May 20th was a great day to be out on the water with bright skies, low winds and calm seas. Within moments of leaving the harbor we sighted a small pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins consisting of 40-70 related individuals. As we traveled out towards Stellwagen Bank we found various individual humpbacks that were going on fluking dives. We also sighted a large group of humpbacks, consisting of 25-30+ individuals. These whales were feeding on sand lance, by kick feeding and creating bubble nets around the school of fish. We identified Nazka, Pipette, Vulture, Terrace, Gumdrop, Stub, Persied, Circuit, Grackle, Swan, Anchor, Reflection and calf, Barb, Springboard, Milkweed and Salt. Salt is perhaps the most infamous humpback whale in the Gulf of Maine; she is also one of the most loyal and fecund. She has returned to Stellwagen Bank every year since 1976 except for one and she has had 11 calves to date! We left the feeding frenzy excited to have seen Salt and her friends and look forward to another great day of whale watching.
We left Provincetown on May 21st with perfect whale sighting conditions. Today’s sightings included 35-40 humpback whales and 5 finback whales! Unfortunately, one of the finback whales was dead, floating on the surface with an inflated tongue. The whale beached hours later on Cape Cod and was necropsied by local researchers. We identified Ventisca, Rune, Milkweed, Abrasion and calf, Ganesh and calf, Thumper and calf, Rapier and calf, Blackhole and calf, Lavalier and calf, Nazka, Buzzard, Ivory, Thread, Wyoming, Pixar and Fracture. All of the dolphin fleet’s whale identifications are submitted to the North Atlantic Humpback Catalogue, which is a photo catalogue and database that is supported by local humpback researchers and whale watch naturalists and contains 10,000 individuals. There have been at least 30 peer reviewed scientific publications that have come from this research effort!
Many of the observed humpbacks were feeding. We saw a myriad of feeding behaviors, from kick feeding, bubble clouds, to lunge feeding. Towards the end of our trip we came across Lavalier’s 2009 calf who was lobtailing (smashing its flukes on the surface of the water) and a curious humpback named Rune that swam around our boat!
Lavalier’s 2009 Calf Lobtailing
Dead Finback Whale
On May 22nd we had incredible humpback sightings, with 45-53 individuals! We traveled to the Southern Edge of Stellwagen Bank and found 23-25 humpbacks that were feeding. Stellwagen Bank is a highly productive area because of nutrient upwelling, whereby currents hit the steep walls of the bank and reflect upward. As the currents move upwards they bring detritus (dead nutrients) that have accumulated on the sea bottom up to the sea surface. When detritus is carried to the surface, phytoplankton (microscopic algae) utilize the nutrients as well as light energy from the sun. This process supports a complex food web, whereby increased primary productivity nourishes zooplankton (almost microscopic drifting animals) and planktivorous fish such as sand lance feed on the zooplankton. Various other marine species feed on the sand lance, including Atlantic white-sided dolphins, finback whales, humpback whales and minke whales. Although it is remarkable, it is thus not surprising to see humpbacks engaging in feeding behaviors on Stellwagen Bank. We watched as several of the humpbacks engaged in kick feeding, lunge feeding and bubble clouds. We identified Ventisca, Salt, Alphorn, Reaper, Eruption, Tunguska, Buzzard, Tongs, Walrus, Fracture, Belly, Pogo, Joy, Underline, Walrus, Grackle, Crystal and Thumper and calf.
On May 23rd we left Provincetown harbor with gray skies, moderate wind and calm seas. We observed an array of whale behaviors and sighted 19-20 individual humpbacks and 1 finback whale. We identified Lavaliere, Ventisca, Salt, Cardu, Ganesh and calf, Milkweed, Thumper and calf, Ivory, Glostick, Pinpoint, Abrasion and calf, and Ragweed. We first sighted a group of 12-15 humpbacks that were kick feeding and surfacing with open mouths. Shortly after leaving the feeding humpbacks we saw Ventisca who became very curious of our boat, swimming around us for 15 minutes! Later that afternoon Ragweed breached out of the water and an unknown humpback flipper slapped. Humpback whale’s scientific name is Megaptera novaengliae, which loosely translates into the big winged New Englander. Humpbacks received this name because of their long pectoral flippers. Humpback’s pectoral flippers are approximately a third the length of the whale’s body and are predominately white in the Atlantic and black in the Pacific. Sometimes when humpbacks flipper slap they will shed dry skin, which can be collected by researchers to examine toxins that may have accumulated in the whale’s body.
