Naturalist Notebook –August 22 to August 28
August 22 was filled with a bright haze. Despite the imperfect visibility, 16 humpback whales were spotted along with 2-3 minke whales from just North of Race Point beach to the East of Peaked Hill. To start things off the humpbacks were spending a lot of time below the surface. Dozens of high-fluking dives were documented by the naturalist allowing many humpback whale identifications including: Elephant, Reflection, Peninsula, Manhattan, Convict, Skateboard, Loon Circuit, Spirit and Snare (photo below). Skateboards’ sighting was rather unusual because she had been previously seen with a calf several times. Given the close proximity of Skateboard and the calf it was assumed that the two were related, however, recently Skateboard has been seen without a calf in tow. It is unclear whether the pair separated early (assuming Skateboard is the mom) or if something had happened to the youngster. Hopefully the calf will be spotted in the coming days.
Abruptly, the whales changed their behaviour from deep, long-dives to flipper slapping and tail breaches! Among the most active were Wizard, Snare and Moonlight who would roll over onto their sides revealing their throat grooves (long pleats that extend from under their chin all the way down to their navel) and lifting their long (~1/3 the length of their body) pectoral flipper and lifting it high out of the water. Although no one knows exactly why humpbacks engage in this behaviour, some suspect that it may be a form of exfoliation (shedding dry skin, barnacles or parasites). Often you will see small bits of white skin floating in the water beside an active whale that can be collected for toxicology or hormone studies. It may also be a form of play or communication to other whales in the area. Regardless of the purpose of this behaviour, it is always spectacular to watch!
A tremendous degree of surface activity was reported on August 23. The day began with 9-10 humpbacks and 4 minkes off Race Point and Peaked Hill. In fact, almost every active behaviour was displayed by Putter, Midnight, and Snare who conducted flipper slapping, breaching, lob tails and tail breaches!
After almost an hour of exhilarating acrobatics, the whale watch boat headed for home. Just as they reach Wood end lighthouse, a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins were spotted! The dolphins were leaping and milling about allow great looks at the 35-40 individuals.
The whales maintained their activity into the afternoon and some whales even became curious of the boat! Samara was definitely the highlight as she swam all around the Dolphin VII for 30 minutes! Samara has developed a bit of a reputation this summer for close boat approaches, allowing passengers to really appreciate the size and shape of these large baleen whales. While headed back in to Provincetown Harbor the same pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins were spotted off Wood end.
The sea and weather conditions couldn’t have been more perfect on August 24 with bright skies, low wind and glassy calm seas. The first cetacean sighting of the day were a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins near the mouth of Cape Cod Bay. White-sides are known for being highly social and playful animals as they are often seen traveling in small and large groups and are frequently seen breaching and lob tailing. Not surprisingly, many of the dolphins that we spotted were very acrobatic (photo below).
After leaving the dolphins, 7 minke whales and 6 humpback whales were spotted between Race Point and Highland Light. The most memorable sighting included two humpback whales that gave the most incredible close boat approach. The whales surfaced so close to the boat that you could almost touch them. As the whales surfaced beside the boat, many passengers felt the mist of each exhalation (photo below).
In one instance, the whale’s spout formed an incredible rainbow.
The pair would alternate what side of the boat they surfaced next to. One whale would periodically disappear for a few moments and then begin surfacing head first (photo below). This behaviour is referred to as ‘spy hopping’ and is one of the less common behaviours we observe on the feeding grounds. When spy hopping, the whales usually come high enough out of the water, revealing their eyes and it is thought that spy hopping is associated with curiosity. In the following images you can see the whale traveling towards the surface chin first and then breaking the surface next to the boat!
With reports of large aggregations of humpback whales on Stellwagen Bank, the whale watch boats headed ~21 miles north of Race Point past the old BE buoy in the afternoon. They were certainly rewarded for making the long trip up as 20-30 humpback whales were observed! Two mother and calf pairs were spotted along with many new humpbacks. One calf was particularly active with dozens of spinning breaches, flipper slaps and lob tails! It was amazing to watch this young whale conduct such sustained acrobatic behaviours.
