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Naturalist’s Notebook – July 09, 2016 to July 15, 2016

This weeks whalewatchers, too, were treated to numerous views of feeding humpback whales.  When the animals were feeding near the surface, the usual spectrum of techniques was evident.  There was the blowing of single clouds of bubbles to corral the schooling fish closer together as well as the blowing of fine nets of bubbles that thickened up into spirals of columns of bubbles.  Some of the whales used their flukes to create additional areas of disturbance over top of where their bubbles were rising to the surface.  And whales like Echo and Tornado would used their chins to kick the surface of the water as well.

On July 11, Mark Gilmore notes what he called “chin-breach feeding.”  The Dolphin VII had spotted a group of three whales that included a mother and calf pair.  The mother, named Palette, and the escort, Coral, were cooperatively building bubble nets and kick-feeding.  Rather than lift his chin just a little above the surface to “kick” the surface with it before his used his flukes, it sounds like Coral would chin-breach on top of the already rising bubbles, lifting his head high above the surface to let it fall in huge splashes that added a great deal to the confusion at the surface.  Mark reports that Coral did this quite repeatedly throughout the sighting.

Other whales have used this technique, most notably Cats Paw.  Cats Paw was a bit of an extremist with this style, nearly throwing its whole body out of the water to create the disturbance.  I was only fortunate enough to watch Cats Paw feed this way once and it left me wondering how little we might know about the energetics of breaching.  Breaching should cost a lot of energy, but if the energetic cost of feeding this way was too much, Cats Paw wouldn’t have done it.

The passengers of the Dolphin IX were treated to a less predicable form of lunge feeding on July 9.  Sometimes the schools of forage fish are so thick and concentrated that the large whales do not have to do anything to draw them closer together.  When this is the case, watching feeding humpback whales is more like watching feeding finbacks.  Fin whales just lunge along the plane of the surface at speed.  The only indication you might get before the lunge is a quick boil of fish.  Today, Etch-a-sketch was feeding in a similar manner, except that rather than lunge along the horizontal of the surface, she would lunge vertically, bringing the front of her body high above the surface with her mouth open wide.  Though it was much tougher to predict where she would lunge, it proved to be a beautiful lesson on the way the baleen and rorqual pleats work together to rid the mouth of salt water.

The surface activity of the calves continued throughout most of this week, as well.  The calves of Zeppelin, Nile, Palette, Venom, Echo, and Eruption all got raves from the naturalists and passengers for their aerial abilities.

The curiosity of both calves and adults was also reported from trips on July 9, July 11, July 12, and July 15.  Most of these reports were of calves checking out the whalewatching vessels while their moms were feeding.  The one report from July 9, however, involved an adult.  As the Dolphin IX approached a pair of humpback whales, they split up.  While one continued on in the same direction, the second paused and came over to the boat.  It swam up to one side, waited a moment, and then crossed to the other side underneath the boat.  As it rose, it turned around to face the boat on this side.  After spending a little time there, it again dove under the vessel and reappeared where it had started.  This went on for five or six minutes before the whale moved on and rejoined its companion.  When we caught up to them again to try to get some photos of their flukes, the same thing happened.

This was also a week in which lucky passengers were able to hear the vocalizations of humpback whales.  Dome was sighted in feeding groups several times this week.  She is known to make use of her own “honking horn” as Mark Gilmore puts it.  As it happens when she has already surfaced through her bubble clouds, it is likely a way she is communicating with the other whales feeding near to her rather than a way to corral fish.  A humpback named Crisscross was also heard making some rather unusual noises at the surface.  This was when a group of humpback whales crossed paths with the group Crisscross was feeding in.  On July 15, Nancy Scaglione-Peck reported adults “vocalizing with deep grunts and trumpets as a storm was rolling in.”  She adds that, “the storm made for a wonderful backdrop behind the whales.  It was beautiful with thunder and lightning in the distance.”

Other species of whales were also observed this week.  Numerous sightings of finback whales, minke whales, and atlantic white-sided dolphins.  Rather large groups of the dolphins were reported on both the 12th and 13th.

More than a dozen gray seals were also reported on July 9. At this time of the year, they can usually be seen hauled out on the beaches around Long Point or down the backside.  As the clock moves toward eight or nine in the morning, they commonly move into the water as the human activity on the beaches increases.  Sometimes they spread out a bit, but today they were all in one great big group just beyond Wood End Light.

One more thing I would like to comment on, this week.  I always find it interesting what the other naturalists will report as bird sightings.  Most of them go about their business, ignoring the Common Eiders and Double-crested Cormorants that are usually quite evident between the pier and the breakwater.  It struck me recently that I, myself, have overlooked a bird that is seen every day on the pier and on our floats, and in far greater numbers than the Eiders or Cormorants.  There are hundreds of Rock Doves, or “pigeons”, that thrive in our harbor.  Before you dismiss them as rats with wings or allow your children to scare them, keep this in mind.  It is from this species that homing pigeons and carrier pigeons are trained.  In World War II these carrier pigeons saved hundreds and thousands of lives, both military and civilian, by delivering information about troop strength and operations to allied headquarters.  The highest award for animal bravery is the Dicken Medal.  Of the fifty-four Dicken Medals given during WWII, eighteen went to dogs,  three went to horses, one went to a cat, and all of the remaining 32 medals were awarded to pigeons.  So before you dismiss them as disease carrying vermin or allow your children to run at them wildly screaming, remember that every living being is part of the ecological community and fills a necessary niche.