20 September-Sunday morning was bright with light winds as we left Provincetown harbor. We traveled to the triangle, east of Stellwagen Bank, where we sighted several humpback whales. In the morning, the humpbacks were deep diving, but the calves of Apex and a new, unnamed mother were flippering and spending long periods of time on the surface. Reflection’s calf stayed close to its mother and often surfaced with her. Circuit, Buzzard and Chromosome were deep diving, possibly feeding on fish below. In the afternoon we returned to the same area and the whales sighted in the morning had been joined by Tunguska, Jabiru, Anchor and her calf and a few small, unknown humpbacks, perhaps calves of 2008. On the sunset trip the whales had dispersed and although we traveled back to the triangle, we sighted fewer whales: Anchor, Follicle and their calves and a small juvenile.
To name a whale
Individual humpback whales can be identified readily through photographs of natural markings and scars, particularly those found on the underside of the tail flukes. These patterns, ranging in color from all white to all black, appear to be generally stable in adults, much like our thumbprints. The size and shape of the dorsal fin on the whales’ back, as well as acquired scars also are useful in identifying individual whales. These patterns and markings are used in naming a whale. Each name is descriptive, some requiring more imagination than others. The names are not gender related. For example, Anchor and Chromosome were named after distinctive black patterns on their tail flukes. Can you tell who’s who?
21 September– Monday was bright and clear with light Northwest winds. We again traveled to the triangle. Several Minke whales were darting about the area while the humpback whales were surface feeding. Buzzard, Ventisca, Habenero and Apex surfaced through clouds and nets of bubbles with mouths wide open- full of water and small fish. Apex’s calf remained close to the group but did not appear to be feeding on its own. By the afternoon and sunset watches other humpbacks had moved into the area and at first were surface feeding. Trident, Anchor and calf, Nazka, Pipette, Reflection and calf, the new unknown mother and calf, and Kahoutek joined the feast. Late in the afternoon the whales stopped surface feeding, but a few of the humpbacks were flippering. Bolide and her calf were traveling with Canopy and Mostaza, a female born to Salt. Citation, Pele, Buzzard and 2 small unknown humpbacks were moving about the area diving for 6 to 8 minutes. On our way back to Provincetown in the late afternoon we spotted a large group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, the most common toothed whale in the area. The dolphins swam effortlessly beneath the bow and on all sides of us, surfacing in twos and threes. The pod or school of at least 150 or so contained several mothers and calves as well as juveniles. Like most toothed whales, white-sided dolphins are highly social animals. Most of their activities are carried out within the security of the pod. They work cooperatively and efficiently to herd prey and protect and nurture their young. While little is known about white-sided dolphins, it is believed the pods are comprised of related females and their offspring, both calves and juveniles, and several adult males.
22 September– Tuesday was bright with calm seas and light winds from the southwest.. Our watches today took us back to the triangle, an area where several humpbacks have been sighted throughout the summer. This morning was no exception. Mostaza was traveling with Canopy and 09291, a small humpback first photographed this year. As we drifted, waiting for the group to surface, Eruption and Citation surfaced under the bowsprit startling the passengers and sending a mist of breath over all. Nearby, the trio had been joined by Ravine and Pele. Pipette and a small unknown humpback also were in the area, most on long dives. In the afternoon many of the same humpbacks were sighted. Ravine now was traveling with Bolide and calf, Draco and Milkweed. Trident was in the area and moving fast to the North while Apex and calf were accompanied by Aerospace, Cajun and Whisk. On the sunset watch the whales were spread out over a wide area but still numerous. A few humpbacks not seen earlier were identified. Thumper at first was lobtailing, continually hitting her flukes on the water’s surface, and then swam close to and around the Portuguese Princess with her calf. Epee was traveling with Canopy and Draco and Division and Nazka were on their own.
Following identified whales
Scientifically, following individuals of any species throughout their lives is the key to answering basic, biological questions. To date, over 1,800 humpback whales, spanning at least 4 generations, have been documented during over 30 years of data collection aboard the Dolphin Fleet. While we do not know how old humpback whales live to be, we do know that they can reach sexual maturity at the age of 4 and have documented each year they return with a calf. Thumper, born to Nimbus in 1998 is 11 years old and has returned this year with her first calf, Bolide has had 2 calves and Apex 10. The answers to such basic questions are necessary to not only better understand the species, but to promote their protection and conservation.
Apex and Calf
Citation surfaces near the bow
23 September– Wednesday was overcast with light southwesterly winds. Back to the triangle! This morning and early afternoon the whales were in a few large groups. Bolide and calf were traveling with Milkweed, Ravine and 09291 and Canopy with Draco, Pele, Cajun, Tunguska, Citation, Eruption and Aerospace. Bolide’s calf separated from the group, not unusual for this seemingly independent calf. Eruption left the group as well and began to lobtail. The crew of the Dolphin VIII spotted active whales just North of Race Point in mid afternoon. Canopy’s 2008 calf was breaching and lobtailing and a small humpback, new to the area this year was lunging across the surface- a method of surface feeding. The DVIII returned to the triangle for the sunset watch where Eruption, Division, Citation, Ravine and a small unknown were on long dives, perhaps feeding deep in the water column. Occasionally, they would swim near and circle the DVIII, moving under and around the bowsprit.
Like many whales, humpbacks are international citizens, crossing country borders as they migrate great distances each year. The migration relates to the life cycle of the whale, as they feed during the summer in Northern waters and breed and calve during winter months towards the equator. During the winter, the majority of the population congregates to mate and calve among the reefs and islands of the West Indies. Humpbacks leave the breeding areas in spring to migrate to several high-latitude feeding areas during spring and summer months including the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland-Labrador, Greenland, Iceland, and Norway. Fidelity, or faithfulness, to feeding areas is well documented. While on the tropical breeding grounds, humpbacks from all feeding areas can be seen swimming side-by-side – yet each year, the humpback whales of Cape Cod return to their ancestral feeding grounds- as do their calves once they leave their mothers’ side.
A humpback lunges at the surface
A humpback breaches near Provincetown
24 September– A bright, cool day with Northeasterly winds and increasing clouds. During the morning and afternoon, the whales were scattered over a wide area in the triangle. Most of the humpbacks were traveling throughout the area, occasionally slowing down to feed. We photographed Aerospace, Belly, Draco, Canopy, Ravine, Milkweed, Cajun, Bolide and calf, Pele, Eruption and Citation. The Portuguese Princess traveled just south of Stellwagen Bank where Coral, Abrasion and calf, Thumper and calf, Anchor and calf, Release and Aswan were surface feeding. The highlight of the day, however, was a small humpback whale that was rolling in and through a large patch of seaweed. Over the years we have watched humpbacks ‘play’ with logs, plastic bottles and buoys in the water. But watching them in a patch of seaweed as they roll and move it across their heads and down their backs is the most enjoyable of all. As we head back to Provincetown the sky is bright with color, promising another, spectacular sunset.
A humpback plays with seaweed
25 September- Trips cancelled due to high seas