We have been traveling up and down Stellwagen Bank to see whales lately, including the ‘regulars’ as well as newer whales. Spoon and her calf continued to highlight many of our trips, with the young whale showing us often how acrobatic he can be. We have also had a couple of close encounters when the pair decided to visit our passengers up close and personal. The feeding frenzies that we had been seeing have died down a bit, but we have been treated to a number of days of intense and exciting surface activity- everything from flipper slapping to full breaches.
During both of our trips on Saturday, July 25 there were a few instances that the whale surfaced so close it startled us. They exhale at more than 100 mph- such a powerful sound coming from these 45 foot long animals certainly takes you by surprise when you are not expecting it! The number of whales sighted on our trips has varied from one or two to more than 15, but I can honestly say that the number of whales doesn’t make a trip better or worse than another, just different.
As always, it will be interesting to look back over the course of the season to see where the whales spent most of their time. There is nothing predictable about it- sometimes it appears that whales might stay in an area due to the amount of food available, and sometimes they appear to be traveling, however our predictions are only educated guesses. Let’s hope the weather remains warm for a while and enjoy the whales while they are here!
Bayou tail breaching off the bow
Lunge feeding humpback
An unknown juvenile or possible calf breaching completely out of the water
This whale was very, very small, and we wondered if it might have become separated from its mother
It spent our entire trip active at the surface- calling out to other whales?
Adult breaching on a sunny day
Center for Coastal Studies has begun deploying satellite tags- Here is Tongs one day after tagging
A harbor seal pup who stopped by to say hello
Nothing like a breach!
For the past couple of weeks, we have had great trips but have had to do some searching to locate the whales. Even with a bit of a longer ride, we have been able to see a number of different behaviors including logging (sleeping) and observing the whales feeding beneath the surface from bubble clouds at the surface.
During the middle of the past week we found a whale on the northwest corner of Stellwagen- much closer than they have been. We wondered if this was a whale passing through the area or an indication that we might start to see the whales move north a bit. By Saturday the whales were back on the southern end of the Bank, and stormy weather kept us at the dock all day Sunday. We were surprised by a report Monday morning of about 20 humpbacks on the northwest corner. We left Gloucester very hopeful, and 16 miles out were not disappointed! We watched at least 10 humpbacks, with a number of others in the area. Open mouth feeding, mom and calf pairs, surface activity- we had it all! We sure hope they will stay in the area for a while.
Humpbacks interacting with another group during bubble feeding
Open mouth feeding
Scylla was the first whale in a number of weeks to visit the northwest corner
The whales have been shifting around a bit lately, and we have had some long rides over Stellwagen Bank. Each day is also different from the next, as we have watched anywhere from 1-15 whales on a single trip, including the three main species we see (minke, humpback, and fin). Many of the humpbacks that we have seen have been unfamiliar individuals, with a number of juveniles, including Flamingo’s and Mostaza’s 2014 calves. Flamingo’s calf is a whale that appears to be well-known throughout the area, as there have been multiple reports of this whale interacting with boats and their passengers. Our experience meeting him/her was no different, with the whale circling the boat, rolling and laying lazily at the surface.
My favorite sightings recently have been a mother and calf fin whale pair that we have watched a couple of times. It is uncommon to see a mom and calf fin whale pair, and we don’t know if there is a designated breeding ground for this species or where they spend their time at different times of the year. One young calf was very surface active two days- the first time we watched this pair the calf breached out of the water, and the second it lunged as it was swimming, creating a huge splash each time it surfaced.
Active fin whale calf and its mom
Flamingo’s 2014 calf spending much of its time with us rolling at the surface
A curious young seal
In addition to the whales, we also had an amazing encounter with two young seals. These two swam right up to the boat and played along side of us with each other, but what was amazing was watching them look at the different people on the bottom deck!
It has been another great week for sightings. We have spent each trip covering different areas of Stellwagen Bank, and have had some amazing experiences with these whales. There have been a number of individual humpbacks sighted, including whales that haven’t been found to frequent the area. In addition to adults, there have been a number of calves who have arrived with their mothers for the season. Some of the whales we have spent some time with include Zebra and Rapier and their calves, Tear, Etch-a-Sketch, Pinpoint, Evolution, Glyph, Dancer, Blackbird, Bearclaw, and Geometry.
