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Naturalist’s Notebook: July 12 to July 18

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoises) are not the only marine mammals commonly seen when whalewatching from Cape Cod.  There are two species of seal that are fairly common throughout the summer months.

Gray Seals, commonly called horseheads, have become increasingly common around the beaches close to Provincetown over the past decade.  Fairly large seals, the males may be as long as eight and a half feet and weigh as much as 750 pounds.  Females are a bit smaller, tipping the scales at a mere 450 pounds and measuring just six and a half feet.  The name horsehead refers to the very long, broad, and flat head that gives the animal the appearance of lacking a forehead.  Males are typically dark gray with lighter colored spots and females are generally lighter with darker colored spots.  The body is robust and large, tapering to a slender hip and tail.  The flippers are broad and strong.

Gray SealGRAY SEAL_5-18-12_IMG_1732

Harbor Seals are not nearly so large.  Males and females can get to about six feet long and between three-hundred and four-hundred pounds.  The body is short and narrow, with short flippers.  From the whalewatch boats, the face looks very much like that of a puppy, with a short snout and a forehead. (The easiest way to tell the difference between the two.)

Harbor sealharbor-seals-30-april-img_369421

Both of these species feed predominately, in the closeby waters, on small, schooling fish like sand lance, herring, and mackerel.  However, especially the larger gray seals have been seen feasting on bluefish and stripers.   And, though it is not unknown for them to steal a catch from an unfortunate fisherman, it is a fairly rare occurence.

It wasn’t until nearly the middle of the week that seals were noted in the nearby waters.  Both species were sighted on July 15 and July 16.  The only other sightings reported this week were the four gray seals sighted by the Dolphin 10 on the 17th.

“What a day to be a whalewatch naturalist,”  was a common sentiment this week, with naturalists reporting large numbers (10 to 50) of feeding humpback whales.  “I have never seen it like this,”  says Therese.  “There were so many humpbacks surface lunging, bubble-feeding, and rolling. . .   They were EVERYWHERE.”

humpbacks offshoredragging humpbacks

Mark reports a “Wallapolooza!” on July 15.  Continuing, “We had plenty of full spinning head breaches, tail breaches, chin breaches, flipper slapping, and lobtailing.”

Humpback rollFlipper slapperHABENERO LOBTAILchin breach milkweed

Dennis reports seeing Ventisca “lying alongside the boat so close we could count her tubercles and look down her blowholes.”   He never does, however, share the number.

ventisca-img_9918Colt head

On July 17, Nancy reports social interactions between a female named Abrasion (her calf of the year close beside) and two others.  She says that Aerospace appeared to be acting as an escort whale and another humpback kept trying to cut in between Aerospace and Abrasion.  “Aerospace just wasn’t having any of that.  Chin breaching, rolling, trumpeting, bubble trails”  were all part of this animals response.

On the same day, Dennis reports seeing two humpback whales flippering simultaneously.  He also reports a very cooperative basking shark.


And, also on the 17th, Ellie says, “Morning started with a splash!  Breaching, rolling, and flipper slapping whales.”

On July 18,  there were also reports of lunging finbacks and lunging minkes.  Huge numbers of birds and visible shoals of small fish should have caught the attention of the humpback whales, but, in the morning, somehow failed to.


Mike reported seeing two minke whales travelling in association.  That is fairly rare in the nearby waters here.  Keeping in mind that everything we see on the whalewatch trip is taking place at the surface and not at any depth, he reports that the minnow trap he uses to collect specimens for the youngsters’ trip on saturday morning provided nearly a dozen green crabs for discussion.  They are, alas, in many ways like their lobster cousins.  By the time the trap was pulled, the group had already eaten on of their own.