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Naturalist Notebook – July 27 to August 02

* And then, on July 27, there were humpback whales. Of course to see them, we had to make a bit of a trek to the southeast. It almost seems as if when you cross both the 40 degree north latitude and the 70 degree west longitude lines you have gone far enough to fall off the edge of the earth. But that’s where the Fleet took its passengers today.
* The rewards were plentiful. The morning trips found more than a dozen feeding humpback whales. They included a female named Etch-a-sketch (the 1998 calf of Thalassa). She is a spectacular kick-feeder. Midnight was also there, blowing her usual net of very fine bubbles. Rapier (the 1989 calf of Ase) was there too. For a naturalist that is trying to get an ID photo of the underside of her flukes, finding her feeding is not at all helpful. She typically kicks by holding her flukes completely parallel to the surface of the water. Colt, the 1981 calf of Equus, was also seen feeding during the morning trips.
* By the time the whalewatching boats had returned to the area in the afternoon, the feeding frenzy had slowed. Infrequent lunges were made throughout the afternoon, but the humpbacks spent consideralby more time foraging than actually eating.
* The good news about that is that it made it so much easier to identify them as individuals. Photographed this afternoon were: Crown, a female first photographed in 1983 and the mother of 3; Apex, a female we have been watching since 1982, and her eleventh calf; Draco, the 1998 calf of Trident; Tectonic, first photographed in 1997; Ganesh, the 1998 calf of Loon and mother of 3; a male named Sockeye that was spotted first in 1984; and a male named Stub that was first photographed in 1979
* The highlight of the afternoon was definitely the breaching of Apex’s calf. This little whale certainly knows how to thrill whalewatchers. With every launch, the passengers let out their laughs and screams of approval.
* Of course, those screams meant nothing to the humpback calf. Breaching is thought to be a way they communicate with each other, especially between mothers and calves or in the context of short term social interactions. Grooming is another possibility. But with calves like this one, it could just be play behavior or exercise.
* Later in the evening, Echo and Salt were also seen. Salt is the most photographed humpback in the thirty-five plus year population study the Dolphin Fleet naturalists have been engaged in. She has been seen every year since her first sighting by the Dolphin III in 1976. She is the mother of at least twelve and a grandmother, as well. Photographs of her dorsal fin and flukes taken both here and in the waters around Samana Bay and Silver Bank were used to prove that the humpback whales we see here in the summer months are some of the whales that utilize the waters off of the Dominican Republic as a mating and calving ground.

* Fog does not deter the passengers or the crews of the Dolphin Fleet. On the morning of July 28, that was a good thing. It was thick this morning. Skeg was once more found, in the very thick fog, off of the ranger station at Race Point. As the fog lifted a bit, the vessels were able to venture a bit further, allowing them to return to the southeast where, again, large numbers of humpback whales where seen actively engaged in the process of making their livings.
* Included in the sightings for today’s trips were: Underline, first seen in 1994; a male named Ember that was first seen as a calf in 1992, still in the care of his mother Cardhu; Twister, the 1989 calf of Marlin and the mother of one; a female of unknown age named Nimbus that we have been watching since 1985 (the mother of at least 5); Shuffleboard, first photographed in 2008; Parens, the 1987 son of Sod; Putter, the 1993 son of Mars; and males named Thread and Rocker.
* As afternoon progressed, the feeding tapered off a bit and was replaced with surface-active behaviors like flippering and breaching. The naturalist from the Dolphin X reported that they even had one humpback whale become curious about the boat and approach them in such a way that it seemed to be looking them over.
* It is incredibly exciting to be on a boat that the whale has taken an interest in. And it does give both the passengers and crew a wonderful chance to take in the proportions and shapes of the various parts of the whale’s body. More important to the enjoyment of the passengers is the feeling that the whale is interacting with them. And, though it feels very much like they are, the whale is in fact interacting with the boat and in a way that it also might with seaweed or an oil bucket or an iceberg.
* That knowledge does not, for this naturalist, take away from the experience. It is still very exciting to find that a forty foot, forty ton wild animal is curious about the boat and, despite centuries of slaughter by the beings of boats, not in fear of it.

