As if trying to predict the whales’ movements and follow them as they continue to feed on fish before making their migration south, we have also had weather to deal with lately. Strong winds have kept us at the dock for much of the last week, but we were finally able to see some whales by the weekend! Just to show how much of a difference a few hours can make, Sunday’s trips were completely different from one another. We had heard reports of whales to our north, however the seas were just too rough for us to head in that direction. By the afternoon, however, the winds had died down and we headed out of the harbor hopeful.
We were treated to a wonderful experience with a young humpback, who stayed at the surface for almost the entire time we spent with it. Much of that time, the whale circled the boat, turned on its side, and swam right toward us. It’s amazing to think of these animals becoming curious and wanting to take a peek at us.
As the humpback rolled onto its side, we noticed a lamprey attached to it. We don’t see these on the whales often.
An unusual sight- a lamprey attached to the whale just behind the pectoral fin.
Rolled over on its side- the pectoral fin is to the left, the eye is the spot in the middle, and the fluke is just breaking the surface on the right.
We moved our boat very little throughout the entire trip- we really didn’t need to! So imagine our surprise when a large basking shark surfaced a few hundred yards away. We had some great looks at the shark, including watching it turn toward us and swim downward before making our way back over to the humpback.
The basking shark turns before diving deeper into the water.
In addition to these two species, we had brief looks at a minke whale and harbor porpoise on the way out, and watched a gray seal in the harbor before making our way to the dock.
We have been traveling to the southern end of Stellwagen Bank lately, and the sightings have been great. We spent this morning with a mom and calf pair, and quickly identified the mom as Nile. I have had many people mention that they had been on a whale watch before and have seen Nile- in fact, if you whale watched in Massachusetts last summer, chances are she was the whale you saw! We had some extremely close looks, as the calf surfaced just off the port side and remained at the surface for quite a while. It then began to stretch and bring its head up and out of the water, possibly to take a look at us?
Nile’s 2014 calf
The calves typically stay very close to mom- you can see Nile’s large pectoral fins and the calf just behind
The afternoon was spent with three humpbacks. Two of the whales, Pele and Eruption have been in an association for a few days, and today Storm was alongside. Much of the time while these whales were swimming during their dives, we could see small bubbles developing at the surface. We have been seeing smaller, almost delicate bubbles rather than the large green that we often see when the whales are feeding. At one point, Eruption lunged up and gave us a great look! The whales continued swimming in a circle and feeding.
A great look as the whale raises the rostrum just above the water
Caught the beginning of that exhalation!
We always like to remind our passengers that our whale watches are wildlife tours- they are unpredictable and we never know what we will be seeing or where those animals will be. That has certainly been the case over the past month. Our trips have ranged from watching two humpbacks (Northstar and Hippocampus) for days on the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, seeing fin whales and minke whales on Jeffrey’s Ledge, and unfortunately a couple of trips that left us without sightings of the larger whales. In recent days, we have traveled to the southern end of Stellwagen Bank, and the longer ride has proven to be worth the travel time. Yesterday we began with a quick look at a minke and a fin, however we knew there were humpbacks just within reach so we continued on. And we are glad we did! We began with Mudskipper and her calf, with the calf breaching and rolling over while mom was feeding beneath the surface nearby. There were also a large number of fin whales out there- maybe 10 or more! We had some great looks at these beautiful animals.
One of many of the fin whales we watched.
With all of these whales around, we also had a number of birds sitting at the surface- greater shearwaters and sooty shearwaters among them. A couple of times throughout the trip we also had a visit from a curious young gray seal.
A gray seal takes a close look at us!
We also we able to spend time with four other humpbacks. One pair was easily recognizable- Nile and her calf! With the summer winding down we are enjoying the warm, sunny days that we have been having. Calm seas and friendly passengers made for a great ride as well!
Nile’s distinctive dorsal fin with her calf on her left.
The water was glass calm on Stellwagen today and provided for some great looks at humpbacks as well as a minke whale. As we approached the area where Northstar and Hippocampus have been sighted lately, we noticed what looked like one humpback swimming alone. We were getting some great looks with the two humpbacks when a third, Tunguska, swam toward them.
