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Naturalist’s Notebook: August 16 – August 22

It is a very common misconception that gulls are somehow tied to the sea, hence the misnomer, seagull.  Though they are more commonly seen at the shore, many species nest very far inland.  For example, Franklin’s Gulls breed in the upper midwest, from Idaho in the west to Michigan in the east and from there, north through central Canada.  I remember, as a kid, knowing that spring was upon us in south-central Pa when I started spotting gulls from the windows of my classrooms. There are several species of gulls that are quite common at the outer end of the Cape.

The largest is the Greater Blackbacked Gull.  Up to two and  a half feet long with a wingspan of over five feet, this gull takes four years to develope its mature plumage.  From a boat, it will appear large, with a white head and a very dark back and dorsal wing surface.  Undersides are white.  It has a pale eye, pink legs, and a yellow bill.  These gulls are quite commonly seen in the harbor and close to shore. great_blackbacked_gulls

The Laughing Gull is only about half the size of the Blackback, reaching 16 inches long and having a wingspan of only 40 or so.  White underparts, slate grey wings with black outer primaries, and a distinctive black hood make this gull easy to identify from a whalewatch boat.  This gull takes only three years to reach adult plumage.


Also common here are Herring Gulls.  Just about in the middle, size-wise, these gulls measure abour 25 inches and have a wingspan of shy of five feet.   This is another four year gull and, when mature, will feature a white head, slate grey back, and black wing tips.  Legs and feet are pink and bill is yellow with a red dot.


Boneparte’s Gulls, Iceland Gulls, and Glaucous Gulls also are to be found on occasion.  Boneparte’s Gulls are tiny compared to the rest of the gulls we see here.  Only about a foot long with wingspans that fall shy of three feet.  Grey mantle and white undersides, they have a white head in winter but a black hood in breeding season.  Tell them from Laughing Gulls by the black edging of the outer wing as opposed to the black wing tips.   Iceland  and Glaucous gulls are far paler in color than the others one might see from a whalewatch here.  Both are four year gulls and feature white underparts and extremely pale grey backs.  In fact, from the boat, most of them look like they are off-white above and below.  The Glaucous is larger and more robust than the Iceland and has shorter (proportionately) wings.  It also features a yellow eye and a yellow bill with a red spot.  The Iceland has a rounder head and black smudges at the wing tips, and a dark bill.

August 16 and 17  were full of resting.  All living things need to rest.  Fortunately for us, our heartrate and breathing are controlled by our autonomic nervous system.  That means that we can effectively shut off our conscious mind and allow our subconscious to take over.  And thus we dream.  What if, however, you had to be consciously aware of the breathing you did?  What if you even had to think about it?  Now that deep rest that refreshes both body and mind is no longer so easy.  From experiments with dolphins in captivity, where electrodes were placed on their heads to measure brain wave activity, we are fairly certain that they are capable of resting one hemisphere of their brains at a time and switching back and forth throughout the day.   A similar experiment with a recovering juvenile gray whale leads us to believe that it is likely the same with the baleen whales.


August 18 began with Cajun’s calf rolling and flipperslapping and breaching, but the curious approach from a humpback that has new scuff marks on the top of its head was the highlight of the morning.  In the afternoon, other calves joined in on the surface active behaviors.

rolling overdivision-calf-breach-june-19

There was lots of food on August 19.  That most of that food was toward the bottom was not out of the ordinary.  Sand launce get their name because at night they dart into the sandy bottom to hide from predators.  If there are zooplankters near the surface during the day, they will rise up to feed on them but if those copepods and such stay low in the water column for one reason or another, the sand eels will stay with them.


Fog is a tricky thing.  August 20 had lots of fog.  When you find a flippering or breaching humpback in it, the fog can greatly add to the effect and the excitement.  Finding that flippering or breaching humpback,  well that’s the trick.  And if you think seeing a 20 foot humpback calf in the fog is amazing, wait til you see a 70 foot finback rising from the depths in front of you.

Loon in the fog

On  August 21 the “gang of five” was sighted again.  Pele, Cajun and her 2015 calf, and Jabiru with her 2015 calf have become affectionately known as the gang of five.  They have spent a great deal of time together (on and off) this summer.  Fortunately for whalewatchers, while the adults are feeding deep beneath the surface, the calves are many times active at it.  Today was no exception.  Both calves were seen breaching yet again.



The “gang” was sighted again throughout the day on the 22nd.  For most of the day, the adults appeared to feed lower in the water column while the calves had time to exercise their muscles.  In the afternoon, the breaching of the calves looked like a breach off:  first one breaching and then the other looking like it was trying to outdo its companion.

And, of course, that lovely brown cloud that Pele released several times throughout the afternoon.  It was exactly what the passengers thought it was.

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