Three whales feeding together
Two whales lunge up through their bubble net
In addition to many hungry whales, we also had a wonderful experience with a curious and playful juvenile. As we approached the whale, it seemed to be lazily moving at the surface. It approached a patch of seaweed and began playing with it, a behavior called kelping, and one we rarely see! Humpbacks are believed to have sensitivity to touch, especially at the rostrum where we find tubercles that hold hair follicles. This whale continued to play in the weed until it decided to come check out the boat.
Rolled over about to make a splash
A look at how whales can be flexible
Other sightings include basking sharks, gannets, seals, and a quick peek at a small pod of dolphins swimming among feeding humpbacks.
One of three basking sharks we watched in one trip!
An awesome look into the mouth
The trips so far this season have been great… and each different from the others! This week we have seen a number of different individuals in the area, including an old favorite Mars, Ase, and Thumper, as well as a few mom and calf pairs- Palette, Spoon, and Prongs have all returned to Stellwagen with babies this season. We have seen a bit of feeding behavior from the adult whales each day this week. One of my favorite experiences of being out here is “getting to know” these whales and their feeding styles. I am thinking of Palette in particular, who we’ve seen slapping her chin at the surface, kicking her tail, blowing a ring of bubbles, and then coming to the surface to feed. We are also lucky to be able to watch the calf as he/she plays while Mom eats.
In addition to humpback moms and calves, we were also lucky enough to watch a fin whale mom/calf pair! We know very little about fin whale breeding grounds (if they have designated areas) or if the exact time of year calves are most likely to be born, and seeing this pair was a great treat. With fin whales reaching lengths of about 75 feet as an adult, seeing this ‘small’ baby swimming next to mom was awesome to watch.
We have also had the occasional sighting of seals, and also had our first basking shark sighting of the season. This particular shark stayed at the surface for a bit but seemed to dive down below the surface, so we began to move away. As we did, it suddenly resurfaced and then turned right toward the boat, giving us an amazing look right into the mouth! We are excited at the great sightings we have had lately and are hoping they continue as the season picks up into full gear.
Palette reaches the surface while the gulls hang back.
Palette’s neat style of kick feeding
This whale had a really unique fluke pattern, and a dorsal fin that was mostly white on either side
Palette’s fluke amid the spray caused by her kicking motion
New mom (again!) Spoon, one of the whales that has been watched from both Stellwagen and the Silver Bank- humpback breeding grounds off of the Dominican Republic
It was a cool day out on the water, but the whales certainly didn’t mind. We spotted one blow a couple of miles away from the boat, and within a few minutes noticed that other whales were in the area as well. We began this trip by watching humpback Sundown, who soon began a unique series of kick feeding behaviors. Sundown would kick the tail against the surface of the water once, and then blow a series of bubbles before lunging upward to feed. There were a handful of birds in the area, and they moved in as soon as Sundown began feeding to try to grab a meal.
The birds always know before we do when the whale will surface
A few anxious sand eels
A gull in comparison to a humpback flipper
We moved on to a pair of whales, Aswan and Falcon. As we approached, the two whales lunged out of the water, clearly feeding as well. Even though the two whales were feeding together, they had uniquely different feeding styles. Falcon would come to the surface and close the mouth right away, while Aswan waited a bit before expelling the water through the baleen.
Aswan (left) and Falcon
A great look at the two whales, as well as barnacles and barnacle scars
What an amazing start to the season!!!
I think it’s been years since I have seen so many whales on the first trip. It seems like it’s either one or two whales or loads of whales–this year it was loads. There were at least 15-20 humpbacks, at least 2 fin whales, and dolphins everywhere. We estimated that there were probably 100-200 dolphins spread out over a large area. Most of the whales were really spread out, but there was a group of 5 that were together for the entire time. Interestingly enough, most of these whales were born or first sighted in the late 90’s. I remember many of them being named at the naming party in 1999 because they were born or first sighted in 1998. Canopy, Falcon, Persied were a few. At one point during the trip, we had 8 surface together. I think they were doing some deep feeding (probably feeding on sand eels on the bottom) because they were staying down a little longer than usual. We saw bait on the fish finder near the bottom as well. What a treat to get to spend the afternoon with these animals.
Click here to see a video from the group of 8 surfacing together! I’m experimenting with a new Virb camera. More to come on this one….
We look forward to tomorrow’s trip!!!! Have heard there are still lots of whales around!!!