The 2014 season is winding down for us, but not necessarily the whales! We began today’s trip with Quote, a humpback we have seen a handful of times in the last few weeks. Quote is a female who has been reported with seven calves since she was first sighted in 1986. Each time Quote surfaced, there was a cloud of bubbles left behind, indicating that she was feeding below the surface.
Humpback whale Quote
There were a few other blows in the area, so we decided to see who else was out there. As we were getting our last few minutes with Quote, another humpback breached in the distance. It was Shuffleboard, also doing some feeding. Shuffleboard allowed us to have a couple of fantastic looks at feeding.
Shuffleboard lunges upward with a mouthful of seawater and fish
Ventral pleats fully expanded!
In addition to these two, we watched a third unidentified humpback. There were also a large number of gannets who were feeding as well. If you are able to come whale watching in the spring or fall, you might be lucky enough to watch these impressive birds dive straight down into the water- always an impressive behavior to see!
Taking off after a grooming feathers
A beautiful look at this whale’s fluke, unfortunately the wrong direction for identification
Wow! Today’s trip was just awesome. We headed south for a change (we had been making our way north to Jeffrey’s Ledge most days for the last two weeks), and we spotted two blows- one was noticeably taller than the other. We moved a little closer and began watching a mom and calf humpback pair- Milkweed and her calf. It wasn’t long before both whales moved in close and spent time just under the surface next to the boat. From there we were treated to extremely close looks, some flipper slapping a few yards away, and multiple spy hops from both mom and baby. The spy hops especially are a behavior that we don’t get to experience often, and it is so amazing to watch these wild animals choose to come in for a closer look at us.
A spyhop- when the whale brings its head up out of the water to take a closer look
Milkweed and her calf alongside the Hurricane II
We spent a full half hour watching these two whales watching us, and then they began to swim a bit farther away. We had heard reports of other humpbacks in the area, so we traveled on to see what else we could find. We watched another mom and calf pair- easily recognizable as Nile and her calf, and were treated again to close looks at these two! From here, we could also see a few other whales about a mile away- it’s great to know they are sticking around for a bit longer before migrating south.
Sometimes young whales like to lay belly up beneath the water!
I sometimes get the question if the calves we see have their own names. The general rule is that for the first few years of a calf’s life it is referred to by its mother’s name and year of birth (for example Nile 2014 calf and Milkweed 2014 calf). If these whales are to return and are spotted again, they will then be named using the guidelines of naming the whale after a mark on the whale’s fluke. We have had some very, very special trips with Milkweed and her calf this year, and today was another to add to the list!
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!