August 25 proved that everyday really is different on the whale watch boat. In the morning, small groups of humpback whales were spotted feeding. It had been a while since the humpback whales were spotted surface feeding and this time instead of chomping down the usual sand lance, the whales were feeding on small herring. The feed show began with Glo-stick (photo below) who was soon joined by Draco.
It wasn’t until Geometry came along that the whales began lunging through the surface with wide-open mouths (photos below). You could see the herring jump out of the water trying to escape their predator’s jaws.
Since these whales employ very dynamic and energetically costly behaviours to catch their prey, they need to locate large numbers of fish before feeding becomes worthwhile.
August 26 was an incredibly calm day with a dozen humpbacks and 6-8 minke whales just northeast of Race Point and Peaked Hill. The whales were bubble net feeding in glassy calm seas on dense schools of sand lance. The fish were clearly visible from the boat thanks to the ideal sea conditions and bright skies. Several humpbacks (including Raspier photographed below) were engaged in kick-feeding behaviour, which is site-specific feeding behaviour observed in the Gulf of Maine. The humpbacks would often follow a kick-feed with a bubble net and then emerge with a wide-open mouth.
Many of the humpbacks appeared to be charging through the water, presumably because they were following large schools of fish.
Later on an active humpback named Manhattan was observed breaching, flipper slapping and lob tailing. As the day progressed the active behaviours continued and a few humpbacks became curious of the whale watch boat! One humpback whales was engaged in lob tailing for a considerably long period of time. This whale (photo below) had rolled onto its back and was lifting its flukes out of the water and smashing the dorsal side down on the surface. This behaviour provides a rare opportunity to sex humpback whales because their genital slit (located below the naval) is clearly visible. Females are identified based on the presence of mammary slits and a hemispheric lobe, which resembles a half of a basketball.
August 27 was an incredible day for whale watching as 4 cetacean species were observed! While just off Race Point beach a pod of both Atlantic white-sided (100-150 individuals) and Common dolphins (40-50) were observed. This was the first time two dolphin species had been observed together this summer. Many dolphins were engaged in active behaviours such as breaching and dozens of individuals were bow riding! After leaving the dolphins, 11-12 feeding humpback whales were observed. Like the previous day, the humpbacks were surface feeding with bubble nets and clouds. Many whales appeared to be feeding corporately, as several humpbacks would create on large bubble net and then surface at the same time through the light green water with wide-open mouths.
Several times the whales would create bubble clouds next to the boat allowing incredible views of the feeding individuals. Fracture (photo below) an adult male first seen in 1990, would frequently go on fluking dives and then release clouds of bubbles beside the boat.
Dragging (a behaviour associated with feeding) was also observed, whereby the humpback whales would swim with their chins out of the water and their mouths slightly agape. While swimming the throat grooves are contracted, forcing the water out between the plates of baleen and leaving the fish behind.
Over a dozen minke whales were also spotted and thanks to the calm seas the whales were clearly visible. One of their distinguishing features (other than their small size) are their white pectoral flippers (photo below), which appear light green because of all the algae or phytoplankton in the water.
Although August 28 began with less than ideal conditions (rain and fog) the weather soon cleared resulting in excellent whale watching conditions. In the late morning the seas were as calm as glass and several resting humpback whales were encountered (Elephant and Convict). Elephant became almost immediately interested in our boat as he or she slowly swam over to us and surfaced next to the starboard bow (photo below). The captain could follow this curious pair as they dove under our boat (repeatedly) using his sonar.
Shortly after the whales had moved on, a young harbour seal was also spotted next to our boat. The seal swam around the boat several times, periodically stopping to take a look.
In the afternoon a large aggregation of humpback whales were spotted close to shore. Salt-the most famous humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine-was among the 20-27 individuals and appeared to be resting. Salt was first seen by Captain Aaron Avallar (who started the Dolphin Fleet) in 1976 and was named because of white pigment on her dorsal fin. Since this time she has had 12 calves and has been seen every year but one. It is always a special treat to see this infamous humpback whale and to top things off, several breaches and flipper slaps were seen!