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Dolphin Fleet Naturalists Notebook- 29 September To 5 October 2007


29 September

Under bright sunny skies and with excellent visibility, the Dolphin VIII left Provincetownharbor mid-morning and ventured offshore. Just North of Race Point the crew spotted two mothers, Reflection and Perseid, with their calves. The pairs were swimming steadily east with the calves breaching occasionally.

Reflection’s calf

In the afternoon both pairs were sighted off the eastern edge of Stellwagen Bank. Also sighted in the area were Crown, Whisk, Tectonic, Trident’s 2006 calf (to be named next year) and several small Minke whales. The whales seemed to move about randomly, while not venturing far from the general area. The absence of birds and the generally long dives could indicate that available food was well beneath the surface of the water. By late afternoon only humpback whales were sighted. Most of the humpback whales, including Apex, Crown, Milkweed and Etchasketch were logging on the surface- a behavior associated with rest.



Etchasketch- representing a third generation- was born in 1998 to Thalassa and is one of her five calves. Thalassa was born to Salt in 1985 and is one of Salt’s ten calves.


30 September

Another bright, beautiful morning. The Dolphin VI sailed to the eastern edge of Stellwagen bank, where whales were sighted the evening before. With the exception of a few Minke whales darting through the water, most of the humpback whales- Crown, Trident’s 2006 calf, Milkweed, Tracer and Reflection and calf were logging. Circus, not sighted in a few days, was traveling about the area. In the afternoon there was a bit more activity. A group of three humpbacks- Milkweed, Whisk and Etchasketch- were flipper-slapping and spyhopping. Tracer and a small unidentified whale, while less active, would lift their flukes in the air when diving. Reflection and her calf slowly approached the Dolphin VI and swam around the boat for several minutes, much to the delight of all onboard. During the sunset trip, several of the whales-Crown, Buzzard, Milkweed, Etchasketch, Apex and Whisk- would occasionally flipper-slap. On their side (sometimes their back), the whales lift a long white flipper in the air. Slowly, almost lazily, the flipper hits the surface of the water and a sharp, slapping sound fills the air. Scientists are not certain why whales flipper slap- whale behavior for the most part remains a mystery. While the flippering behavior of a calf may be learning or play, there are many theories about why juveniles and adults flipper slap. They range from exercise, to communication, aggression and territorial displays.

Flipper slapping



Reflection was first sighted in 1992. She was not photographed as a calf. Reflection returned this year with her second known calf. Her first calf, a male named Buzzard, was born in 2000 and has been sighted several times this season.


01 October

Our destination this bright, sunny morning is the area north of the Peaked Hill Bars, on the back shore of Provincetown. The backs of Minke whales and spouts of humpback whales can be seen a distance away. A trio of humpbacks, Draco, Whisk and Milkweed were traveling, not venturing far and not spending much time on the surface. A large male named Tear however, tail breached in the distance. By early afternoon Draco, Whisk and Milkweed as well as Etchasketch appeared to be moving slowly to the west. Later in the afternoon, the DVIII ventured to Stellwagen Bank. Several humpback whales, including Crown, Conflux, Mostaza, Apex and Buzzard were sighted on the southwest corner of the Bank. All of the humpbacks were either traveling slowly or logging. The Dolphin VI returned to the Peaked Hill Bars area for the sunset trip and sighted twelve humpback whales. Many of the whales were deep diving for long periods of time. However, Milkweed, Draco, Whisk and Tear spent more time on the surface, lifting their tails in the air when diving. It was another exceptional weather day, ending with a spectacular sunset.



Whisk is a female humpback whale born in 1987 to Ivory. She is one of Ivory’s ten calves. Whisk has returned with 4 calves. Her last calf was born in 2006, was resighted this year, and will be named next spring.


02 October

It is hard to believe it’s October on this warm, sunny morning. Even though early, small pleasure crafts dot the harbor and Long Point- some for fishing and others to beach near the Point and bask in the sun. The Dolphin VIII moves through the Bay and heads to the eastern edge of Stellwagen Bank. Near Race Point, the Northern most tip of land in Provincetown, we see fleeting glimpses of Minke whales, but the humpback whales are further offshore. Our first sighting of humpbacks is of Whisk and Crown, both slowly swimming southeast. Also in the area are a group of four- Perseid and calf, Milkweed and Conflux. Like Whisk and Crown, they seem to have a destination in mind. Fulcrum and her calf are also in the area. Although traveling, the calf is a bit more active than Fulcrum, splashing and then breaching before resuming its travel. In the afternoon, Milkweed, and Perseid and calf are joined by Buzzard- no sign of Conflux. We are reminded of what seems (by our limited definition) to be a very fluid pattern of association in humpbacks, except for that of mothers and their calves. Logging nearby are Apex, Tracer, Tear and Columbia. Isthmus and calf appear to be logging but soon swim towards the Dolphin VIII and move around the boat for several minutes. Late afternoon there are fewer whales visible- Reflection and calf, Apex, Tear and Trident’s 2006 calf. Reflection’s calf rolls on its side and flipper slaps. The most active whale is Trident’s 2006 calf who continually slaps its tail on the water. This behavior called lobtailing is spectacular to watch- and poorly understood. It is time to head back to port and watch the sun set- the end of another perfect day offshore.

