On September 10 we headed offshore until we came upon Aswan and Dusky feeding. Humpback whales are baleen whales, meaning that rather than teeth, they have a series of keratin plates in their mouth which act as a strainer. Humpbacks also belong to a sub-category of baleen whales known as the rorqual whales. Rorquals refer to the flexible folds on the underside or ventral surface of the whales body. Rorqual whales are also known as “gulp feeders” and today it was obvious why! As these humpbacks engulfed huge gulps of food and water, the pleats on the underside of their bodies expanded like an balloon, and were then used to push the water out between the baleen plates. In the photo below, you can see the expanded pleats, otherwise known as the gular pouch, as well as the water draining out of the whale’s mouth!
Aboard the Dolphin X we had great looks at Apostrophe’s 2008 calf. This whale is almost fully grown, but is still filled with calf-like energy. This whale lobtailed and splashed for a few minutes before embarking on a long dive.
Individual humpbacks seen: Hippocampus, Geometry, Aswan, Lutris
Despite the glassy calm seas and unlimited visibility on September 11 it took us quite a while to find our first group of whales in the morning. After a long search, we finally got a phenomenal look at a Geometry, who came up from the depths alongside the boat with his rorqual pleats fully distended.
In the afternoon, we headed west of Stellwagen Bank and witnessed some unusual slow motion synchronous feeding from a group of five humpback whales. There were no birds in sight, which made us think that the food was either deep in the water column, or was perhaps krill, which doesn’t tend to attract huge flocks of gulls and shearwaters. In fact, our on-board bird watchers noticed that most of the shearwaters seen that day were a mix of Manx and Great shearwaters seen right off of Herring Cove beach.
Individual humpbacks seen: Geometry, Jabiru
After a few chilly days, September 12th was a beautiful, warm respite. On our way out, we again noticed major bird activity between Long Point and Race Point, including several black terns and three mature Northern gannets. Once we left the bay, we found that the whales were scattered across the southern part of Stellwagen Bank. Forceps, a young whale born in 2007 to Ganesh, was zig-zagging all over the place, coming up again and again with a full mouth.
On the Dolphin VIII there were a few surprise sightings on the morning’s trip. First, we had a close approach from a very small Minke whale. In other parts of the world, Minkes are known to display curious behavior towards boats; however, in the Gulf of Maine, they tend to be more elusive. This close look at one of our most ubiquitous, but most mysterious whales was quite the treat! A second unusual sighting was from a breaching Mola mola! Whale watch passengers often come out hoping to see a whale breach, but seeing the bizarre ocean sunfish jump out of the water is a much rarer occurence!
Individual humpbacks seen: Geometry, Forceps
On September 13th we gave a big congrats to Mike Bertoldi for achieving a milestone of 1000 trips as a naturalist! We also got a chance to see one of our long time favorite fin whales, Loon. Known for a distinct Loon-shaped marking on its side, Loon is known for “saving” many a whale watch by showing up at the exact moment when we think that we aren’t going to see anything.
To the west of Stellwagen Bank, we had three feeding humpbacks, including Snare and Geometry. Although we weren’t sure what they were feeding on, we felt like it must be krill or copepods from the slow, side lunges and lack of birds in the area. Later, the humpbacks had ended their feeding bout, and one was tail breaching wildly!
And in a sure sign of fall for birders, a group 30-35 Red-necked phalaropes. These tiny birds breed in the arctic tundra but stay offshore during the rest of the year feeding on zooplankton. These birds have a distinct feeding habit whereby they float on the water and spin in circles, stirring up plankton the surface. Curiously, phalaropes will either spin clockwise or counterclockwise, depending on the individual, but they will never alternate between the two directions!
Individual humpbacks seen: Snare, Geometry
Individual fin whales seen: Loon
On September 14 the early boat headed west and then far to the north. After catching a glimpse at a few Atlantic white-sided dolphins, a Minke whale, and one enormous fin whale, we decided to try our luck at finding humpbacks by heading east. Sure enough, after orienting ourselves towards Highland Light, we saw a spout and patiently waited for the whale in question to resurface. Before that could happen, though, another whale breached in the distance and we couldn’t resist the urge to go see if it would keep it up. When we arrived on the scene, we found Convict, a humpback first seen in 2009. Convict didn’t breach again but it did tail breach and lobtail repeatedly, to the great delight of Dolphin VIII passengers.
