October 3rd could only be described as spectacularly foggy, meaning our only hope of finding whales was to travel to where they were in previous days and listen for their blows. Amazingly, their loud exhales can lead us in the right direction, and today we were about to find two humpbacks, Manhattan and Reflection, travelling slowly due east, and surfacing every 3-5 minutes.
On a day like this, we often rely on our passengers to help us look and listen. Today we were lucky enough to have two scientists from Norway on board, eager to learn more about whale watching. In countries like Norway where whaling still occurs, we are eager to talk about Provincetown’s legacy as a town whose economy once relied on whaling, and its transformation to a town that hundreds of thousands of people visit for whale watching. Even though we’ve come a long way since our whaling days, we were reminded that we rely on some of the same techniques that the whalers did — watching and listening!
The fog continued into October 4th and was accompanied by a light drizzle. We estimated only 1/8 – 1/3 of a mile of visibility near Race Point. We headed east towards Peaked Hill where whales have been, and on our way out we were able to catch a quick glimpse at a few speedy Minke whales.
Though we were glad that we got at least a fleeting glance at a a few whales, we were hoping to spot some of the humpbacks seen in the area during the past few days. We waited fifteen minutes in their last known location, then circled around until Captain Mark finally saw some fluke prints. Fluke prints are the water surface disturbances left behind by the up and down motion of a large whales’ tail. They don’t hang around on the surface long, so we knew we were close. Sure enough, five minutes later we found two humpbacks who had been on a long dive. Luckily, they stayed at the surface, slowly traveling west.
Manhattan, seen the previous day in the company of Reflection, had now been joined by Evolution, and they continued to travel together throughout the afternoon, when were able to relocate them closer to the beach. Meanwhile, the Dolphin X was able to get a fix on these animals by communicating with the other boat and they saw a very active side of the pair. Manhattan breached once and flippered for a while and even approached the boat!
Passengers aboard the Dolphin X also found themselves transfixed by the other wildlife in the area. There were shearwaters all over the place, most of which were of the smaller, Manx variety, as well as common terns, laughing gulls, and even a few jaegers. They also got a chance to see a Mola mola a species of ocean sunfish.
On October 5th the fog bank still hadn’t budged. The breakwater, only a few hundred feet from the pier, was invisible as we left the dock and headed back out to Peaked Hill where we hoped that our whales had stayed put. Once we rounded Race Point, the fog had cleared a bit and we were able to catch a glimpse at a few Minke whales. We transected the general area where we had seen humpbacks previous days, and soon were able to find two whales, including Manhattan, who had faithfully stayed in approximately the same spot for three days straight. Although Manhattan had stayed put, this whale was seen with a different humpback every day. Today, Manhattan and Degree remained together for the duration of the day.
This type of mix-and-match associating is not unusual for humpback whales. Unlike other whale species who form long term social bonds, humpback whales have a fission fusion society in which its unusual to see the same whales in close-association with one another for long periods of time. Although we often see the same humpbacks year to year, it is largely because they all come back to the same favored feeding ground, not because they are all traveling as a group.
We noticed today the Degree not only has highly distinctive fluke markings, but also distinctive flippers as well. While most Northwest Atlantic humpback whales have almost all white flippers, Degree has more of a dusky black and white pattern.
Southwest winds on October 6th brought warm, humid air, but there was still a hint of crisp, fall weather. It was a bit of a bumpy ride, but that didn’t stop us from spotting a Mola mola as we rounded Race Point. Mola molas have a small mouth which hide two sharp tooth plates. Rather than chewing their prey, they suck their food (mostly jellies) in and out of their mouths until they are in digestible pieces.
In the morning, the Dolphin IX had three different species of baleen whale! Along with looks at several Minkes and some flipper slapping humpbacks, we also got a look at a fin whale. Fin whales are the second largest animal on the planet, and although they can be seen in Massachusetts waters year round, they tend to be more elusive, and it’s been a few weeks since we’ve seen any on our trips!
Later in the day, the Dolphin X had some luck of its own as it had two different species of breaching whales! While we don’t expect to see it on every trip, whale-watchers who go out with us four or five times are likely to see a humpback jump out the water. This is always an exciting and unexpected event, and today Aswan was the energetic humpback, repeatedly doing full breaches and chin breaches.
What is more unusual is to see other species breach. Sometimes on windier days, the smaller Minke whale will launch itself out of the water, and this is precisely what happened this afternoon. We found a small Minke who jumped several times in a row, enthralling our passengers as it’s sleek, torpedo-shaped body repeatedly cleared the water!
October 7 was grey, chilly, and at times, rainy. The whales were traveling slowly to the north, taking long dives between surfacings. We got particularly good looks at Degree, who, no matter what group of whales we were watching, always seemed to pop up.
While we were waiting for the whales to re-surface, it was a good time to hone our bird watching skills. The majority of the pelagic birds that we saw were Cory’s shearwaters. These are easy to confuse with the Great shearwaters, of which we see many throughout the summer and early fall. If you look closely though, you’ll notice that Cory’s shearwaters have yellow bills and a stockier build. We also caught a glimpse of two groups of white-wing Scoters passing by in the distance. And of course we had a surprise visitor from a songbird who doesn’t belong at sea, but must have gotten blown off course during the blustery past few days.
Calm seas, low-key whales and frequent sightings of Degree the humpback was the norm again on October 8th. However, our afternoon trip was quite the unusual one. We found an Leatherback turtle that was entangled in fishing gear, and we promptly called the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team for help. Leatherbacks and other sea turtles migrate to New England waters in the summer to feed on jellies. The unusually warm waters this summer have been coincident with a lot of jellies in the water, and seemingly more turtle sightings. As the waters get colder, an entangled turtle is at great risk if the entanglement prevents it from heading back to warm waters. We were happy to watch the disentanglement team free the turtle and we joyously watched him swim off.
As if a finale for an exciting trip, we finished the day with a breaching humpback, a great look at a seal off Herring Cove, and even a small group of dolphins in Provincetown Harbor!