* The 29th of July dawned with the crews of three boats wondering whether or not the group of humpback whales had returned further to the southeast. It was up to the Dolphin X to find out. True, the Dolphin X has a little more speed than the other vessels in the Fleet, but it still took a long time to get there.
* I am giving you a moment to wonder too.
* Yes, they were there again. And a moment of “Oh, thank you” was shared by a Captain, a mate,two deck hands, and a naturalist (not to mention more than a hundred passengers that had somehow heard of yesterday’s events).
* The sightings today began with a whale named Tracer lifting his flukes above the surface of the water and slapping it down on the surface just above the place where the bubbles he had blown were rising to the surface. Both of these actions were designed to corral the schooling fish into a tighter ball. Then, the male first photographed in 2002 would rise through the surface of the water with his mouth closing and push forward at the surface, allowing the surface tension of the water to help collapse the rorqual pleats on his undersides, a behavior called dragging.
* Other whales were feeding, too: Underline, whom we have mentioned before; a female named Ursa, first seen in 1984 and the mother of four; and Warrior, the mother of 8 first photographed in 1979. Reaper, as the 1987 calf of Andromeda, will hopefully be one of the humpbacks that eventually will teach us how long these animals live.
* Two sunset trips went whalewatcing this evening. Even after nineteen years of whalewatching, this naturalist is still amazed at just how quickly the marine environment can change. The fog rolled in over top of the area the humpbacks had spent the day feeding in, meaning that, just as I tell everyone on every trip, nothing that happened in the past has anything to do with this trip.
* Lost, or concealed from us, in the fog were more than ten humpback whales, including Fracture, Gunslinger, and Touche.
* What will happen tomorrow?

* July 30 was a lesson in what it would be like to be a humpback whale calf.. Throughout much of the day, Fulcrum and her third calf were making their way south and it proved very interesting to watch the interactions of the calf with its mother.
* I don’t know how many of you have children of your own or have siblings that do, but my experience with my sister’s children is that the three things they need you to remember most are Pay Attention To Me, Feed Me, and Change Me.
* When the calf was seen breaching and we didn’t know what was going to follow, I told the passengers what I would typically tell them about the behavior. Communication, Grooming, Play Behavior, and Exercise.
* At the end of the experience, it was very plain to see what had taken place. Definitely for communicating the idea that “Hey, Mom, I am hungry.” The numerous breaches were followed by what we associate with nursing. From the surface, you cannot truly see the expulsion of milk for the calf. When we see what we think to be nursing behavior, the calf surfaces on first one side of the mother, toward the back end of her body, and then on the other side. It continues to alternate sides as it nurses.
* Today, that series of surfacings was also followed by a long stream of “whale brown.” The euphemism refers, of course, to defecation and, just like with baby poop, calf defecation is very different from adult defecation. Let’s just say it has a bit more of a robust odor that we need to discuss here.

* July 31 was about long, streamlined animals. Numerous minke whales were seen throughout the day and, with the bright sun and wonderful sighting conditions, they made an excellent comparison to the second species seen by the passengers.
* Finback whales are huge! If you have been following along, you already know that they are the second largest animals EVER TO HAVE LIVED ON THIS PLANET.
But how big is that really? Skeg, a finwhale that has been spotted quite freqently this season, was recently seen alongside an eighty foot whalewatching boat and the Captain reported that the whale stretched nearly from the stern to the bow of his boat.
* This animal has been reported, and seen by this naturalist, lifting its flukes high above the surface of the water as it dives deeper. It is an animal that has been sighted and photographed since the year 2000, and consistently so since 2006. This is the first year that this repeated fluking behavior has been observed. Today was no exception. Twice in the one trip, this animal fluked up.

* As August 01 moved forward, Nile was found up toward the north end of the Bank. You will remember that Nile is the 1987 calf of Mars it you have been following along. Two other humpbacks were also sighted way up to the north. One of them was Pinball, the 1989 daughter of Liner and mother of five.
* The feeding finback whale was the far better sighting today though. Skeg, of course, was found making its living today. Lunging beneath the surface, it was seen rising very slowly with its mouth partially open and its rorquals extended. Loon and Amp were also seen among the feeding finback whales.
* Unfortunately, sightings of Loon were marred by the appearance of a new injury on the crest of his back about midway between his blowholes and his dorsal fin.. The wound appears to suggest that the animal has again been hit by a boat. A number of years ago, a boat-strike changed the shape of his dorsal and left him with a wound just in front of it that has healed up very well. This new wound appears to be superficial, but it is a good example of why whalewatching vessels whalewatch according to guidelines set up by the National Marine Fisheries Service. These guidelines sound like very reasonable, common-sense things, but not everyone with enough money to have a boat is a reasonable, common-sense human being. Because the guidelines were established to protect the whales from danger and from interference in their ability to make their living, they do apply to all vessels watching whales on the northeast coast of the United States,.

* Pinball and Nile spent a portion of August 02 lunging through schools of fish located deeper beneath the surface. Several finback whales spent time today feeding on fish that appeared to be closer to the surface. These included Skeg, of course, and an animal that might, if the photos confirm this, be Lightning, an animal that has a more than twenty year history with the Dolphin Fleet population study.
* There was also an incredible encounter with a minke whale, today. This one was heading directly toward the boat and allowing a beautiful view of the way in which they surface. The first part of a minke’s body to break the surface is usually the point of the rostrum (the forward point of the whale’s face). This aniimal showed the passengers of the Dolphin IX this trait of the species in very close proximity. At one point, you could even see the very ends of the rorqual grooves on its undersides.