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Naturalist Notebook –July 18 to July 24

July 18 began with a misty haze in the morning that soon gave way to a wonderful afternoon thunderstorm with sudden winds and rain followed by spectacular lightning and clouds. Several humpback and minke whales were observed throughout the day. This year may be one of the best years yet for watching minke whales (photo below) with as many as 14 individuals observed from whale watch boats throughout the day! The humpback whales were displaying active behaviours throughout the day as well, such as breaching and flipper slapping. Before humpbacks breach they usually will go on a deep dive, lifting their flukes high out of the water, to gain momentum before leaping out of the water (e.g., flukes of Pele below). For whatever reason, humpback whales appear to be more likely to breach when the winds pick up speed, which may have been why such active behaviours were observed.


The seas calmed on July 19 after the turbulent thunderstorms cleared. While on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, 10 minke whales and 7-10 humpback whales were seen. During the morning the humpbacks appears to be resting, as they were remaining almost motionless at the sea surface. This behaviour is commonly referred to as logging because from far away the whales resemble floating logs. Onlookers were able to gain a real appreciation of the size of the animals (~45-50 feet) as they remained clearly visible from the whale watch boat. In the afternoon, however, some humpbacks became active. Snare was seen flipper slapping and lob tailing, meanwhile Echo was engaged in full spinning breaches. While Snare was flipper slapping his or her eye and ventral pleats were clearly visible (photo below). Snare was born in 2007 to Anchor, however, the sex of this whale remains unknown. Snowslide also made an appearance close to the boat. This whale has a very unique fluke print, which was revealed when he or she went on a high fluking dive in front of the bow (photo below).

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July 20 began with grey skies and high winds and brightened to a lovely afternoon. Three species of baleen whale were observed repeatedly throughout the day. A well known fin whale named Loon was spotted between Race Point and the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank in the morning. Naturalists and researchers the like have been documenting individual fin whales in Cape Cod waters by taking photographs of fin whale’s dorsal fin and chevron (white markings found behind the blow holes) for many years. Thanks to this continued effort there is a North Atlantic fin whale catalog onboard the Dolphin Fleet (curated by Dolphin Fleet naturalist John Conlon) that is used to photo-identify individual whales such as Loon.


Active behaviours were seen throughout the day as Pele and Eruption, two adult humpback whales, breached simultaneously! Mars’s 2008 calf was later seen lob tailing and some feeding behaviours were also observed.


July 21 proved to be an incredibly active day on the water. Many areas were visited over the course of the day including the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, Peaked Hill and Race Point. Unfortunately, a Dolphin Fleet naturalist observed a dead habor seal that appeared to have recently weaned. Harbor seals are the most common seals found along the east coast of the United States and females generally give birth in the Spring and Summer and wean their young after only 24 days. Another unusual pinniped sighting occurred towards the end of the day as a large herd of grey seals (20-25) were seen.

An array of humpback whale behaviours were observed throughout the day. Several humpbacks had found dense schools of sand lance and were engaged in subsurface and surface feeding behaviours. Many humpbacks created bubble nets around the sand lance to corral their prey (photos below). Consequently, hundreds of marine birds swarmed the whales as they were trying to steal some of the fish that the whales were feeding on.



The whales switched gears later in the day with lob tailing, breaching and flipper slapping. One of the most active humpback whales encountered was Jupiter (photo below), who was lob tailing beside the boat!


Another humpback named Snowplow was seen close to the boat (photo below). Snowplow was born to Fern in 1998 and the sex of this whale is currently unknown.


A rare sighting of common dolphins occurred in the afternoon as 35-70 individuals were seen. As the dolphins leapt out of the water their off-white hourglass markings were revealed.


Toward the end of the day while heading back to Provincetown Harbor a small tuna fishing boat was seen towing a Bluefin Tuna near Woodend Lighthouse. Fisherman searching for the highly sought after Bluefin tuna are commonly seen on Stellwagen Bank where dense schools of forage fish attract the commercially valuable species.


It was a beautifully sunny day on July 22 with low humidity and a cool breeze. Many well known humpback whales were sighted including Tulip and her calf. Unfortunately the last time Tulip was spotted she was in considerably bad condition as her ribs were clearly visible indicating that she had used up her energy stores (blubber) while nursing her calf. Nursing females have considerably  higher daily energy requirements then other whales because they are responsible for nursing their rapidly growing young for an entire year. The first few months are by far the most difficult because while mother’s are nursing their young in the warm coastal waters off the Dominican Republic they are fasting and thus are relying on the energy they stored during the previous foraging season to feed their young. This time, however, Tulip appeared to be in better condition and hopefully she has been able to find lots of food to eat so that she can continue looking after her dependent young and replenish her every stores.

Many of the humpback whales observed were engaged in subsurface feeding behaviours. Barb and adult male born in 1987 to Veil appeared to feeding subsurface along with a few other humpback whales (photos below). Subsurface feeding is usually signified by high fluking dives and random travel.


Many other humpbacks were going on high fluking dives, such as Putter and Jupiter (photos below).


The whales were near shore on July 23 as the whale watch boats observed 10 humpback whales off Peaked Hill. Two cow-calf pairs were sighted  (Tulip and calf and Dome and calf). Dome was first seen in 1986 and has brought 9 calves to Stellwagen Bank. Tulip was first seen in 1988 and has had 7 calves. Several active humpback whales were seen as well, including Aswan a male born in 2000 to Nile, who was breaching repetitively next to the boat.



Snare, an individual of unknown sex born in 2007 to Anchor, was lob tailing next to the boat. Luckily, the naturalist was able to photo-document Snare’s genital slit (used to sex humpback whales) while the whale’s tail was lifted out of the water.


Towards the end of the day a small pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins were seen bow-riding! LAG NEAR BOW_7-23_IMG_0923

July 24 may have been one of the most exciting days to be on the water all month. Although the morning began with thunderstorms and fog, the weather cleared just in time for the first whale watch of the day. Just outside of Cape Cod Bay, near Race Point, a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins were seen. The dolphins were leaping and milling around the area and several cow and calf pairs were seen.


Soon after the dolphins were left behind, several humpback whales were spotted. One whale would periodically surface next to the boat, roll onto its side and conduct a few flipper slaps.

The Atlantic white-sided dolphins were seen again the afternoon, but this time they had travelled further offshore.


After watching the dolphins leap about, the whale watch boat headed east in search of humpback whales. Several feeding whales were found near Peaked Hill. The whales were catching their prey with blubble clouds and bubble nets. As the crew and passengers watched the feeding whales they also observed some dramatic changes in the sky.


Suddenly, the sky began to light up as silent bolts of lightning were seen. The whales seemed unaffected by the sudden change in weather and continued feeding. A well known humpback whale named Putter was kick feeding and dragging. But then the skies became increasingly dark and the winds began to pick up.


As soon as the seas became choppy the whales switched behaviours and several individuals began breaching!  It was a wonderful way to end a truly dynamic day on the water.