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Naturalist Notebook: April 12 to April 19

Welcome to the Dolphin Fleet’s 2014 season! It began with a bang! April 12 turned out to be a good day to start. Bright, sunny skies and calm seas made it easy to see the breacing right whale in the distance, as well as the numerous dolphins and finback whales. Our old friend,”Loon,” was spotted near Race Point, making this finback whale the most continuously spotted finback in the Dolphin Fleet’s records, (data that goes back for a span of nearly forty years, now).

*April 13, was another day of whalewatching very close to home. It appears that Race Point is the place to be. Nearly every finback whale had a small group of white-sided dolphins charging around with it. Again, a breaching right whale was seen in the bay. There was also a very close look at a very young humpback whale, the 2014 calf of Tongs, and an even closer look at Samara, the 2008 calf of Scylla. In addition, this afternoon, the Dolphin Fleet hosted a conference of whalewatch naturalists. Every year since 2006, naturalists from as far away as Virginia and, even, Hawaii have gathered here, on the cape, to attend seminars and panels led by biologists, ecologists, educators, conservationists, and the people that help make whale and marine related policy. The afternoon of the 13th, this huge wealth of information was available to the passengers of the Dolphin IX and her passengers did not hesitate to take advantage of that resource.
* By afternoon of April 14, the rough seas of the morning had begun to lay down. The Dolphin IX was fortunate enough to find a great aggregation of northern gannets, white-sided dolphins, and finback whales, all feeding. If you have never seen a finwhale lunge at the surface, it is an amazing sight. The whale will surface a number of times, making an arc or sometimes even a circle, before arching high and diving. Occasionally, and rarely, it will blow a blast of bubbles before it begins its lunge through the school of fish. Then, if the fish is near enough to the surface, the whale will roll on its side as it lunges, exposing nearly its entire length at the surface, with a pectoral flipper and half of the fluke above the water. It happens fast, not like you might have seen with humpback whales. They have figured out how to use bubbles, among other things, to concentrate their prey enough that they don’t need speed and can leisurely rise through a school of fish. Finbacks, though, are built for speed and utilize this readily while feeding. If you turn away, you miss it.
* The winds picked up and blew hard, causing the Dolphin IX to stay in port for April 15 and April 16.
* She did venture out on the afternoon of April 17, once more. Between Wood End and Race Point, more than a half dozen northern right whales were seen, mostly appearing to feed beneath the surface but occasionally skimming the surface waters for copepods, their great maws opened wide and collecting water and plankton as they slowly swam forward. One even rolled on its side and lifted its paddle shaped flipper out of the water and slapped it on the surface several times.
* More than a dozen feeding right whales were seen between the Wood End and Race Point on April 18. Many of these animals were observed skim feeding. The humpback whale that seemed to be spending most of its time moving into and out of the center of the group has been confirmed to be Measles, and not Reflection as previously reported. In addition, close looks were had a several finback whales. Having been the naturalist on this day’s adventures, I cannot stress enough just how big a finback whale truly is. Right whales are wide, but finbacks are long. As much as 70 feet or more long. That is just about 5/6th of the length of the Dolphin IX at the waterline. And, though you might think that an animal that long and weighing 65 tons or so would not be, they are fast. Speeds of as much as 34 miles an hour. And able to corner in tight spaces. My nephew once told me that not even a skateboard can corner so tight. Even after nearly two decades of whalewatching, I find them truly impressive animals.
* The big news of April 19 has to be the confirmed sighting of a BOWHEAD WHALE!!! Normally found in the arctic circle, bowheads are related to the right whales that commonly come to Cape Cod Bay in the winter and spring. In the arctic circle, they feed predominantly on krill, but this one seems to be enjoying a diet of copepods alongside its right whale cousins. Bowheads are similar in size and shape to the right whales, but lack the calousities on the head and have white pigments on the lower jaws (both sides, not just one like the finwhales), predominately white ventral sides to their flukes, and a white band that crosses the tail stalk. Like the right whale, they have highly arched jaws and no dorsal fins. If you were on this trip, I, and a host of whalewatch naturalists and biologists, envy you.