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Naturalist Notebook – October 05 to October 10

*     On October 05, the minke whales were feeding on the southern end of Stellwagen Bank.  Lunging, rolling, and charging, these animals were busily engaged in making their living.  At one point, one of them actually broke the surface of the water with its mouth open.   This kind of feeding frenzy is not commonly seen on Stellwagen Bank from minke whales.  It is far more typical of humpbacks.  Also far more typical of humpbacks were the bubbles that one of them blew beneath the surface at one point.  Watching minke whales be minke whales when there are between two dozen and three dozen around you is cool enough, but watching that many minkes behave like humpbacks isn’t the kind of thing you expect to see even once in a lifetime of whalewatching.

*     One of the dozen or so minke whales seen on October 06 was breaching.  Breaching is when the animal throws part or all of its body up out of the water.  If yesterday’s minkes were feeding like humpbacks, today’s was breaching like them also.  Eight or ten times, this animal launched itself out of the water, spinning like a humpback, and clearing the surface completely.  With minke whales, just like with other species of baleen whale, breaching is a way they communicate with other whales and other things in their environment and a grooming technique.

*     The other nearly dozen or so minkes were again making their living in virtually every direction from the boat.  There is the report again to day that one or more of them was seen blowing bubbles like the humpbacks.

*     The morning rain had slowed to a drizzle by early afternoon of October 07.  By mid-afternoon, the sun had come back from behind the clouds.  Minke whales were spotted down the backside of the Cape, off the Race Point Station.  And, with them, large groups of gannets and terns.  There was even a jaeger chasing one of the terns, attempting to scare it into dropping its fish.  As the passengers of the Dolphin IX were watching the minke whales, the wind grew to a howl.   A wide turn was needed around the Race to keep the ride comfortable for those passengers.

*     Strong winds from the northeast and a swell from the southeast kept the seas in a state of confusion on October 08.  The Dolphin IX slowed down to take a look beneath a group of diving terns and, there, sharing the same school of very small sand launce, the passengers and crew observed several minke whales.  On several occasions, one of them passed close enough to the vessel to allow the passengers to sea the white bands that cross the upper sides of their flippers.

*     On the southeast edge of the Bank, a large finback whale was spotted.  The first dive of this animal was only ten minutes long.  But then, after a really close look at the finner, it went beneath the surface and began to remain below for twenty or so minutes at a time.  It provided a fantastic demonstration of just how well adapted to the marine environment these whales are.  The building up of oxygen reserves in the myoglobin of their muscle tissue and the nearly shutting off of bloodflow to non-vital tissues are two of the advantages they have to allow them to remain beneath the surface for as many as forty minutes or more at a time.  Unfortunately, when the animal is staying beneath the surface for that long, the time runs out quickly and it was soon time to return to Provincetown Harbor.

*     East-northeast winds and an easterly swell combined to make October 09 a day for patience.  There were a number of minke whales in Minkeville.    While the passengers were busy watching them, the crew saw the spout of what was likely a finwhale in the distance, but it was not seen again this day.  In addition to the good looks at the minke whales, the passengers were also treated to views of a number of different bird species.  Hundreds of common terns with a fair percent of forster’s terns, as well, and two species of scoters (both white-winged and black) were spotted on this beautiful autumn day.

*     On October 10, we quite honestly just lucked out.  After quite a bit of time looking for spouts, the captain just looked up and said, “There’s one right over there.”  The spout right there was that of a small humpback whale that turned out, after a number of surfacings, to be the calf of a female named Orbit.  The calf was making dives of about three minutes, but Orbit stayed beneath the surface for fourteen minutes the first time she lifted her flukes and disappeared.  Fortunately, they were not moving very fast or very far while we were with them, so we were able to get a number of really good looks, especially at the calf.  This youngster would have been born over the past winter in the warmer waters of the Carribean.  Throughout the summer, Orbit was frequently seen a bit farther to the south, between Nantucket and Long Island.  She was first photographed in1979 (not as a calf) and has returned to our waters with at least 9 calves of her own.