The passengers of both the Dolphin VIII and the Dolphin IX were almost mesmerized by the sightings of Atlantic White-sided dolphins on May 21. These sleek and colorful cetaceans were seen by the passengers of all three trips in groups of at least 200 that spread out around the vessels so that all aboard could get a really good look at their slender bodies and the graceful markings that adorn their sides. The naturalist on the Dolphin VIII reports the presence of mother and calf pairs, remarking that the calves looked large. This could indicate that the calves are yearlings as Atlantic White-sided mothers will nurse their calves for approximately 18 months. Neither the individuals in the pod nor the mother and calf pairs seemed the slightest bit shy about approaching the boat. In fact, at times, they appeared to surface beside the Dolphin VIII for several breaths as if just looking the boat over.
The naturalist from the Dolphin IX reports that the passengers on that boat were treated to views of them porpoising through the water and leaping high into the air, adding that they were “so fun to see as they rode our wake.”
The passengers aboard the Dolphin VIII were also treated to an encounter with a finback whale near the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. At first, it was difficult to figure out what was going on with this whale. It would, consistantly, come for several breaths before sounding for seven or eight minutes. What was not consistant, however, was the animal’s direction of travel. This was no straight line. Nor did it appear to be just random changes of direction. No, this whale was making circles around the southwest corner of the Bank. There were no signs that it was feeding and no signs of forage fish appeared on the boat’s fishfinder. It just was swimming slowly around in circles. The naturalist remarked that he wondered if the whale was resting one of the hemispheres of its brain. Whether that was the case or not, once the circling pattern was apparent, some really excellent views of both sides of this assymetrically pigmented whale were enjoyed by the passengers and crew alike.
There was a single whalewatch trip on Sunday, May 22, and, though the naturalist tells me that no effort was spared by captain, crew, or passengers, there were no whale sightings. Just because there were no whales does not mean that nothing happened. There are still bird sightings, and sharks, and fish, and seals. There are still lighthouses and ships. It is unfortunate that there were no whale sightings, but when you spend three hours on the water, something always happens.
When you make reservations to go on a whalewatch, you should keep in mind that you are not going to a zoo or an aquarium. You are going into a wild, dynamic marine environment, looking for wild animals that would be wherever they are and doing whatever they are regardless of your presence.
The Dolphin Fleet does have an exemplary record, though. In the nearly forty years that the Fleet has been whalewatching, less than one percent of the trips have failed to find a large whale. That is because we whalewatch in one of the most important feeding grounds for humpback whales and finback whales in the North Atlantic. And we are very fortunate to have our trips depart from a port very close to one of the most productive places in that feeding ground. Stellwagen Bank has long been known for its productivity. It was just that productivity as a fishing ground that brought Portuguese fishermen to Middle Bank, as it was called then. They would bring their wives and children and settle into what would become Provincetown. After the fishing season, they would return to Portugal and the Azores. Eventually, some of these families stopped returning home, remaining, instead, as some of the first residents of Provincetown (commonly referred to as Helltown at the time). Then, and over the next couple of centuries, Provincetown was not an easy place to live. The men worked hard, fishing and whaling, and the women worked harder, doing nearly everything else.
Two sightings stood out in the reports from May 23. The first was the sighting of a finback whale that was staying beneath the surface for ten to twelve minutes on every sounding dive and just returning for two quick breaths between them. What struck the naturalist as noteworthy was that, on this particular day, this finback whale was surfacing very much like a minke whale. Usually, a finback whale surfaces such that the first part of its body to break the surface is the splashguard located immediately in front of the blowholes. Minke whales generally surface with the point of their rostrum (the point of their face) first. Watching a finback whale do this repeatedly was just odd. I was the naturalist on this trip and, though this is my twenty-second season on the Dolphin Fleet, I have never seen this before. Therefore, I, even after talking to my colleagues, don’t know what more to say about it.
The other sighting of interest, from today, was that of two mature humpback whales feeding on small fish. When you are watching feeding whales, it is hard to say what is happening beneath the surface. What was visible at the surface was this: Glostick would rise to the surface and lift her flukes high above the water before slapping it on the surface twice. Then, she would disappear. Within just moments of her sinking, we could see the beginnings of a spiral of bubble columns rising to the surface. They would thicken and grow together as we waited in anxious anticipation for the humpbacks to reappear. First, Glostick would kind of roll to the surface through the thickest part of the bubbles, a kind of sideways lunge that allowed her to fill her mouth. And then, just as Glostick was righting herself and closing her mouth, Cajun would rise from the depths in a vertical lunge so slow it was like it was in slow motion. Her mouth would be open, still, at nearly ninety degrees and full of the forage fish she had captured. She would rise enough that you could see the rorquals beneath her chin extended before swinging her body to a more horizontal plane while closing her mouth to just a sliver. Now she would begin moving forward through the water, dragging, so that the surface tension of the water could help collapse her rorqual pleats and push the fish and water against the inside of her baleen plates.