Tunguska swam alone for most of the time as we watched, however did surface right next to the pair one time. After that, we had a beautiful look at a double fluke with Hippocampus and Northstar.
Our sightings this past week have varied in regard to the number of whales we have seen during our trips, as they have been a bit more spread out than they had been the week prior. We have typically been seeing 3-8 whales depending on the day, and many have been different individuals than last week.
We have been watching a humpback whale, Northstar for most of our trips in the last few days. Northstar was recently reported with an injury on its back. Unfortunately, it seems as though this whale is another example of one threat that many marine animals encounter- ship strikes. There are a number of whales in the Gulf of Maine who have scars from collisions with boats and propellers, but it sometimes is easy to lose sight of what that really means. When we see a whale who has injuries that were recently acquired, it really does illustrate the danger posed to these animals. We are hoping Northstar will make a full recovery and will update further if we see this whale throughout the season.
An injury to Northstar’s back, possibly due to a collision with a boat.
Northstar was swimming alongside Hippocampus. We watched these two whales during both our morning and afternoon trips, along with another group of whales who were nearby (Nile and calf with Perseid and calf). We returned to the same spot during the afternoon and began with the two mothers and the young whales. As we approached we noticed both calves being very surface active- a few breaches, rolling over, and tail breaching. Shortly after we arrived Nile’s calf provided an absolutely unbelievable breach just yards away. Interns Morgan, Andrea, and I were talking afterward about our ability to see clearly underneath this young whale. Such a fun trip to be on!
It has been a long time since we have had this many whales on the northern corner of Stellwagen Bank. Of course we are hoping they will remain close by, but we have already noticed the whales moving around a bit more. Early in the week we were watching whaleseach day in almost the exact same location as the previous day, and by yesterday they had moved by a couple of miles.
Milkweed’s very active calf
We watched as humpbacks Aerospace, Jabiru, Bayou, Pele, and Milkweed swam nearby, possibly looking for food while Milkweed’s calf gave us an exciting experience. S/he breached repeatedly before moving on to tail breaches and a series of rolls.
It’s not clearly understood why whales breach or engage in these other types of surface activity, but one thought that sometimes calves are more playful, especially while Mom is looking for fish to eat (the calves are typically still nursing on the mother’s milk at this point in the season). Whatever the reason, we had an exciting trip with great looks at all of the whales who were out there. As we have seen throughout this season, things have changed very rapidly. More than once in 2014 the whales have stayed in a relatively small area for days at a time, only to travel far overnight. What is exciting about whale watching is that no two trips are alike, even from morning to afternoon. We certainly enjoy every day as they come.
The calf did some surfacings and breaches with its mouth wide open- practicing using that baleen to feed later on?
The sightings recently have been so amazing- sometimes I wonder how long they can possibly last, but we are enjoying every minute of our trips lately! This morning in particular we had 25 or more humpback whales feeding as far as our eyes could see. Many of the whales were kick feeding, and it is so neat to see how each individual has a unique pattern of kicks before coming up to the surface, mouths wide open. This week we have seen the whales feeding on sand eels. We got a good look at one unlucky sand eel as a bird picked one up and swooped by the side of the boat.
You can see the baleen, expanded ventral pleats, and one little sand eel in the middle
Two humpbacks come up through a bubble net
In addition to the number of whales, the quality of sightings has been just fantastic. There is nothing like watching whales around us, but when one surprises us and surfaces RIGHT next to us, it is such an exciting feeling. We were lucky enough today to have a couple of bubble nets form on either side, with whales coming up just yards away.
Polaris (left) dives deep next to Treasure.
A passenger asked me if whales ever come any closer than they already were- soon after three humpbacks created a bubble net and fed just feet away!
During our afternoon trip we were also treated to a whale flipper slapping and breaching before watching the feeding frenzy going on about a mile away.
Whales after open mouth feeding in the foreground, a whale ‘dragging’ (swimming and allowing water to stream through baleen), and another pair in the distance
Thank you to CAWW’s good friend, Julian for this photo of a humpback named T-Rex breaching!