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Naturalist’s Notebook – August 13, 2016 to August 19, 2016

I think the best way to describe the week’s whalewatching, this week, is to tell you about a couple of the trips I was the naturalist on.  Let’s start with Saturday morning, August 13.

The day starts sunny and bright.  There is a light breeze but the air is warm.  The water in the harbor is flat and glassy.  The first thing I do when I get to the Dolphin X is to look out over the harbor for the Gray seal that has been spending time between the piers for several weeks.  Next, I get the ice for the blubber glove experiment.  Water goes in the bucket and the blubber glove gets rested beside that bucket on the upper deck, behind the wheelhouse.  There are nearly three dozen green crabs in the minnow trap.  I place six in a bucket with ice under the liner and an aerator.  I set up the books and the baleen, beside the tooth replicas and the samples of real copepods and sand eels.

“Ready on the spring,” I say into the microphone and, as the boat backs away from the float, the line is lifted clear and our adventure begins.  The passengers and I begin our discussion of whales with a simple definition of the word ‘whale’.  And then they tell me, with a little prompting, what it means to be a mammal and why blowholes are a distinct advantage.  We also talk about hair and blubber, leading to the blubber glove experiment.  We talk about examples of the two groups of whales and how whales eat.  We talk about what they eat.  And we finish by talking about how much they eat.  And, before we know it, we are at the Race and there are finback whales all around us.

The water here is flat and spectacular for viewing finners and we have beautiful looks at some of the second largest animals that ever lived on earth.  From this point, I don’t exactly remember the order that the sightings occurred.  At one point, we noticed the tips of a dorsal fin moving at the surface of the water.  We went over to see the Blue shark.  The sea was flat and gorgeous for looking at this animal and it didn’t drop as we approached.  Instead, it swam gracefully along on nearly a line as we paralleled its course and had the best looks at this species that I may have ever enjoyed. It was sleek and beautiful and as it slowly dropped away from the surface, I thought that the crew and passengers alike would have been just as happy to be on a shark watching trip.

Then there was the Minke whale.  This is my twenty-second season whalewatching and I have seen many curious humpback whales.  Only once before have I seen a minke exhibit curiosity about the boat.  Today, we were moving between humpbacks and saw this minke following us.  When we stopped, it surfed up our wake to catch up to us and then began to circle the boat.  It turned under the bow and rolled to spin beneath us.  It surfaced on the other side and did the same thing.  For nearly twenty minutes this minke whale circled us and went under us and rolled on its side as it passed us. If you go whalewatching in Iceland, it is minke whales that you would be looking for.  Of course, there they will try to serve you minke whale meat at the restaurant you go to after you get off of the boat, too. The point is that minke whales can be, despite their size, really cool whales to watch.  Blowing past them just because they are minke whales doesn’t make sense.

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Of course, when whalewatch boats in our waters are blowing past minke whales, they are usually hoping to find humpback whales.  And once this minke had explored our boat thoroughly, it moved on, allowing us to continue our quest for the larger species.  All told, we encountered 7 humpbacks on this trip.  Many more were around, but the shark and the minke and the fourth or fifth humpback we watched took up most of our time.  Crisscross is a humpback we have been seeing with some consistency here lately.  Today, this young whale showed us the best display of breaching that many a passenger and even a few crewmembers have ever seen.

And then on the way back to port, we brought out the green crabs.  And that was the first trip  of the week!!!

I have been whalewatching a long time.   And I would have thought that might have been the best I should be looking forward to.  But then came my two trips on the Dolphin VIII on August 15.

On the morning trip, we got to Race Point to find 12 to 14 finback whales feeding beneath the surface.  They were lunging close enough to the surface, in the Race rip, that when the two’s and three’s came up their mouths were still open enough that we could see the water being pushed out of the corners of their mouths.  We could also see the extended rorquals beneath them, collapsing as they pushed forward through the shallow waters at the surface around us.