Trident’s 2006 calf lobtailing



Perseid was born in 1998 to Palette who has returned with four calves. Palette was born to Compass and is one of her seven calves. This year Perseid returned with her first calf- a fourth generation- making Compass a great-grandmother.


03 October

The bright, balmy weather was not destined to last as we awoke to a morning of dense fog. The Dolphin VI made way to the southeastern edge of Stellwagen Bank in search of whales. As we neared the area where whales had been sighted during the past week, we saw large, triangular dorsal fins streaming through the water. The largest shark commonly found in Cape Cod waters- the basking shark- is skim feeding on copepods. Like the right whale, this shark is a plankton feeder and has no teeth, but its size alone is impressive. Basking sharks can grow up to 30 feet (9 meters) long and weigh up to 4 tons (3,667 kg)! The brownish-colored, bulky shark swims slowly along the surface with its huge mouth open, fanning its impressive gills as it filters out small animal plankton from the water. It swims by moving its entire body, not just its tail, from side to side. In several areas of the world, basking sharks have been hunted to near extinction for their fin, liver oil and meat. They are slowing swimming and easy to approach. In other areas, their endangered status has led to legal protection. Several minutes later, the shark disappears beneath the water’s surface we slowly leave the area to look for whales.

Basking shark beneath the surface

With visibility improving, our spotter sights Apex, a large, female humpback whale, logging on the surface. We can better hear her exhale than see her from a distance. By afternoon the sun appears and there only are patches of fog. Once the visibility improves we find Apex once again as well as Perseid and calf, and Milkweed. By late afternoon the fog has retreated. Just beyond Race Point we sight a small pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins moving southeast at a fast pace as well as a Minke whale. Further to the east we sight humpback whales- Nazca, Apex, Milkweed, Reflection and calf and a large male named Tear. Milkweed and Reflection began to feed just beneath the surface and in the distance we watched Tear tail breach. With daylight fading, we sailed back to Provincetown, wondering if the morning would bring more fog- now looming on the distant horizon.



Apex is a female first photographed in 1982. She has returned with 8 calves. The named calves are: Icicle, Clamp, Wicket, Killick, Libra and Siamese.


04 October

A hazy, warm morning is a welcome relief from a few days of fog. Our first sighting was far from Race Point- off the eastern edge of Stellwagen where the sightings have been excellent over the past few weeks. All of the humpbacks in the area- Tracer, Apex, Milkweed and Perseid and calf- were slow traveling, often lifting their tails in the air. By afternoon the whales were further north. Several Minke and humpback whales were sighted, including Milkweed and Abrasion. All seemed to be in a traveling mode, moving about the general area. Perseid and reflection and their calves however approached the Dolphin VIII and slowly swam around the boat. The calves rolled on the surface and spyhopped, slowly coming out of the water head first. Towards sunset the mothers and calves and Abrasion were logging. Apex, Perseid and Milkweed began to sub-surface feed and we could see water pouring from the corners of their mouths as they surfaced. On the way home we sighted a large, triangular fin waving lazily to and fro. Out of gear we drift by one of natures most unlikely and bizarre creatures: the Mola mola or ocean sunfish. The word Mola is derived from Latin- meaning millstone, a fitting descriptor. The body is large, round and flattened with no discernable tail. The mouth, perpetually open, sucks in small animals such as jelly fish that drift by. Lying on its side, the ocean sunfish appears as a swimming head and can weigh as much as 2.5 tons. Despite size and shape, it swims gracefully through the water by synchronous flapping of its two large fins. It is possible that sunfish live to be over 100 years old. As we leave the ocean sunfish the sky is bright with color, a fitting end to a summer-like day offshore.

Ocean sunfish



Abrasion is a female and was born to Liner in 1997. She is one of Liner’s five calves. Abrasion, now ten years old could return in the next few years with her first calf.


05 October

Another summer’s day in October! The Dolphin VI slowly makes it way through the harbor, Cape Cod Bay and around Race Point light. The destination, as it has been for the past few weeks, is the eastern edge of Stellwagen Bank. There we find Minke and humpback whales and amazing views of Northern Fulmars, a bird we often see in the autumn. The Minkes move busily about while the humpback whales- Tracer, Filament and calf and Reflection and calf- rest or move slowly through the water. The whales, with the addition of Apex, still are resting in the afternoon. Also drifting, a large Mola mola (ocean sunfish). On our way back to port we see several triangular-shaped fins moving through the water. Three to five basking sharks, some almost twenty feet long, are feeding in echelon on the small animal life near the surface. After a few minutes, the sharks disappear and we resume our journey to Provincetown. Near sunset it seems as if there are fewer whales in the area. While not finding the mothers and calves, we spotted Abrasion, Apex and Milkweed and a few small unknown humpback whales. Abrasion would occasionally lunge feed just beneath the surface, Apex was logging and Milkweed traveling southeast. One small unknown was actively lobtailing close to shore and we watched this energetic whale before heading west, into the sunset, to return to Provincetown. It has been overall, a spectacular week for weather, whales and other marine life.

Abrasion feeding



Filament, a female humpback whale born in 1989to Batik has returned with three calves. Batik, a mother of two, was born to Veil in 1983. Veil became our first know great-grandmother when Filament brought her first calf Eden back to Cape Cod.