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Naturalist Notebook – April 13 to April 19

On Saturday, April 13, the Dolphin IX and her crew found a break in the winds and headed out to Cape Cod Bay, where the spring diversity of marine mammals was on full display.  Passengers were thrilled by close looks at a massive fin whale, a creature which holds the distinction of being the second largest animal in the world, second only in size to the blue whale.

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Fin whales are often dubbed the ‘greyhound of the sea’ due to the speeds at which they travel, so it is always especially rewarding to get a close look.  A North Atlantic right whale, several harbor porpoise and harbor and grey seals were also sighted.  On April 14, several right whales, a minke whale and a few harbor porpoise were sighted in and outside Cape Cod Bay, but the highlight of the trip was a humpback whale, known as Pinch, spotted off Race Point.  Pinch was first seen in 1999 and had last been seen in 2010 with a severe entanglement, and while it was impossible to confirm if the whale remained entangled, its flukes were a welcome sight to passengers and researchers alike.


Monday afternoon, April 15, the Dolphin IX and her crew brought eager passengers through Cape Cod Bay to Race Point, spotting several humpbacks, a minke whale, as well as a few harbor porpoise.  Among the humpbacks identified were Apex, an adult  female first seen in 1982, and Hazard, a six-year-old of unknown sex.


While the markings on the ventral surface, or underside, of the whales’ flukes are the primary means of identifying humpbacks, the dorsal fins are uniquely shaped and marked as well, and the naturalist instantly recognized the markings on Apex’s dorsal fin a s she surfaced near the Dolphin IX.  A pair of right whales was also spotted, one of which was seen rolling near shore just off Race Point Light, one of its massive flukes looking like a giant shark fin as it swam past the lighthouse.

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On the afternoon of April 16, right, fin, and humpback whales were again spotted in Cape Cod Bay, the latter of which wowed passengers as their huge tails broke the surface amid a hail of spray.  Among the individual humpbacks identified were Eruption, a 14-year-old female, and Snowslide.


On April 17, lots of baleen and toothed whales were sighted in Cape Cod Bay and along the northeastern shore of Cape Cod off of Truro.  Dozens of harbor porpoise and Atlantic white-sided dolphins were spotted, along with several minke whales, fin whales, humpbacks, and right whales.


Spring is an amazing time to be on the water – just like the land, the sea becomes more and more active as the days get longer and temperatures warm.  Dense blooms of microscopic phytoplankton form food for swarms of tiny zooplankton, in turn feeding small, schooling forage fish such as herring and sand lance.  This rich array of food supports incredible diversity of marine mammals and birds, making spring an incredibly rewarding time to go whale watching.   On Thursday, April 18, the Dolphin IX hadn’t left Cape Cod Bay before at least seven humpback whales were spotted, including Rapier, a 24-year-old female that wowed passengers as she filled her mouth with massive amounts of water and prey.

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Friday, April 19, the Dolphin IX once again plied the waters from Cape Cod Bay to Race Point, passengers and crew spotting lots of humpback, right, and fin whales, as well as white-sided dolphins.  It was the massive fin whales that stole the show, lunging near the boat as they fed.

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The grooves on the whales’ undersides allow their mouths to expand into giant pouches capable of holding thousands of gallons of water and food and then returning the whales to their streamlined form as the water passes out through the baleen, leaving food behind.