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Naturalists Notebook – August 23 to August 29

*    August 23 was definately about Mogul.  Other humpback whales were seen, but Mogul was the highlight of the day.  Several trips today found this animal curious about the boats, orienting toward them and taking an interest in what they might be.   As mammals, humpback whales are curious by nature, when they are not too busy taking care of other things.  They approach other items with the same kind of curiosity.  Things like seaweed, and oil buckets, and icebergs.  Usually, it is thought that the animal is reacting to the boat and not to the people on it.  It is, after all, the large thing floating at the interface of their world and ours.,

*     That in no way diminishes the power of that interaction.  Having a forty foot animal swim beneath the boat and turn as it surfaces on the other side to orient toward the boat gives one a sensation of being connected to that whale that is only intensified when the animal crosses beneath the vessel to come up on the other side.

*     There were other humpback whales seen that day, too, including Valley and her 2013 calf.  The calf delighted the passengers of the Dolphin VIII with a series of tail-breaches and chin-breaches.  Calves are thought to be more likely to do these things as play behaviors than adults.  It may be that when they are doing them it is very much like when human children play house.  The children are learning how to be little people.  The calf is learning how to be a little whale.  It appears that whale calves may learn faster than human children, or maybe they have better teachers.  In just one year, a humpback whale will teach her calf everything it needs to know to be a whale, but it takes humans fifteen or twenty (or forty) years to make adults out of our young.

*     August 24 saw the return of Nile to the nearby waters.  The day began with a discussion of such topics as “why are a whale’s nostrils on the top of its head,” what kinds of whales have teeth,” and “what is this baleen stuff, anyway.”  Then the passengers aboard the Dolphin X were treated to views of two pairs of finback whales.   The second pair surfaced close to the boat, one on either side of the bow.

*     In the evening, Nile was found heading to the west.  Tongs tail-breached.  And, in obvious reaction, Nile turned around and headed directly to the other humpback.  The two of them joined up and began to travel together.  Without doubt, that tail-breach was a form of communication.

*     All day long, on August 25, the calm seas allowed for excellent viewing of the resting, or logging, humpback whales.  Nile, Scylla, Tongs, Valley, and even her half spent the day moving around very slightly.  Toward the end of the day, Clipper and her 2013 calf found their way into the close waters.   Clipper has been sighted here on and off since 1983.

*     A small pod of atlantic white-sided dolphins thrilled the passengers on several of the trips with leaps and surfing.  Finwhales and minkes rounded out the cetacean sightings.

*     And then there was the shark.  A basking shark wandered into the glass-clear waters alongside the Dolphin X, allowing the passengers there a spectacular look at the skim-feeding behavior of this, the second largest fish.  If you have been following along, you will recall that these large sharks make their living by filtering small animals out of the water using gill-rakers and that their teeth are very undeveloped.

*     Numerous humpback whales were sighted again on August 26.  Nile and Tongs were once more seen swimming together.  Conflux, Coral, and Furrows were also identified.  At times, though the small groups of whales were swimming very close together and in the same direction, they were on very different dive sequences.  This was very curious.  Usually, when two animals are in such a social group, they dive and surface together as well, but no today, making this naturalist wonder if maybe the social group was just forming or about to break up.  Minkes and finwhales were also seen.

*     And on the way back into the harbor, a blue heron lifted onto its wings from the breakwater.  It was a spectacular sight, rising from the surrounding cormorants and effortlessly passing by the Dolphin X.  That capped off what turned out to be a good day for birders.  All four species of shearwaters, three species of gulls, and wilson’s storm petrels were all seen in relative abundance.  There were also common terns and an infrequent sighting of forster’s terns.

*     There was fog to spare on August 27. In the morning, visibility was reduced to between one-eighth and one-half a mile.  By afternoon, it was reduced in some places to just a boat length.  Did this prevent the Dolphin boats from finding whales?   NO.

*     Ok, when you are looking for whales in thick fog, it is often necessary to use your other senses.  The whales were mostly found by sound this morning, but in the afternoon, one was found by scent.  When a whale spends a deal of time exerting itself deep beneath the surface of the water, the build up of lactic acid in its tissues causes its exhalation to distinctly, well, nasty odor.  Imagine the worst thing you have ever smelled and make that ten times worse.  Once you smell it once, you will never find yourself unable to identify that odor again.

*     Sound and scent were used to find several humpback whales, including Nile, Ebony, Conflux, Pinball, and Valley and her 2013 calf.

*    The sound of spouts also brought the boats to sightings of finback and minke whales.  But the sightings of the blue shark were just plain, old-fashioned luck.

*     The fog continued into the next morning, confounding the efforts of crews and passengers alike to find whales.  They began doing better around lunch time, spotting several finback whales, including Skeg, and a humpback whale named Sirius.  It is interesting to note that Sirius had black flippers so he cannot be following beneath the surface nearly as easily as most of the other humpbacks in the study group.  A number of minke whales were also found, as was a pod of nearly a hundred or so atlantic white-sided dolphins, many of which were mother and calf pairs.

*     August 29 was windy and choppy.  The kind of day that is immense amounts of fun for some people and tremendous amounts of torment for others.  Valley and her calf were found and the calf amazed passengers of several trips with repeated breaches.  More than a half dozen other humpbacks were also seen in the area, but it proved difficult to get good looks at some of them because of the growing seas.