And as we were trying to work our way through the feeding finbacks and to the other side, we saw a big finner surface next to a much smaller finner.  A mother and calf pair.  And, better yet, the calf was nursing.  You could see it drop below the mother where the tailstalk meets the body, where her mammary slits are located.  It would pass beneath her, taking time to  pass under, before rising to take its breath on the other side.  The water was calm and the sun was high in the sky so it was incredible to watch the calf receive its nourishment.  At six or eight months old now, it will continue nursing for a few more months, taking fifty to seventy-five gallons of very rich milk every day.  The 35 to 50 percent fat milk that it gets allows it to add a foot and a half to its body length every month and a hundred fifty pound to its weight every day.  By the time its a year old, it will be twice the 15 to 18 feet it was at birth and much heavier than the ton and a half it was.

And of the ten humpback whales we encountered, Nile and her calf were the best.   The calf, just 6 to 8 months old, rolled upside down and swam with its flippers extended to its side as it passed through the couple foot swell.  It was amazing to see the animals movements as it pushed itself forward and gracefully angled the flippers to steer.

First trip down.   Could the second trip be any better?  Incredibly, IT WAS.

There were about a dozen and a half finbacks at the Race rip.  And while we only saw 7 humpbacks close to the boat, one of them was Salt.  She was alongside her fourteenth calf, Sciraccha, and, just once, threw the back end of her body up out of the water in a huge tail-breach.  She is a huge tub of a whale.  And I mean that with the same love you feel when you lift your grandchild up for the first time in a month and say, “You’re getting so big.”  And the splash was enormous.   We didn’t stay long with then, though, because there was an even more exciting sighting further to the north.

Fifty to one hundred Atlantic Bottlenosed Dolphins had been reported to us by another vessel.  I had never seen wild bottlenosed before.  That’s not entirely true.  When I have been vacationing at the beaches of the southern east coast, I have seen the pods swimming up and down the beaches and, at times, milling around waiting for the fish.  But these bottlenosed dolphins are of the offshore variety.  They are larger and darker than the ones you would see along the coast.  They are are also more likely to be marked up.

Even in the distance, we could see the splashes.  They were leaping and jumping high out of the water.  And, as we approached, it looked like fireworks going off in front of us.  Sometimes, the leaps were just high porpoising, with a graceful arch before plunging back down into the water.  Sometimes, they would spin around, looking like breaching humpbacks.  Most of the time, they would just spin partway around so that they would be sideways when their elongated rostrums broke back through the surface once more.  Early in my whalewatching career, it was explained to me that White-sided have the nickname “leaper” because of how often and how high they could do so.  They got nothing on Bottlenosed.

And on the way back over the southern end of the Bank, we found a place where there were more than thirty minke whales!  It was truly impressive to watch that many minke whales moving around us as we made our way to the south.

And that was my third and fourth trips for the week.

Two days later, I saw Tursiops (the genus name for Bottlenosed Dolphins) again.  This time, it was a slightly smaller group and they were not spending all of their time leaping.  Now they were acting more like White-sides or Commons.  We came upon them just swimming where they were going.  They moved in around us, taking advantage of the pressure waves created by the boat.  In this group there were a number of mother and calf pairs.  Calves can be born throughout the year, but they are rarely born in the winter months and most births take place around May and June.  They will nurse their calves for as much as eighteen months but the calves will stay with their mother for several more years.  After this, females will remain with the main group and males will form subgroups that kind of live on the edges of the pods, presumably while they work their way through adolescence.

Mating in this species occurs all year round.  That is very much like most species of dolphin.  Humans are not the only ones that mate for fun.  And all year round.  It is still a bit of a mystery why so few birth happen in the winter, because females appear to have a regular cycle.

And today, there were almost 30 finner off the Race.


These were my six trips for the week.  The notes from the other naturalists for their trips are also full of feeding finback whales,  humpback whales being active at the surface, large numbers of minke whales, and several species of dolphins, and big numbers of whales here to make their living.