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Naturalist Notebook – August 03 to August 09

* Nile continued to be seen throughout the day on August 03, but the whale of the day was definately Skeg. If you have been following along, you will no doubt remember that this is the finback whale that has been thrilling whalewatchers by repeatedly dragging its tail across the surface of the water when it arches its back up to dive. The knowledge that this whale has on several occasions actually fluked up in the past couple of weeks keeps the passengers and crews alike guessing whether or not they will become some of the very lucky few that have seen this very large finback lift its tail high above the water.
* Today, the passengers of the sunset trip of the Dolphin 9 were the lucky ones. From the description given to this naturalist, it was a wonderful sight. Skeg lifted its tail straight up into the air, where it appeared to hang there for a moment, before slicing down through the surface of the water. The naturalist on the boat said she had never seen anything like it.
* Things moved around quite a bit over night, meaning that the morning trips of August 04, spread out to look for the whales. Nile was found nearly 19 miles to the northeast of Race Point. By early afternoon, however, Skeg had settled back into its little spot between the Race Point Station and Peaked Hill Bars. Again this animal thrilled whalewatchers with its slow forward motion and lengthy visits to the surface. These allowed the passengers to get spectacular looks at the entirety of the right side of the whale, including the white lower jaw and the blaze and chevron.
* Cool, crisp air and bright, sunny skies added to the strong wind and chop to make August 05 a beautiful day on nature’s roller coaster and water ride. And, as if they had been blown back in by the wind, there were some humpback whales. Nile remained, but today she was joined by Geometry, Pinball, and Etch-a-sketch. Etch-a-sketch, you might remember, is the 1998 daughter of Thalassa and Geometry is 1997 son of Star. Pinball is the 1989 daughter of Liner. In the morning, these whales were just kind of moving around, likely foraging for something to eat. By afternoon, they had settled in what must have been incredibly productive spots, judging by the feeding that they were doing just beneath the surface. Many times, they would rise vertically from the water, mouths shut and rorqual pleats extended. Geometry and Etch-a-sketch spent much of the afternoon cooperatively feeding together while Nile and Pinball spent the time feeding deeper in the water column at tables of their own.
* Today also marked the first sightings of our old friend Loon. The wound on his back appears to be superficial. And Skeg was also seen again today, lifting its tail high above the surface again.
* August 06, began as a cool, clear morning with a slight southwest breeze. Nile and Pinball were both seen feeding again today, blowing clouds of bubbles beneath schools of fish deep beneath the surface of the water. At one point, about a half dozen minkes whales were observed also subsurface feeding up toward the middle of the bank. And, in their midst, two finbacks were also feeding. One of these, a male named Lightning, was seen blowing bubbles before launching into its lunges. With finbacks, it is likely that these bubbles are not about corralling fish into tighter balls like with the humpbacks. It appears more like they are just giving an extra big exhalation just before a strenuous activity. Maybe it allows them to become a more hydrodynamic shape so they can move quicker through the water or maybe expelling the air from the lungs allows them to be even more dense than the water around them so they sink better. Remember that, although comparable to body size their lungs are slightly smaller than ours, in reality, they are very large bags of air because whales (in general) use ninety percent of their capacity. Emptying those balloons would allow the animal to sink more readily.
* Lightning is one of the finwhales in the population database with the longest sightings history. He has been seen 13 out of the last 34 years, with the first photos coming from 1979.
* And if the whales weren’t enough, the passengers of the Dolphin 7 were treated to an encounter of a pinniped kind. During the ten oclock trip, a harbor seal was overcome by its curious nature and swam right over to the boat. After satisfying itself for a few minutes, it moved on, leaving the whalewatchers with perhaps a new appreciation for just how much the adventure is not just about whales.
* The southerly breeze on August 07 made the trip to north to see Nile very pleasant. This beautiful morning was an excellent opportunity for the passengers to view three different species of baleen whales in calm seas. The football-shaped humpback whale with its long, flexible pectoral flippers and the tubercules that earned it the nickname, “pickle-puss.” The long, streamlined finback whale with its asymmetric pigmentation and sleek, fast body. And the minke whale that rarely puts up a visible spout and surfaces with the point of its rostrum first rather than the top of its head. Views of numerous of these cetaceans were had by the passengers of each of the morning trips today.
