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Naturalist Notebook – May 11 to May 17

On May 11, the first sightings of the afternoon whale watch on the Dolphin IX were harbor seals on the exposed sand at Long Point, surrounded by eiders and cormorants.  On the steam north of Cape Cod, a single humpback whale was spotted throwing its massive body clear of the water’s surface in a series of spectacular breaches.


Identified as Blackbird, this whale was first seen in 2009 but is of unknown age or sex.  This display continued, thrilling passengers while northern gannets, laughing gulls, and terns flew overhead.  The next day, May 12, was equally exciting, as over a dozen humpbacks were seen around the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, feeding amid clouds and nets of bubbles and nearly 100 Atlantic white-sided dolphins.


The feeding frenzy continued nearer to shore on May 13.  Among the humpbacks identified were Strike and Palette, both 24-year old females, recognizable by their unique fluke patterns as they dove between bouts of bubble net feeding.


Palette is one of very few humpbacks that are observed smashing the water’s surface with their chins in a manner similar to kick-feeding, likely using the impact to stun their prey or create a disturbance in the water to retain it at the surface.


The following day, May 14, nearly 20 humpbacks were sighted around the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, feeding among minke whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.  Passengers were treated to rare close looks at the minke whales, one of which rolled and exposed its pale underbelly as it sped by.


A lone seal swam nearby, seemingly nonplussed by the presence of the boat, slowly rolling onto its back as if to bask in the sun.

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The seemingly lazy behavior of the seal was in sharp contrast to the acrobatic leaps of the dolphins nearby, delighting passengers aboard the Dolphin IX.

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Many individual humpbacks were identified in the field; for a complete list see our sightings blog.  On May 15, the trend would continue, with two mother-calf pairs identified during the morning trip. Pogo, first seen in 1997, was accompanied by her second documented calf, while Apex was seen with what may be her 11th calf.

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Pogo and her calf were seen again during a windy afternoon trip, delighting passengers and crew as they exhibited a series of active behaviors, including lobtailing, tail breaches, and flippering.


Even more humpbacks were spotted on May 16, as nearly two dozen were seen feeding around the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, along with minke whales and Atlantic white-sided dolphins.  At least two mother-calf pairs were spotted, and many of the whales were seen kick-feeding and using bubble clouds and nets in groups of 5 or more.


Large numbers of birds were seen overhead, including northern gannets, roseate terns, loons, and a parasitic jaeger. By the time the day drew to a close, a total of four trips had left Provincetown Harbor as the Dolphin X made her first trips of the season, and each trip had been more exciting than the last.  May 17 began with another feeding frenzy observed on the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, with at least 30 humpbacks seen on some of the four trips, including a few large groups of 4 or more feeding together on what appeared to be dense schools of sand lance.