Soon, Convict was joined by the deep-diving humpback we had originally stopped for. When this whale surfaced, we recognized him immediately as Coral. In addition to having distinct markings on his fluke, Coral has a conspicuous scar on his head, just by his blowholes, that make him easy to identify even when he doesn’t fluke.
The seas picked up in the afternoon and although it was bumpy and blustery, it was also nice and warm. Birders were excited to get great looks at jaegers off of Race Point. From afar, these birds can resemble gulls, but their stockier bodies and stiffer wing beats give them away upon closer inspection. Although they were further to the northwest than this morning, we relocated Convict and Coral, who were just as energetic as ever. They had stopped the lobtailing, and were now rolling on their sides slapping their giant pectoral flippers on the water. Scientists still are not sure what this behavior means, but it is thought to be a social signal as it often precedes the formation or dissipation of groups.
Individual humpbacks seen: Coral, Etch-a-Sketch, Convict, Appaloosa’s 2007 calf
On September 15, passengers aboard the Dolphin X enjoyed a rare five species trip in the afternoon! After getting great looks at a group of five humpbacks, we noticed another fluking whale a few boat lengths away. However, the wide, smooth-edged black fluke immediately tipped us off that this wasn’t another humpback, but rather a rare North Atlantic right whale! This highly endangered whale is thought to have global population of around 400 individuals, and every year about two-thirds of these animals gather in Cape Cod Bay in response to the spring plankton bloom. Every so often, a fall bloom of a smaller magnitude will draw right whales back to the area to feed on copepods, their zooplankton prey of choice.
Recently, researchers have discovered that North Atlantic right whales probably move through the Stellwagen Bank area more often than previously thought. A series of acoustic buoys positioned to the north of Cape Cod Bay recognize a specific type of call emitted by the right whale, and can therefore detect right whales acoustically even when they evade visual documentation. You can learn more about these acoustic buoys and even see when right whale calls are detected by visiting listenforwhales.org.
Boats are not allowed to approach right whales within 500 yards and must maintain that distance whenever it is possible to do so safely, so we gave the right whale some space and soon got a great look at a fin whale, a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins and a Minke whale.
Around 4pm, the skies darkened just as we were loading the Dolphin X. The rain never came, and those who remained on board for this trip were treated to an excellent look at a feeding fin whale. Fin whales often feed by circling their prey and then rolling 90 degrees on their side and lunging through the school of fish or krill. As we watched a pair of fin whales execute this move this afternoon, one rolled so far over that 1/2 of its fluke was visible. This was a rare sight, as fin whales rarely show their tails!
Birders on board were also excited when the naturalist pointed out a northern fulmar. These birds are also often mistaken for gulls, but their stocky bodies, short bills and dark eyes distinguish them. They belong to a category of birds known as “tube-noses” and they locate their prey by smell.
Individual humpbacks seen: Ragweed
The rough seas on September 16th made whale watching a challenge. After a long ride west towards Plymouth, then north to the center of Stellwagen Bank, then eastward past the old Peaked Hill Buoy, we finally got a look at a single fin whale. After seeing very few of these animals during the summer months, we are finally starting to see more of these gigantic animals during the fall. Little is known about the extent of fin whales ranges and we don’t exactly know where they go when they’re not seen around Cape Cod, but it is thought that they travel to different sites around the Gulf of Maine in pursuit of their prey.
The seas calmed down by the afternoon and we had a chance to see three humpback whales as well as a very large basking shark. With sightings of basking sharks, phalaropes and North Atlantic right whales this week, it is likely that there are a lot of copepods in the water. Despite their diversity in size, physiology and lineage, these three creatures get most of their nutrients from tiny, oily crustaceans that are no larger than a grain of rice!
Here’s where we went this week: