Friday, April 30, 2010
Thursday, April 29, 2010
Monday, April 26, 2010
We headed out into Massachusetts Bay under threats of a showery afternoon. However, the weather gods relented and were kind to us, and we had no rain and even a bit of filtered sun now and then for the entire trip. The wind was moderate out of the SW, so we did have a two-foot sea out of the SW, and, once far enough offshore, also a 3-foot swell from the ENE. Not ideal, but, considering the forecast, most people aboard (the passengers belonged to a school group from Nyack NY) were pleased with the conditions.
Our destination was the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, approximately mid-bank. We found an area where there were at least a couple dozen humpbacks along with at least a pair of minke whales. Most of the whales were feeding, usually in groups of two to five, some close to or at the surface, although the feeding behaviors seemed to diminish a bit during the time we were there. (Passengers are sometimes surprised to find out that animals that have to feed on hundreds to thousands of pounds of fish per day don't feed constantly, but the truth is that, when food is at least in moderate quantities, whales can catch food faster than they can digest it, and have to take periodic "time-outs" from feeding on and off all day long.)
Many of the humpbacks were quite active, both while feeding (kick feeding in several cases was observed) and when not (we had occasions of breaching, tail breaching, lob tailing, flippering, and spy hopping at times). In addition, we did have a couple of times when one or two of the whales chose to come close to us (while we were just "sitting" in place, watching all that was going on around us), apparently in order to do a bit of "people watching".
Humpbacks identified by name include Division, Wyoming, Whirligig, Canopy, Freefall, Cava, Pitcher, and Seal.
The most unusual animal seen (even though not very obvious, especially compared to the often active humpbacks that we were mostly concentrating on watching) was a solitary small whale or dolphin that slowly cruised through the area, often close to the feeding humpbacks. We did not try to follow it around (there were too many other whales around for us to be able to move much), and we never got close enough to identify it for its species - it could have been a small minke whale calf perhaps (but I think it was much too small for that), or even a single Atlantic white-sided dolphin (but I don't think its back and dorsal fin were dark enough in color, and it didn't seem to dive and surface as frequently as white-sides usually do). It most reminded me of a small Risso's dolphin (also known as a gray grampus), but they are not very commonly see on Stellwagen (I have seen them only a few times in 30-odd years of whale watching) and are usually found swimming in groups. So, the easily overlooked small "mystery whale" will remain a mystery, I guess. If I had to make my "best guess", I suppose it may have been a solitary (but that's very unusual) Atlantic white-sided dolphin - at least this is a species common to Massachusetts waters (although we didn't see any other dolphins on this trip), and the proportionally large dorsal fin would be typical.
The only pelagic bird seen (at least by me) was an adult northern gannet. All of the other birds seen (especially over the feeding whales) were juvenile and adult herring gulls with occasional greater black-backed gulls. (Unlike true pelagic birds, such as gannets, which spend most of the year at sea, coming to land only for nesting, gulls return to land every night.)
Near the end of our trip we had a chemical tanker pass by us and the whales, on its way into Boston. It may have been a surprise to some of the passengers to see a large ship cutting across what is supposed to be a "marine sanctuary" and obviously coming fairly close to whales, but the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is really more like a mixed-use national forest than it is like a national park. However, ships are required to go slowly (and this ship was indeed doing so) and to watch for whales (especially during right whale season in Massachusetts waters, in the late winter and early spring). Furthermore, NOAA did move the shipping lanes across Stellwagen a few miles north just a few years ago, in order to keep ships further from the whales. (On this trip, we and the whales just happened to be close to the inbound shipping lane, but usually there are more whales N or S of this particular area - this location is not actually a common one for finding whales throughout the season.)