving season off the coast of the Dominican Republic. These intrepid humpback moms travel over 6,000 miles round trip without eating a single morsel of food before returning to the feeding grounds with their calves in the spring and summer. Mural’s calf was tiny and squirmy and not at all afraid of the boat. Most humpbacks are born in the first few months of the year so this tiny calf is no more than 4 months old!
Hazy skies and a sweet chop did not hide several groups of normally-evasive harbor porpoise bobbing just at the surface on April 16, nor did it interfere with our ability to locate two fin whales. Each fin whale was traveling on its own, aside for a small groups of dolphins following in their wakes. Several Minke whales also made brief appearances as we tried to predict where the fin whales would pop up next.
We squinted through the haze and found three female humpbacks, Ventisca, Hancock and Cajun. Humpbacks don’t always travel in groups, but it is not uncommon to see small groups of humpbacks traveling together for short periods of time. As they get older, humpbacks are more likely to travel together.
At one point during the trip, we saw three humpbacks breach in the distance, while in a different direction, a single humpback began to flipper. While the humpbacks waited for the humpbacks to resurface, a common loon passed by. Spring is a great time to see interesting birds, including loons, scoters, mergansers and various gulls. Below is a photo of one of our year-round bird residents, the cormorant. Cormorants are deep divers who can dive up to 125 feet in search of their prey.
On our way back to shore, we passed a small group of harbor seals hauled out on Long Point, ending a great trip out to Stellwagen Bank!
April 17th was warm and beautiful, with glassy, calm seas. Seals were still visible on Long Point as we headed out of Provincetown Harbor where we also had great looks at several Harbor porpoise. Not long into the trip, we found Bombay, a twelve year old humpback whale, kick-feeding at Race Point.
We went further offshore, but the whales seemed scarce, and as we waited, it turns out that they were just diving for long periods of time. We finally had good looks at Screwdriver and Circus, who surfaced nearby.
Luckily, several groups of dolphins stayed with the boat, so there was always something to look at. The flat-calm seas allowed us to watch them dart and dash beneath the surface.
We could also see two North Atlantic right whales in the distance, although we could not approach them, as federal law prohibits approaching them within 500 yards. These animals were skim-feeding, meaning that their heads were out of the water and their mouths were open. Despite their enormous size, these whales feed on calorie-rich zooplankton called copepods, which are smaller than a grain of rice. They swim forward with open mouths, trapping these copepods in their fine, fringe-like baleen. It’s estimated that they need between 400,000 – 4,000,000 calories per day in order to survive! On our way back in on our afternoon trip, we even found one of these animals skim feeding in the harbor, right by the breakwater!
After seeing our first mom/calf humpback pair earlier in the week, were especially excited to see a mother/calf fin whale. While we know a lot about what goes on in humpback breeding grounds, we have no idea where fin whales give birth to their calves. Sightings of fin whale calves are much more rare.
April 18 was a crisp spring day, with a chilly breeze characteristic of this time of year. We found that we didn’t even have to leave Cape Cod Bay to find an abundance of whale and dolphins, right between Wood End and Race Point. In the morning, we noticed on our depth-sounder or “fish finder” in the wheel house that there were large patches of bait near the bottom. Surface movements of the whales were consistent with feeding at depth, with brief appearances at the surface followed by long dives.
Things had changed by the afternoon where we found that most of the action was taking place at the surface. Both humpbacks and fin whales lunged through schools of beach all around the vessel, to everyone’s delight. The dolphins, gannets and gulls all took their turns plucking off individual fish, further and adding to the excitement. Even the wind and growing cloud cover went virtually unnoticed as we watched all of this activity taking place.
As they surfaced and lunged, we were able to get several good identification shots of our fin whales, who are notoriously more difficult to track as individuals. They can be identified by the silver patches near their jaw and blowhole, known as the blaze and chevron pattern, as well as by the size and shape of their dorsal fin.
So far this season, we have identified Belt, who was first seen in 2006 and has been seen every year since then. We have also documented a male named Furrow who has not been photographed by the Dolphin Fleet since 2008, but who has been seen occasionally in these waters since 1985.