* The easterly breeze of the afternoon made for an equally pleasant ride just past the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank to the area where passengers enjoyed looks of minkes, finwhales, and a humpback named Scylla. Nile and Pinball remained further to the north, along with other finwhales and minkes.
* Throughout the day, the whales were seen feeding beneath the surface and moving around in what, at the surface, appeared to be random tracks, indicating likely foraging. Geometry was seen again, as was Lightning and a finwhale named Amp.
* What a different experience August 08 provided. The clear skies of yesterday were replaced with clouds and rain. A stiff wind and a bouncy sea spiced up the adventure as well. But this dramatic change in weather had little or no influence on the whales. Pinball and Scylla, feeding still, were today viewed by damper eyes. A pair of finwhales sliced through the higher chop, not appearing, to our eyes, to notice the change.
* That only makes sense if you think about it a little. Whales spend as much as eighty percent of their time or more beneath the surface, having to come to the interface with our world only to breathe. There, the effects of rain are–well, nothing. And, while the darker skies might move the phytoplankton closer to the surface to stay in the sunlight, the whales feeding here now aren’t feeding on the phytoplankton. No, and the mackerel that they have been targeting has been deeper down than the sand eels would usually be anyway, so the wind-blown surface waters wouldn’t be scattering the schools of fish either.
* What made today special was the type of whalewatcher that was found aboard a boat. Passengers that brave the elements of days like today are adventurers. Even the few that turn out not to be as hearty as they thought they were, come out of the adventure with a feeling of conquest. A feeling that, today, the world didn’t tell them what to do. If you lack adventure in your life, this was the kind of day to whalewatch on and I salute those of you that relished the adventure of your trip today.
* August 09 proved to be just as adventurous. Nile was to the north, Pinball to the west, and, to the south, Pilot Whales! I don’t believe we have had the opportunity to talk about pilots before. Pilot whales are large, toothed whales. And, as is common with the odontocetes, the males are quite a bit larger than the females. Male pilots might be as long as twenty-one feet and weigh as much as five-thousand pounds. Females are much smaller: up to fifteen and a half feet and twenty-nine hundred pounds. Long and robust, the body is a jet black color with a lighter saddle across its back behind a wide, hooked dorsal. The scientific name, Globicephala melas stems from the latin globus, referring to the large, rounded head and the greek melas, meaning black. The bulbous heads earned them the nickname potheads from the Newfoundland fishermen and their color made them one of several species referred to as blackfish by commercial whalers.
* In the North Atlantic, these animals are thought of as a more pelagic (off-shore) species that will follow the squid runs inshore. The number of squid in Provincetown Harbor speaks for the availability of a food source for these animals close-by. The large pods are commonly dispersed into smaller, but very closely tied groups of 10 or twenty or so, thought to be adult females and their calves. But the larger pods also exhibit a great deal of social cohesion, demonstrated by strandings of not 15 or 20 whales but strandings of 100 to 150 whales.
* One such stranding occured during one of my whalewatch seasons. I can’t recall the year, but all told, sixty-six pilot whales stranded over a period of several days. The first stranding happened in blackfish creek with the entire group coming onto the beach. Despite the efforts of rescuers, several did have to be euthanized before the rest could be released. Alas, the next day, the group came back onto the beach just a little further to the north. This cycle repeated itself for the next several days until the entire pod was gone.
* One good thing did come out of this. The knowledge that these animals were probably trying to get to deep water by going east, led eventually to a change in rescue techniques. If you take rescued animals out of the bay before you release them, they don’t return to shore like that as frequently.
* The lucky boat today was the Dolphin 7. A pod of twenty to thirty of these whales was spotted off of the Highlands. Sizes ranged from what was described as a huge bull with a giant dorsal fin to a little calf or yearling. Calves are born April through September, after a gestation period of about a year, and are nursed for up to two years. At birth, they are between five and six and a half feet and weigh about 165 pounds. For a point of perspective, that’s about this naturalist’s size when I graduated from college. And, no, I haven’t gotten any taller.
* The wind blew stronger and the seas swelled throughout the morning, causing the afternoon trips to be cancelled. After all, even the crews of whalewatch vessels can only live up to so much adventure.