Humpback Whale Flipper Slapping
We headed towards the South West Corner of Stellwagen Bank on May 24th with optimal whale sighting conditions. We observed three species of baleen whale, including 39-48 humpback whales, 1 finback whale and 1 minke whale! We identified Ventisca, Milkweed, Crystal, Wyoming, Nazka, Tear, Anchor, Alphorn, Nimbus, Tracer, Tongs and calf, Gumdrop, Palatte, Bolide and calf, Cosmos, Echo, Reflection and calf, Putter, Ganesh and calf, Dome and calf and Abrasion and calf. It appeared as though Ventisca, Putter and Ganesh were searching for food as they were traveling randomly, popping up in different places every time. Putter was acting as an escort to Ganesh and her calf as the trio were associated throughout the day. It is common for adult humpbacks to briefly accompany mother/calf pairs, perhaps to assist in babysitting. Dome, Nazka, Crystal and Wyoming, however, appeared to have found food as they were demonstrating various feeding behaviors such as kick feeding, open mouth feeding and sub-surface feeding. Towards the end of the day we saw Tear flipper slapping and breaching!
Putter, Ganesh and Calf
On May 25th we left Provincetown with bright skies, low winds and calm seas and headed towards the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank. We had 32-36 humpback whale sightings, 1 finback whale sighting, 1 minke whale sighting and 1 harbor seal sighting. We identified Fracture, Pogo, Filament, Pipette, Measles, Mira, Ursa, Charger, Flounder, Ventisca, Buzzard, Glo, Centipede, Release, Gumdrop, Division, Barb, Nimbus and Tracer! Throughout the entire day the humpbacks were engaging in feeding behaviors, such as kick feeding, surface lunging, bubble clouds, bubble nets and possible sub-surface feeding. Many of the whales were also dragging, swimming forward with their chins-up, forcing out the salt water and trapping the fish inside their mouths. One juvenile humpback became curious of our boat. This whale was putting on quite a show, popping up on either side of the boat and even flipper slapping!
Humpback Whale, Ventral Pleats Extended
May 26th brought yet another great day for whale watching. We had 23-28 humpback whales, 1 finback whale and 1 minke whale. In the morning the humpbacks were very active and playful. A group of 6 humpbacks consisting of Underline, Mira, Persied, Pipette and Bolide and calf were breaching. Underline seemed to be especially playful as s/he conducted several breaches in a row! Towards the early afternoon the whales switched gears and began feeding. We observed various feeding behaviors from kick feeding to bubble clouds. Glostick, Draco, Ravine, Fracture, Pipette, Gumdrop and Mira all appeared to be feeding independently. In the late afternoon the whales changed behaviors again, as Glostick, Gumdrop, Alphorn and Tracer were all breaching!
Humbpack Whale Kick Feeding
On May 27th we left the harbor with light rain and calm seas. We only traveled as far as Wood End Lighthouse before we found 12 juvenile humpback whales. There were several birds in the area, including common terns and laughing gulls. Birds are often indicative of feeding whales because many of sea birds found in Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank are feeding on the same resource the whales are, sand lance. There was one common tern that had caught a sand lance and was flying around the area trying to protect its lunch from the hovering laughing gulls. Several small fishing boats were also in the area, perhaps catching mackerel, as there were several large fish traveling near the surface. The humpbacks were going on fluking dives, which also suggested that they might be feeding sub-surface. With large numbers of humpbacks, birds and fishing boats it appeared as though we were in a dynamic area and were probably missing a feeding frenzy below! We identified Gumdrop, Freefall and Rapier and calf.
We steamed out to Cape Cod Bay on May 28th with gray skies, moderate wind and seas. Without getting far we found 25-35 individual humpback whales, many of which were near Race Point Lighthouse. We suspected that the whales might have been sub-surface feeding as there were many birds in the area and the whales were going on high-fluking dives. High-fluking dives are often suggestive of deep dives. Many of the whales appeared to be unknown juveniles, however, we did identify Northstar, Freefall and Hazard. Hazard was named this past Spring. It is common for juvenile humpbacks to arrive on the feeding grounds earlier than adult whales, especially nursing females. Because juveniles aren’t sexual mature, they have less of a reason to hang around the breeding grounds and unlike nursing mothers who can only travel as fast as their young, juveniles have practically no limitations. In fact, some juveniles remained on the feeding ground all year long! The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies’ right whale habitat team documented several juvenile humpbacks in Cape Cod Bay during the Winter and early Spring of 2008 while conducing right whale surveys. Towards the end of the day we came across Scylla’s 2008 calf and an unknown humpback whale. Both whales became very curious of our boat. While our boat was in neutral the whales swam around us for almost an hour! The whales tried to get a better look by spy hopping, and one whale even tried to get us wet by splashing us with his tail!