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Naturalists Notebook – September 13 to September 20

*     The water on September 13 was flat and calm.   It provided a fantastic backdrop for the sightings of the day.  They included several ocean sunfish and blue sharks, both of which are easily overlooked on a choppy day.

*     But the highlight of the day was the large group of minke whales that was spotted repeatedly on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank.  In rougher seas, these animals are hard to keep track of, but on a day like today, minkes can be observed swimming beneath the surface as they make their way around the boats.  When the sun is high in the sky, like this, and the seas are flat, minkes are exhilarating to watch because they can be followed due to their epaulettes, the white bands across the top surface of their pectoral flippers.  And when they swim back and forth beneath the boat, they are every bit as exciting as humpbacks.

*     If today was the day you whalewatched, consider yourself lucky.  Most encounters with minke whales are not nearly so close or so intimate.

*     There was a lot going on between Stellwagen and Race Point on September 14. Three species of baleen whales were sighted today.  A humpback whale named Scylla (the 1981 calf of Istar), a finback whale, and numerous minke whales were all viewed in the area.  In addition, a small pod of common dolphins were also spotted that included a number of mother/calf pairs.

*     Scylla was seen actively making her living, feeding on schooling fish beneath the surface.   While she was not seen lunging, bubble clouds were observed rising to the surface and water was seen being pushed between the baleen plates inside her mouth and back out into the sea.

*     A lot of water was covered on September 15. Eventually, the vessels found their way back to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank where those minke whales were again spending time.   The fish-finders of the boats have been marking large patches of small schooling fish in the area for the past couple of days, leading this naturalist to believe that these animals have been spending time here feeding.

*     In addition to the minke whales, a finback whale was also seen on September 16. This finwhale was, just like the minke whales, actively involved in making its living.   The waters of Stellwagen Bank and the surrounding north atlantic are very much a giant restaurant for whales.  As part of the lower Gulf of Maine, it is a feeding ground for many different species of marine life.  Among these are several species of seals, numerous species of fish, and at least four species of baleen whales.

*     The baleen whale species that commonly use this feeding area include the humpback whale, the finback whale, and the minke whale.  All of these animals are, in addition to baleen whales, members of the group called the rorquals.  They each have, on their undersides, a series of folds of skin (or pleats) that expand when the whale is feeding to enable it to take in a much greater volume of fish and seawater.  Finwhales and minke whales look very much like giant tadpoles when those pleats are extended.

*     High winds and rough seas forced the Dolphin Fleet to cancel all of the whalewatch trips on September 17.

* After a day at the floats, the Fleet put out to sea again on September 18.  Yesterday’s wind and seas had scattered things and the searches were long and far to the east.  Several small finback whales were sighted and enjoyed.  Small for a finback whale might be 30 feet and forty tons, so it is very much a relative term.  A small humpback whale was also sighted far out to the east.

*    Ocean sunfish and minke whales were much easier to find close to home.  Their food sources were also found in abundance today.   Huge mats of sand eels were found just of of the Race, as were comb jellies.   Minke whales in our waters, like the larger rorquals, feed mostly on sand eels and ocean sunfish feed on those ctenophores or comb jellies.

*     September 19 was a beautiful, clear day.  A juvenile humpback whale was sighted by the early trips.  It appeared to be quite curious about the boats, but also a little unsure of them.  It did pass underneath the vessels and orient toward them when it came to the surface, but it did not approach withing a boatlength.  And while the passengers of the Dolphin X were waiting for it to come back up, two ocean sunfish surfaced near the stern and kind of just swam around the back of the boat.  It would be hard to say if they were displaying curiosity or not, but they did seem to orient themselves to the stern of the vessel where the engines make noise and the hull vibrates the most.

*     Minke whales and numerous finwhales were also seen.  One of the finwhales had scars around its tail-stalk consistent with an entanglement in some type of fishing gear.  It was impossible to tell whether the animal had been rescued or had managed to slip out of the gear on its own, but it seemed to be doing well.

*     Today’s passengers were also treated to looks at several species of fish.  Numerous ocean sunfish were spotted by nearly every trip.  The Dolphin X also found a huge basking shark that was swimming around with its mouth open to collect zooplankters out of the water.  A number of blue sharks were also seen throughout the day.  One was watched thrashing around alongside a sport-fishing boat that had hooked it.   It did allow for a significantly better look at the animal than you usually get from a whalewatch vessel.

*    Only the Dolphin VIII ventured out on September 20.  What a day it turned out to be though.  Flat calm seas and bright, sunlit skies combined to make the sightings more spectacular than on many a choppy day.  A small finwhale that might have been a calf from this year already weened from whale milk spent time moving very slowly within ten feet of the surface.   In the flat and brightly lit waters, this allowed optimum viewing of both sides of the animal.  The passengers got a good, up-close look at the asymmetric pigmentation that is unique to finwhales among mammals.  Also, with the viewing conditions, it was quite easy to distinguish the movements of the whales flukes as it propelled itself through the water and those of its flippers as it turned a little one way or the other.

*     There were several minke whales apparently feeding on huge mats of sand eels that could easily be seen at the surface a little way down the backside of the Cape.  A number of seals were also seen feeding in the area.  This naturalist has never seen seals causing splashing at the surface when lunging after fish like he did today.  And another basking shark was seen feeding as it swam along as well.

*     There were also sightings of numerous ocean sunfish and blue sharks.  The sea conditions made them easy to spot with enough time to approach gently enough not to spook them.  That makes for close viewing that allows for a great deal more detail to be seen.   Like the lampreys on the side of the basking shark and also the scars on the same shark that looked like they might have been caused by entanglement.