It was splendid to see once but it happened repeatedly, leaving the passengers of the Dolphin VIII very happy whalewatchers.
One of the drawbacks to the air warming faster than the surface waters is fog. And May 24 had lots of it, even into the early afternoon. Once the fog lifted, the afternoon sun lit up a number of Harbor porpoise, a Minke whale, and a Finback named Braid that was first photographed in 1980. The sun, high in the afternoon sky, reflected beautifully off of Braid’s body as he swam beneath the calm, flat waters near the Wood End. His right, lower jaw, white in color, reflected nearly neon-green beneath the surface but went quickly white as he rose to the sea-air interface. The air just above that interface is still cold enough that the warm, moist air being exhaled from his blowholes forms thick, white spouts that rise for nearly twenty feet before dissapating into a fine mist. The swirling blaze and chevron above his right eye and behind his blowholes shimmered in the sun as the water trickled its way from his back to the sea. Three or four or five of those spouts pass by way too quickly before he gracefully arches his back higher up and slides beneath the surface.
When Braid comes back to the surface, he is on the other side of the boat. The left side has no such distinctive markings, although fine tendrils of the swirling patterns do travel across his back to be lost on his left flank. But it is here, on his left side, that the reason for his name can readily be seen. For rising up the left side of his body to the dorsal ridge can be seen the pair of prop scars that look very much like two thick strands of braided hair. There is no doubt that the person who did this to this finback didn’t do it intentionally. But, if this person had been operating his vessel a little more responsibly, I would have to work a little harder to identify this animal. I think I can speak for my colleagues when I say that we would be happy to work a little harder if it meant that no other whales would be hit by careless boaters.
“Beautiful trip- out of the fog and into bright, clear sunshine,” was how Dennis Minsky started his report concerning May 25. John Conlon agreed, “Super dense fog in harbor and out burned off shortly.” He came back to weather with, “Nice and clear, cloud-free and warm.” The early sunshine revealled several Minke whales, reported to be small enough to be juveniles. If you have seen Minke whales from a hundred foot boat, if the animal was small enough to be perceived as particularly small, it must have been really small (maybe only fifteen feet and six tons).
Numerous finwhales were also seen today, foraging and subsurface feeding. One of them was seen by the Dolphin X, appearing very cooperative as it swam alongside the boat, allowing the passengers great looks at its lighter colored right side. The Dolphin VIII also reports wonderful looks at a finwhale named Skeg. The report does mention a sighting of rarely seen finwhale defecation.
I have recently found a new appreciation for whale poop thanks to Dr. Joe Roman. I hope he does not mind me citing him here because if you are interested in marine biology or marine ecology or the recovery of the ocean or our planet, you should read Dr Roman’s papers on the importance of whales, and specifically whale poop toward those ends.
May 26 was sunny with calm seas. The flat waters made it fairly easy for Dennis Minsky to notice the amount of plankton in the water. So, the Dolphin VIII took a plankton tow. Dennis reports that among the plankters were quite a few ants, both winged queens and drones. Not really the kind of plankters you would expect on a whalewatch.
Both Minke whales and Finback whales were viewed in the calm waters around Cape Cod, today. And the same juvenile humpback that we have been seeing for weeks. I wish I could identify this whale, it is driving me to distraction. This may or may not be the humpback whale that breached once in sight of the Dolphin VIII and then disappeared.
The other report from today that is important, even though there is not much in the line of detail, is the report from the Dolphin VIII that on its way back to port from its morning trip, it passed the RV IBIS attempting to disentangle a juvenile humpback whale. They were unable to stay and watch the outcome of the disentanglement effort.
Nearly seventy-five percent of humpback whales in the study group show signs that they have, at one time or another (or more), been entangled in fishing gear. Sometimes, without intervention, these entanglements can prove fatal. This happens more times than we know because we only know if a whale dies of entanglement issues if we find it after it died. The ones that die at sea and sink to the bottom remain a mystery to us.
On May 27, Dennis Minsky wrote, “Went west of southwest corner and found 2 [finback whales]. Good looks at them surfacing and spouting. Then, one lunged through the water, displaying its white side and underbelly- a collosal and unique sighting. Passengers were delighted to see this behavior, even more so as the spouts drifted over the bow and annointed them!”
At this point, I am usually telling my passengers that, “Sailors will tell you that this is good luck, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is whale snot.”