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Naturalist Notebook – July 13 to July 19

Saturday, July 13, began with the Saturday morning children’s program. The first trip on Saturday mornings in July and August, children under 12 whalewatch for free. They are invited to participate in an interactive discussion of whales throughout the trip, including answering the following questions: “What makes a whale a whale,” “What makes a whale a mammal,” “Do whales really have hair,” and “What is this baleen stuff, anyway?” The blubber glove experiment gives tips about how useful blubber is. Sightings of whales and other marine species are followed by a reading of John Himmelman’s children’s book, “Ibis, A True Whale Story” and a roundtable concerning the dangers whales face in their every day lives and what we, regardless of our age and where we live can do to help make the oceans safer for them. And no children’s trip would be complete withouth a look at what lives in the waters of the harbor that the whalewatch leaves from. This week, a number of green crabs were examined and commented on by the youngsters.

In addition to Nile and the finback whales that were seen today, a sighting was also made of an ocean sunfish or mola mola. These very large fish can be as big as ten feet in diameter and weigh up to two tons. This one was not nearly that large, being estimated to be about 200 or 300 pounds.

On July 14, Nile was seen nearby two other humpback whales. One, named Epee, is a female first spotted in 1997. All three of these whales appeared to be actively involved in making their living: blowing bubble clouds to corral the schooling fish into a tighter ball before lunging through them with their mouths agape. Because of the pleated skin on the undersides of their bodies (the rorqual grooves), a humpback whale’s mouthful might be as much as 15,000 gallons of fish and seawater.

Calm seas, broken up by lines of upwellings, made the going easy on July 15. While Nile did continue to feed around the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, blowing her clouds of bubbles and lunging through schools of fish beneath the surface, today was a day for more streamlined whales.

Skeg, the large finwhale we have been seeing quite freqently over the past several weeks, treated the passengers of the Dolphin X to incredibly close looks at both sides of its body. And then there was the minke whale that spent time approaching a whalewatch boat out of curiousity. When humpback whales are not busy doing something else, they sometimes are curious about things in their environment, like boats. It is far more rare from finback and minke whales.

And, on the last trip of the day, a tuna fisherman had radioed to tell the captain of the Dolphin VIII about the great white shark that had been swimming alongside his boat. As whalewatches aboard the Dolphin Fleet are not just about whales, the captain made his way to the reported site of the sighting, hoping to give his passengers an encounter of a more toothy kind. Alas, the crew was not actually able to relocate the shark, but the adventure of the endeavor was not lost on the passengers. Or the crew.

Nile continued to feed along the western side of the Bank throughout the day on July 16. Also taking care of its nutritional needs was the finwhale named Skeg. This animal spent much of the afternoon feeding beneath the surface near Race Point. Both gray seals and harbor seals were present in the nearby waters today, too.

The highlight of the day was likely the discovery of a pod of 40 to 50 atlantic white-sided dolphins. This pod included several mother and calf pairs. White-sided calves are born in June and July after a gestation period of about eleven months. At birth they are about three and a half feet long and weigh a little over forty pounds. It will take about 18 months before their mother weens them from her milk. Adults are 8 to 9 feet in length and weigh 400 to 500 pounds.

Acting on a hot tip, the Captain of the Dolphin X took the vessel quickly to the southeast, hoping to catch up to a reported group of thirty or forty humpback whales. It was not in the cards on July 17 to go far enough to get to where the whales actually were (as the location had been relayed incorrectly) but the passengers (including the students from the Marine Science Consortium at Wallop’s Island) were thrilled with their encounters with several gray seals and a very large group of atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Nile was also seen on the southern end of Stellwagen Bank. She split her day between feeding and breaching, both of which excited whalewatch passengers and crew. The first launch was a beautiful spinning breach and that was followed by half a dozen or so chin breaches. all of which allowed the onlookers a wonderful opportunity to guage the the size and shape of a mature humpback whale.

And there was the minke whale that was travelling just beneath the surface on a linear enough course that the vessel was able not just to keep up with the whale, but to position itself to be close to the animal when it came back to the surface. Largely this was because the whale was swimming only about five or ten feet below the surface and the epaulettes on the dorsal side of its flippers remained visible for much of the encounter.

July 18 was the story of two whales: Nile and Skeg. Nile continued to thrill passengers as she rose through her bubble clouds, closing her mouth just before breaking the surface but, at times, breaking the surface with her rorquals expanded and water streaming from her mouth.

Then there was Skeg. Routinely coming to the surface within a boatlength of the Dolphin VII, this finwhale actually appeared to be attempting to slow its forward motion by curling its flukes downward and using them like a sea anchor.

In the afternoon of July 19, the winds picked up and drove a fun chop. It was during this windy and choppy part of the day that, while the passengers of the Dolphin VIII were watching Skeg give them slow moving views of both sides the finwhales body, the mate saw a splash to the north. It only happened twice more, but that was enough to confirm that the splashes had been caused by a minke whale launching itself from the water. Yes, minke whales do breach. In fact, all species of whales breach. Humpbacks are best know for the behavior because they are seen breach more frequently than many of the other species.

Skeg was not to be outdone, today. At one point, the finwhale arched its back high up to dive beneath the surface and didn’t stop arching until not only the tail-stalk, but also the flukes, were raised completely out of the water. Finback whales very rarely lift their tails from the water to dive. In fact, you are more likely to see the finback breach than you are to see it fluking up.