By Dr. Carole Carlson
It is a sunny, mild December day in Provincetown. Looking out at the ocean atop a giant sand dune, I watch gulls circling and gannets diving. Only a few weeks ago, this ocean was filled with the spouts and splashes of humpback whales feeding close to shore- perhaps a prelude to their long journey south.
It is easy to look back over the past several months and remember whale watching 2006, one of the most exciting seasons in our 31 year history. Part of the initial excitement was our new beginnings- a new, interactive education program complimented by our experienced scientists and educators.
Following is a summary of the 2006 season. While the focus is on humpback whales (my specialty), other species will be noted. In addition, John Conlon, a Dolphin Fleet naturalist, has written a piece on finback whales.
The whales arrived in early April, a few weeks before the start of whale watching. One only had to stand on the quiet beaches at Herring Cove or Race Point to hear the powerful exhales of right whales and see them slowly moving through near shore waters. Finback whales, humpbacks and occasionally white-sided dolphins also were sighted. Our anticipation of the season grew each day.
Opening day, April 15 th, brought dense fog in the morning. As we moved slowly through the Bay, we could hear the spouts of whales. We stopped frequently, only to realize that the Bay was teeming with rare North Atlantic right whales, and we had to maintain a distance of over 500 yards to comply with federal regulations. As we waited for the whales to surface, we had glimpses of the smallest of all toothed whales, the often elusive harbor porpoise.
We decided to head North to Race Point. There, the visibility opened up and we could see for miles. Our spotters found several whales- all North Atlantic rights! We watched at a distance these whales on the brink of extinction, as they swam, fed and socialized in our waters.
For the remainder of April our sightings were primarily in Cape Cod Bay, with a few trips to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Northern Gannets were actively plunge diving, Common Eiders and Double-crested cormorants were abundant in the Harbor and even a large flock of Puffins made an appearance for the first time in years.
Finback, right and humpback whales as well as Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoise were common sights. The Bay erupted into a feeding frenzy of birds and whales alike. A finback whale named Loon was sighted frequently in the Bay, occasionally lunging on its side to feed. Some of the earliest humpback whales sighted included Fairway, Pinch, Bisou, Mira, Ventisca and large females named Palette, Ivory, Scratch, Glo, and Reflection.
Towards the end of April we ventured towards Stellwagen Bank. Amidst a flurry of birds, we sighted some old friends: Putter, Staff, Touchdown, Underline, Roswell, Nimbus, Glostick, a male named Bandit and most of the humpbacks that were in the Bay a few days before. The humpbacks were feeding actively and it seemed as if there were clouds and nets of bubbles everywhere we looked.
Most exciting of all, on April 26 th we saw the grand dame of Stellwagen Bank- Salt. Salt, a grandmother, first seen in 1976 and named by Captain Aaron Avellar, has returned to the waters off Provincetown each year. This year Salt returned with her 10 th calf named Soya, by our captain Chad Avellar, Aaron’s son.
In early May there still were birds and whales in the Bay, as well as sightings of Harbor Seals; some actually hauled out on the breakwater. It was at this time that we saw our second mother/calf pair of humpback whales, Whisk and her 4 th calf. Ase, Mural, Tulip, Ursa, Tongs,Anchor and Firefly, all mature females, were feeding on Stellwagen with Circuit, Ganesh, Falcon, Nuages, Cajun, Tear, Persei, Division, Edenand Leonid.
By the second week of May, we were watching several humpbacks each day, some finback whales, harbor porpoise and dolphins. More humpback whales, including Teapot, Capella, Freckles, Mostaza, Mural, Geometry, Eruption, Tunguska and a large male named Cygnus had moved into the area to feed. Like some days in April, the weather in May was sometimes inclement- leading to rough seas and days onshore.
Mid May’s weather seemed a bit more favorable. And most of our sightings were of humpback whales. While some of the whales sighted earlier remained, we saw others as well including Appaloosa, Scylla, Orbit, Echo, Pepper, Rune, and Nile, all large, mature females. Cardhu, a female we have known since 1979 was sighted with her 9 th calf! Each day we sighted at least one new humpback whale near Stellwagen. By the end of May our sighting list was impressive as Lavaliere, Grackle, Obtuse, Simian, Seal, Obsidiian, Hancock, Ember, Peninsula and Reaper joined in the feeding on the Bank.
