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Naturalist’s Notebook – July 02, 2016 to July 08, 2016

For most of this week, the adults continued feeding at depth, despite the huge numbers of forage fish, mostly sand eels, just beneath the surface.  While they pursued their sustenance, the calves continued their assault on the air.  Again, this week, the reports from nearly all trips were of calves breaching and flippering and lobtailling.

On July 4, the passengers of both the Dolphin VIII and the Dolphin VII were lucky enough to see minke whales lunging through the surface as they fed.  Therese Provenzano, reporting from the Dolphin VIII, reported that among the fifteen or so surface feeding humpbacks, there was a breaching minke and a minke that lunged through the surface with its mouth open.  I was aboard the Dolphin VII and tried very hard to orient my passengers toward the minke whales that were repeatedly lunging at the surface.  They were remaining upright as they lunged, with the tips of their rostrums and their dorsal fins and just the tips of their pectoral flippers visible above the surface as they lunged quickly through huge swathes of what appeared to be sand eels.  Minke whales need less time to recover from their lunges than the larger whales so, many times, we saw the minke lunge once and then turn around and lunge nearly immediately through the same spot in the forage fish school.

I also renewed a friendship, this day, with a whale named Colt.  He spent part of the afternoon flippering beneath the bowsprit of the Dolphin VII.  The bright sunshine gleamed from the white of his flippers as they bowed and flexed in front of the boat.  It also reflected from his wet back and sides, casting brief glimmers of light in the eyes of those who were witnessing.  It has been a long time since I last saw Colt.  He is a whale that is known to have a certain tendency towards curiously approaching whalewatching vessels.

My most vivid memory of Colt is the way he fishtailled around to pursue the Dolphin VII, many years ago.  Captain Aaron was taking us down the backside of the Cape to look for whales and we passed Colt around the Race Point Station.  We were going roughly East and he was going roughly West.  I felt like he saw us at about the same time we saw him.  Before the captain could even slow the boat down, Colt had flung himself around to chase after us.  Do you remember the old cars from the 50’s?  Many of them had the fins that housed the tail lights.  In the movies, these were the cars that always seemed to fishtail the best.  And when I saw Colt spin around to catch up to us, it reminded me of the way those cars flung around.  Even to this day, I can’t see a car with fins without thinking of Colt.  He spend, once he had caught up with us, about a half hour or so swimming beneath us and around us, just checking out the Dolphin VII.

Today being Independence Day, the Provincetown fireworks display was watched from each of the sunset trips on the Dolphin Fleet boats.  Truth is though, at least for the passengers aboard the Dolphin VII, the surface activity of the humpbacks on the trip had caused splashes far bigger than the spread of the fireworks display.

Though little above its presence was reported by the naturalist aboard the Dolphin VIII, the sighting of more than a thousand Atlantic White-sided dolphins on July 5 was a big deal. Alas, I have no information about where they were or what they were doing.  Usually, when you see “lags”, it is a group of between 35 and 70.  Sometimes the groups are smaller and sometimes a little larger, but a thousand animals of any species is impressive.

When I write that July 6 saw more of the same; the surface feeding, the subsurface feeding, the breaching, the flippering,  I don’t want my readers to get the wrong idea.  Yes, humpback whales are more likely to be active at the surface than any other species but, no, they do not behave like this all of the time.  Data has been collected from every whalewatch trip the Dolphin Fleet has done over the last forty years.  Breaching or flipperslapping or lobtailling occurs once in fifty to sixty sightings.  The odds are slightly higher if you are viewing calves.  It is not an every day occurrence.

I want to give you a little perspective based on my experience.  First, numbers do not make the trip.  My first year aboard the Dolphin Fleet was 1995.  If you are an avid whalewatcher, you will remember that whales were a little scarce that year.  In previous years, the herring population on Georges Bank had crashed, causing the humpbacks that usually would have spent the feeding season there to come closer to shore and feed on the sand eels that were on and around Stellwagen.  After several years of this, the near shore population of sand lance also crashed, causing the humpbacks to scatter and look for food.  Whales were hard to find that year.  But many of my fondest memories of whalewatching are of the one or two whales I saw on some of those trips.  I saw only seven humpback whales that year.  One of them was Colt.  I had what very well may have been my all-time best look at a finback whale that year as it surfaced just to the starboard of the bow.  And second, surface activity is not why humpbacks  come here.  Humpbacks and other whales come here because there is food here.  Sometimes it is near the surface but, most of the time,  it is located at depth.  Whales feed where the food is.  If the food is deep down, that is where the whales will be feeding.  Also, if the whales are hungry, or haven’t had their fill, they will spend their time eating and not breaching or flippering or being curious.

So, if you have been whalewatching in the past couple of weeks, just remember how lucky you were.  I try to tell my passengers that this is not what it usually looks like.  I hope they understand.

Even through the fog of the next couple of days, the calves could be seen breaching and flippering.  Although, hearing them breach and flipperslap was usually the way the calves were found.  \

The week ended on a fairly windy and choppy day.  Wind and sea conditions apparently do not affect the activity of whales.  The adults continued feeding, some moving up to the surface, and the calves continued their various surface active exercises and play behaviors.