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Naturalist Notebook – June 08 to June 14

June 09 was all about finback whales. All four Dolphin Fleet whalewatches saw fin whales today. One, a whale named Skeg, was first photographed in the year 2000. Another, Loon, has been photographed by the Dolphin Fleet for thirty years. Loon must have had a destination in mind. He (assumed to be male because in thirty years the whale has never been seen with a calf) kept moving and regardless of how the captains tried to keep pace, kept coming up nearly a quarter mile away.
Skeg, on the other hand, appeared to be a bit more inclined to stay close by. On numerous occasions, this whale surfaced close enough to the boat to allow the passengers, not only a fabulous look at the blaze and chevron, but also a wonderous look at the paired blowholes as it spouted and then inhaled.
Gray skies and calm seas were the story of June 10. In addition to the baleen whales present, several hundred atlantic white-sided dolphins thrilled passengers as they surfed on the wake from the Dolphin IX, catching the waves and leaping from them. Dolphins, including white-sides, commonly ride in the wakes of vessels that are heading in the same direction as they are. The water being pushed by the boat provides them with a boost that makes their efforts considerably more profitable. Sometimes, however, like on the tenth, the animals do not appear to be heading in any particular direction and might very well be playing. The leaping that accompanied the wave-riding didn’t look like it was about finding prey or moving quickly. This definately looked like it was about fun.
The sea had risen up for June 11. The skies were still gray but there was now enough chop to make for an adventurous ride. Two species of whale and two species of very large fish turned out for Red Cap Day. With the choppy seas, keeping track of the minke whales was not easy. Finback whales, on the other hand, put up a spout that might rise from the surface of the water for twenty feet. It was a lot easier to keep track of the finback whales coming to the surface.
In addition to the fin whales and minke whales, there were also views of a basking shark, the second largest fish currently living on the earth. Just like their larger cousins, the whale sharks, basking sharks live by collecting very small animals out of the water. They have incredible spines on the arches of their gills that act very much the the baleen of a right whale, collecting tiny animals like copepods out of the water as it flows over the gills for the extraction of oxygen.
There was also a quick look at a Mola mola (ocean sunfish). With the gray skies and choppy seas, it was difficult to sea just how large it was but they can be as much as eight feet in diameter. Think about that. A circular fish that might be nearly as long as your car.
Oh. Red Cap Day? Today marks the one hundred fourth anniversary of the birth of Jacques Couseau. For many of the naturalists of my generation, it was Jacques Cousteau that nurtured our interest in the sea. As a boy, I remember, riding my bicycle to my grandmother’s house on many a saturday morning to watch cable television. One of my favorite programs on PBS was the voyages of the research vessel Calypso. Whether the good crew was exploring some wondrous river delta or searching for some elusive marine creature, Jacques would be wearing his red knit cap. So, on June 11, 2014, I invite anyone that loves the sea to join me in remembering Jacques Cousteau by donning the red cap. On that day, everyone looks good in red.
June 12, was a very good lesson on just how fast fin whales can be. Thirty knots (thirty-tree and a half miles per hour) might not see like very fast in a society where cars can go over a hundred miles per hour and planes can travel five hundred miles in about a half hour. But imagine a tractor moving through a corn field where the corn, in most places, is taller than the tractor so that only when the land was higher or the corn was shorter was it visible above the stalks. Now imagine that the tractor is streamlined enough that it moves between the stalks and doesn’t disturb them as it goes. Very easy now to see how it might be difficult to guess where the tractor would be visible. Imagine now that the tractor moves 3 times as fast as it does and that, in the places you know the corn to be shorter, it still doesn’t have to be seen. As much as it might not seem so, losing track of a sixty foot and sixty ton finback whale isn’t as hard as you would think. They are fast. And they can turn around in very short spaces.
On June 13, the Dolpin Fleet was joined by the students of the Chancellor-Livingston Schools and the DeWitt Middle School on their morning research adventure. The students of these two schools had studied whales extensively, so for them this was not just a day on the water. It was the conclusion of a very strenuous exercise in marine biology and oceanography. These students, like all other students that come here in the same venue, know what it meant that they saw, not just baleen whales like finbacks and minkes, but seals and pelagic birds as well.
By June 14, the seas and wind that had been building over the past several days had swelled to the extent that the Dolphin Fleet was forced to cancel all of its trips.