Sometimes the most amazing whale watches occur when you least expect it. On August 15 the usual gang of humpback whales off Peaked Hill and Highland Light were no where to be seen. Nor were there signs of whales on Stellwagen Bank. What was a captain to do but explore unfamiliar waters 16 miles east of Race Point. It was there in 500-600 ft of water that a pod of leaping Common dolphins (25 individuals, photo below) were spotted. Shortly after, a larger pod of Risso’s dolphins (30 individuals) were seen followed by 2 humpbacks, 3 minke whales and 2 fin whales! For longtime naturalist, Peter Trull (20 years on the job) this was one for the books as he had never seen Risso’s dolphins. In fact, Peter called this trip “monumental” and I’m sure many passengers would have agreed. There are not many places in the world in fact where you can see 5 cetacean species over the course of a single trip.
In the afternoon and early evening the whales had moved close to Peaked Hill area and 4 humpbacks were spotted. The highlight was definitely Samara, a humpback whale known for his or her curiosity of boats (photo below). For over a half hour the whale watch boat was immobilized by Samara who gave an incredible close boat approach. To top the experience off Samara breached next to the boat!
The sea was perfectly calm while leaving Samara and the other humpback whales. The lighting was beautiful as the sun began to descend into the sea.
It was a bright and beautiful morning on August 16 as the whale watch boat steamed out to the backside of Cape Cod (near Peaked Hill) where humpback whales had been seen the night before. While in transit the captain spotted what looked to be a humpback whale spout. Sure enough, the whale followed its breath with a high-fluking dive (confirming its humpback status) and then thrusted out of the water in a spinning breach. The encountered whale was Elephant–an individual first seen in 2007. Elephant put on a spectacular show with dozens of breaches, a tail breach along with flipper slapping. During all of this activity, the whale watch boat sat motionless and Elephant closely circled the boat, allowing very good looks at the whale’s eye, ventral pleats, blow holes (photo below) and tubercles. At one point Elephant actually rubbed it’s pectoral flipper on the boat leaving bits of barnacle shell on the railing of the boat!!
Elephant’s curiosity continued throughout the day as other whale watch boat reported close boat approaches from this whale and two others (Jupiter and Snowslide)! To top things off, the sunset trip concluded with a rare sighting of a breaching minke whale and a mola mola (or giant ocean sunfish, photo below).
The weather ideal for whale watching on August 17 with bright skies and calm seas. Thanks to the perfect sea conditions, a half-dozen minke whales were observed just off Race Point. A little further east, 6-7 humpback whales were found just off Highland Light. Because the whales were so close to shore we were able to spend a lot of time with them. The highlight of the morning trip were three humpbacks that were logging next to the boat. One of the whales was Manhattan (photo below), an individual that was named just this past year. This whale had fresh wounds on the right side of its jaw from bottom feeding.
In the afternoon two humpbacks (Convict and Samara) were spotted just north of Race Point. These whales became curious of the whale watch boat for an extended time. After staying with the pair for over a half-hour the whale watch boat slowly tried to move away from the whales. As the boat had just become free from the curious pair, Samara breached completely out of the water (photo below)!
Humpbacks weren’t the only curious animals encountered that day. A young harbour seal popped up next to the Dolphin IX in the afternoon and preceded to swim circles around the boat. The seal would occasionally stop and look at the boat and then carry on.
Although August 18 began with light rain, the weather quickly improved and the seas were like glass providing excellent conditions for wildlife viewing. While close to shore, 8 humpback were observed including 3 minke whales in the morning. A few rambunctious humpbacks named Manhattan and Spirit were spotted flipper slapping and lob tailing. Spirit (photo below) was born in 2007 to Strike and was named for ghost-like markings on the left fluke (along with two eyes). Interestingly, Spirit is only the second calf born to Strike who was first seen in 1989.
The active behaviour continued into the afternoon with flipper slapping (photo below) along with some sub-surface feeding. Towards the end of the day a school of bluefish was seen breaking the surface right next to the boat. Following the fish were several terns (photo below), perhaps looking from some small forage fish.
August 19 was an exciting day from start to finish. In the late morning two humpbacks named Convict and Elephant (photo below) “mugged” the whale watch boat. This close encounter left several passengers coated in whale breath.While still next to the boat the pair rolled onto their sides, extended their pectoral flippers and began flipper slapping in unison. Flipper slapping was soon traded in for spinning breaches and chin breaches.
Just before stumbling upon the curious pair, two logging humpbacks were seen. These resting whales were slowly drifting alongside 175-200 Common dolphins! The naturalist was astonished by how many tiny calves were in the pod of dolphins.
In the afternoon several humpback whales were identified from a great distance away, simply because of their characteristically bushy-shaped blow (photo below). Fortunately, the whales continued their routine of close boat approaches and flipper slapping! What an amazing combination!
It was another glassy calm day on August 20. While only a few hundred feet from Race Point, 7 minke whales were spotted milling about. Not too much further away was a logging humpback named Samara. Samara has received a reputation for close boat approaches this summer as he or she has became curious of the whale watch boat on numerous occasions. Sure enough, Samara traded resting for curiosity and gave a great close approach. Samara was easily followed as she or he traveled next to the boat by looking for light green patches of water (algae makes the white pectoral flippers appear light green underwater).
In the afternoon 7 humpbacks were spotted including a mother and calf pair. The humpbacks were putting on an amazing feed show with bubble nets and surface lunges. Surface feeding is definitely among the most dynamic humpback whale behaviours and has been somewhat of a rarity this summer. It was wonderful to see the whales circle around their prey releasing columns of bubble to corral the fish and then lunge through the dense school with side open mouths.
As the afternoon progressed the whales continued to feed at the surface and conduct an array of active behaviours including breaching, and flipper slapping!
August 21 was another dynamic day on the water. The morning began with what may very well have been the most active humpback whale of the season. As this whale breached repeatedly out of the water raw bits of flesh were seen on and just below the whales’ blow holes. The cause of these unusual wounds is unknown, however, it has been suspected that fishing gear may have played a role. As the whale breached over and over again we photo-documented every part of the whale so that to ensure that there weren’t any other wounds on the whale’s body or other evidence of human interaction (e.g.,entanglement in fishing gear). The breaches soon turned into flipper slapping, lob tailing and then tail breaching. This whale conducted every active trick in the book! After leaving this whale we stumbled upon another active humpback–Palette’s calf. We also saw an adult male born in 1993 to Mars named Putter lob tail. Some other humpbacks were sporadically feeding with lots of kick-feeds, bubble clouds and dragging!
In the afternoon the activity continued with more breaching and flipper slapping from Palette’s calf (photo below) and two adults flipper slapping in unison! We also had a close-boat approach by Circuit (photo below) a humpback whale that was satellite tagged by the Humpback Whale Research Program (http://www.coastalstudies.org/what-we-do/humpback-whales/introduction.htm) at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies this summer.
In the early evening a young humpback whale was spotted with what appeared to be monofilament on its body. The PCCS disentanglement team was notified of the possible entanglement and photos were taken of the whale (below).
After leaving this individual 20-30 humpback whales were encountered off Peaked Hill. The whales were traveling randomly with high-fluking dives. There were so many whales that it was difficult to know who was surfacing at any given time because right when you thought you knew who was who a completely different whale would surface.
The sunset was beautiful as we pulled into the dock in Provincetown Harbor and concluded another spectacular week of whale watching.