Despite the strong northeast winds on the morning of September 20, the seas weren’t quite as bad as expected. Once we rounded Race Point, we headed to the southeast, where we’ve been seeing humpbacks pretty regularly off Peaked Hill. Today, they appeared to have moved. We didn’t see anything until we started heading north again, and then to the east. We started to see spouts and whales scattered about, and after a bit of a wait we finally saw a giant flipper lift out of the water. It was Pitcher, a five year old humpback, doing a bit of pectoral fin slapping!
While we all love a good close boat approach, it can get a bit dicey in rough seas. Coming to a stop to accommodate a curious whale means a lot more rocking and rolling for those on deck, and we have to be extra vigilant to make sure we’re being careful around the whales. This was no concern of Sanchal, who happens to be Salt’s 2008 calf, apparently. Sanchal made a brief appearance next to the Dolphin IX, and did it again later, this time accompanied by Longboard, for the passengers aboard the Dolphin IX!
By afternoon, the tide had shifted and the seas picked up. We went North to find lots of scattered spouts. Most of the whales were on long dives, although we always seemed to be able to see active whales in the distance. Humpback whale groups included Pumpkinseed and Bounce; Reflection, Snare, and Pleats; Falcon and Bayou; Pox and a small unknown. The real finale of the day was A-Plus lobtailing. This whale alternated rolling belly-up and down whale slamming its tail down in a full tail breach!
By September 21st, we were really starting to feel the chill of fall. Fortunately, the seas had calmed down and we had a surprise look at two humpback whales at Race Point Light, just 35 minutes into our trip! Race Point is the area where the waters of Cape Cod Bay collide with the waters of the rest of the Gulf of Maine. Tides here run fast and nutrients are often pushed up to the surface and schools of fish large and small will often aggregate here. Even though we don’t always expect to see whales that soon into the trip, it’s no surprise as too why they were there!
Throughout the day, most of the whales were subsurface feeding. This means that although they tended to go on long dives, they would often surface quickly and dramatically, their mouths obviously full of fish. Birder’s were pleased to get a look at some mature Northern gannets, distinguished by their yellow heads and black wing tips. We also were able to spot both Manx and Cory’s shearwaters, seen in greater numbers lately as the Great and Sooty shearwaters start to leave the area.
On our way back to the harbor, our naturalist noted one of the most phenomenal rainbows he had ever seen in this life! The end of the rainbow was literally in Provincetown Harbor, and was quite a finale for a wonderful day!
September 22nd had less than ideal conditions in the morning. The seas were rough and the visibility was poor. Still, we were able to find some whales along the beach. A-Plus, whose flukes show a marking that literally look like the words “A Plus” fluked up a few times, letting us see this unique fluke pattern. Manhattan also made a most welcome appearance.
The sea conditions had vastly improved by the afternoon, allowing us to see several groups of humpacks, likely sub-surface feeding. This included a very good look at Sundown, first seen in 2007.
Aboard the Dolphin X, Captain Mark not only won the whale spotting prize for the day by spotting Zeppelin flipper slapping in the distance, but staying with this whale, patiently waiting for it to resurface, even if it meant that we arrived back in Provincetown a little bit later than expected!
You don’t get many trips like the one we had the morning of September 23. despite a heft swell from the east, Longboard, a five year old humpback was so active, lobtailing and flipper slapping, that we could see it from 2 miles away! When we approached, Longboard tail breached, chin breached, and finally did a full spinning breach, coming completely out of the water. We set our watches and timed this whale breaching for one full hour and ten minutes! We finally left Longboard, still jumping, and even as we made our way back to shore, we heard reports from other vessels that Longboard was still at it!
Our mid-day trip saw the start of some major bubble feeding, particularly by Thumper. Thumper had a calf this year and this young whale was seen hanging out right nearby. Thumper has to eat as much as she can, because in the process of giving birth, nursing, and migrating to and from the Caribbean, she is likely to have lost 1/3 of her body weight! She has to regain her energy stores before she starts making that trip down to the breeding grounds, just a month or two from now!
The calf will sometimes accompany its mother back down to the feeding ground; others leave their mothers side before then and brave the winter here. Even though the water is cold, there is a better chance at finding big schools of fish here in the Gulf of Maine.
After a week of rolling around in rough seas, it was a relief to find ourselves in calm waters on September 24th. Behaviors shifted largely from active surface behavior to feeding frenzies, and we counted at least fifteen humpback whales chowing down on huge schools of fish off of Peaked Hill. Each humpback whale seems to have its own unique style of feeding. Some use their tails to stun fish, others use nets of bubbles to confuse them and push them together. Some feed alone, some feed collaboratively, and some even wait for other humpbacks to do all the work before swooping in and stealing a mouthful. Today we saw mostly bubble net feeding. Ventisca, a particularly noticeable whale with a bright white dorsal fin, was particularly active, and could often be seen emerging through a mass of bubbles with a mouthful of fish.
Diving among the whales were at least 100 gannets. These birds also feed on fish by circling above schools, tucking their wings into their bodies, and plunge diving head first into the water, sometimes reaching speeds of forth miles an hour. The arc under their prey and catch it on their way up.
The wind picked up again on September 25th, but the whales were still spectacular. We started the day with a close boat approach by Thumper and her calf and a look at a gray seal right right in Provincetown Harbor. The day only got better with kick-feeding and bubble feeding in the afternoon. Like yesterday, Ventisca was an extremely active feeder, doing what looked like the backstroke after every surfacing!
Fall is also a great time to see interesting birds out near Stellwagen Bank. In addition to the dramatic plunge diving gannets that have been wowing us this week, we saw small groups of phalaropes flutter by, parasitic jaegars in aerial battles with young terns. We even saw a single dovekie! Dovekies are small seabirds whose body can only be described as stocky. They feed mainly on crustaceans and are often seen lying on the water, peering downward, looking to snag a small larvae or another tasty morsel.