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!!!
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.