We sighted two new mother/calf pairs; Rapier, with her 3 rd calf and Apex with her 8 th .
Humpback sightings were minimal from the very end of May to June 5 th. And the weather was not always promising. But in early June we logged in two more mother/calf pairs; Tornado and her 5 th calf and Apostrophe with her 5 th. By mid June humpback sightings were on the rise and the whales often were feeding on the surface amidst large schools of sand lance. During this time, three new females were sighted; Valley, and Trident and Spoon, the latter two with calves.
At the end of June, Sloop and Wyoming were sighted on Stellwagen as well as old friends; large, male humpbacks named Stub, Sockeye and Agassiz.
July brought more whales to the area and thousands of pelagic birds including Greater and Sooty Shearwaters and Wilson Storm Petrels. During the first two weeks of June, thirty-three new humpbacks were photographed, including four mother/calf pairs. Midnight returned with her 8 th calf, Baja with her 3 rd , Vulture with her 4 th and Amulet with her 1 st . Other sightings included Abrasion, Coral, Istar, Isthmus, Tectonic, Warrior, Etch-a-sketch, Soot, Barb, Gar, Mirror, Crystal, Walrus, Colt, Giraffe, Polaris, Shark, Thalassa, Cloud, Epee, Zodiac, Regulus, Black Hole, Meteor and Venom.
By mid-July we were overwhelmed with all the sightings and activity. And more whales seemed to arrive each day. By the end of July we photographed four more mothers and calves bringing the years total to sixteen! The new mother’s were Lace, Vertex, Colombia and Onyx. Other whales arriving in July included Ampersand, Filament, Alphorn, Fulcrum, Dome, Splice, Ebony, and Kohoutek.
Our sightings of Minke whales, the smallest of the baleen whales in our waters, increased in July. Despite a moratorium on commercial whaling, Minkes, along with finback, Bryde’s, Sei and Sperm whales are commercially hunted today. On occasion, we saw Minke’s breaching and were able to document the behavior with photographs. While finback whales were also present, humpbacks appeared to be the more numerous whale species on the Bank.
By August we settled into fair seas and fantastic whale and seabird sightings. The numbers of pelagic birds, especially shearwaters and storm petrels remained high and several humpback whales moved into the area to feed. At least three new mothers were sighted: Anvil, Dyad and Compass. Also photographed were Alpha, Obtuse, Calanus, Fracture, Habenero, Inchworm, Pogo, Rocker, Sushi, Sweep, Blackout, Owl, Buzzard, Lava, Milkweed, Racoon, Timberline, Chairlift, Infinity, Zipper, Sirius and Pipette. Oftentimes, several whales were seen surface feeding in a one to two mile area. The calves were particularly active as they breached, flippered and lobtailed as their mothers fed. It was in late August that we watched two calves feeding on their own- on what appeared to be tiny shrimp called krill.
The weather in September was quite variable. Our whale sightings continued to be high and a new mother calf pair was photographed; Buckshot and her calf. A few new humpacks were identified including a large female named Bat, as well as Deneb, Draco, Jabiru, Dusky, Carbon, Banyon, Conflux, Nazka, Nine, Gunslinger, Jamanju, Shards and Isthmus’ 2005 calf.
October’s weather brought storms and days on shore. When possible, we ventured off shore to look for whales. We were not disappointed. During this last month of whale watching we sighted Aswan, Cluster, Iota, Rattan and several of the whales that we had watched most of the season. Interestingly, since September, it was rare to see a finback whale! Two new mothers and calves, Wizard and Diablo were identified.
The last weekend of whale watching, the winds blew and our season came to an early end. Once photographs were analyzed and whales counted, 189 individual humpack whales, including 19 new calves, were identified near Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank. In addition, at least 4 new humpbacks were photographed and will be named next spring.
It was an amazing season. We look forward to next year, and as in the past 31, will anxiously await the arrival of old friends.