Saturday, July 10, 2010
Today was a very "summery" day on the water. The sky was mostly free of clouds, but the warm air was full of moisture, making for hazy viewing conditions - fortunately, though, the "patchy fog" that NOAA had predicted never materialized on our way to or from the whales, and we were able to see for at least several miles all day long, especially in the PM). The SSE wind increased from mild to moderate during the day, and the seas ranged from about a foot or so in the AM to as much as three feet in the PM.
On the AM trip we saw what appeared to be both newer vessels (fellow whale watch boats) and older (a very pretty schooner) in the vicinity of the whales. While we do see larger sailing vessels (probably most often the Spirit of Massachusetts or the Harvey Gamage) in the vicinity of the whales, this schooner turned out to be the Lady Maryland (see above), and is actually only about a decade older than the whale watch boat shown in the same picture (which, by the way, was not as close to the Lady Maryland as the cropped photo, taken through a telephoto lens, might suggest). The Lady Maryland is used as a sail training vessel by the Living Classrooms Foundation of Baltimore.
On both trips we headed out on the Capt. John & Son IV to what has been our "usual" whale watch area as of late, just a bit N of the SE corner of Stellwagen Bank. There we found several humpback whales, including many of the same whales we have been observing pretty regularly for the past few weeks. On both trips the adults seemed to be occupied with subsurface feeding, while the calves (who don't tend to hold their breath as long as the adults) seemed to vary between joining the adults on portions of their feeding dives and "hanging around" up above, waiting for their moms to return to the surface with the other adults.
On the PM trip we had a brief look at a minke whale not far from the SW corner of the Bank on our way out to the SE corner, where we found that some of the whales we had seen in the AM as two groups were now spread out a bit over a larger area, although most of the behaviors (at least what could be seen at the surface) were similar to what we witnessed in the morning. We found Cajun and her calf once again, but this time they were not associated with any other whales. Alphorn was spotted not too far away, apparently feeding along with a mother/calf pair (very possibly the same unidentified mom/calf pair he was with on our AM trip). We did get to watch a few nice breaches (one shown above) from what might have been two different nearby whales.
In between our two trips today I did have a pleasant surprise waiting for me at the Capt. John ticket booth, where several fellow Capt. John people presented me with a cake (with a whale fluke on it - see below) to wish me luck, since today's whale watch trips may be my last as a naturalist (at least for quite a while), as I have to "go on the disabled list" for some time due to health reasons (a bum hip that may need replacement). I still hope to get out whale watching every once in a while, but it would be as a passenger (not as the trip's naturalist), when I can choose to sail only on calm days and when I can sit down as much as I'd like to or need to while traveling to and from the whales. Having been a whale watcher since the mid-1970's, and a whale watch naturalist since 1980, this does represent a huge change in my life, since whales wave been such a large part of my life for 30-plus years now. However, I am pleased to report that I was also presented at the ticket booth with the gift of a very nice T-shirt with a detailed map of Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bays and the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary on it, so that I'll still be able to find my way out to the whales and back. I will miss being a whale watch naturalist, though...
Again our usual suspects were out on the water today the same group of whales from the past few days were continuing to stay around for us to follow there progress through the water. It has been rather neat seeing this same group of whales over and over again, being able to see them display different behaviors on all different days.
In my opinion there is no better job than being out on the water watching one of the most majestic whales that lives on earth. We started our trip with an unidentified individual whale that was very curious about us on the boats. This whale gave us beautiful close approaches on both sides of the boat giving all the people on board great looks at the head and body on this animal.
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Once again, we headed to the SE portion of Stellwagen Bank, where for many a day now we have been watching mostly the same group of humpback whales. Every whale watch season is different from every other one, and, at least so far, this season is proving to be a somewhat difficult one (although we still have a 100% success rate so far this season). While we did get off to a good start early this year, since then there has seemed to be a shortage of sand lance, the small fish that is the staple food of Massachusetts humpback, finback, and minke whales. As a result, we have been seeing fewer humpback whales lately, and the number of finback whales seen has been very low all season long. But, we have still been very fortunate that a number of humpbacks have been "making do" with the apparently somewhat reduced amount of food still available on and around the SE corner of Stellwagen Bank.
On both trips today we observed several humpback whales, as well as having brief looks at a few Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the AM and a minke whale in the PM. The humpbacks in our whale watching area included "the usual suspects" - Cajun and her calf, Milkweed, Pele, and Alphorn, who have often been together, or at least in the vicinity of each other, for some time now. In a way, it might seem to be less interesting to see a smaller variety of individual whales day after day, but it has actually been really neat to watch these animals spending time with each other, and interacting with each other, on a regular basis. I wonder if Cajun's calf will grow up with a special fondness for "Uncle Alphorn", for example (Alphorn, at 27 years old, is the oldest of this group of whales, while Cajun, the calf's mom, is only 12 years old in comparison).
One of the nicest things we saw today occurred on the PM trip, when we saw Milkweed doing some kick feeding (below). Not only is this an interesting behavior to watch, we have not seen it much lately, likely due to lack of surface food, and so part of the joy in seeing it comes from the realization that some surface sand lance might be starting to show up again.
Kick feeding is an intriguing humpback behavior that has been seen in Massachusetts humpbacks only for the last 15 to 20 years or so (I do not remember the exact year when it was first observed) - interestingly, it was never seen in Massachusetts humpback whales back in the 1970's and 1980's. When kick feeding, a humpback will slap its tail flukes down on the water surface, apparently over a school of sand lance, and will then dive below the spot where it "kicked" and rise again, scooping up the fish at that spot that may possibly have been percussively stunned or otherwise confused. The "kick" also creates a lot of bubbles in the water, similar to what is produced during humpback bubble cloud feeding, and that may also add to the confusion. Despite what I've described here, though, what we actually know for sure about kick feeding is still a bit limited.
The appearance of kick feeding is somewhat like lob tailing, but the tail flukes are not lifted as high (nor is the dorsal side of the flukes ever slapped down, which does sometimes occur in lob tailing). Certainly the effect on the water's surface is different from what the flukes do (or don't do) to the surface when a whale simply goes on a sounding dive (below).
If the humpback actions above, from the PM trip, were the nicest behavior to see for the day, then the least pleasant actions - of human behavior in this case - were observed on the AM trip, when we saw a sport fishing boat, hoping to snag a tuna, not at all concerned if it snagged a humpback whale instead. We were watching Cajun, Alphorn, Milkweed, and Pele diving for food, while Cajun's calf remained "hanging around" at the surface. At the time, the tuna boat had been slowly dragging "squid gear" (an array of very brightly colored hooked soft plastic lures) across the surface of the water. At one point, the path of the tuna boat came within about 25 feet of the calf (see the photos below, showing the location of the calf and the location of the gear), all the while very possibly being directly above the four feeding adult humpbacks (see the third photo below, of some of them surfacing near the calf shortly afterward, Cajun surfacing right next to her calf).
It is unlikely that the operator of the tuna boat could have been unaware of the whales he was endangering. First, he had been moving quite slowly, so it was unlikely that he never saw that there were whales in the area. Then, he was carrying out this boneheaded maneuver next to a stopped whale watch boat (and nothing looks more like a dedicated whale watch vessel than does the Tails of the Sea). Finally, while the four adult whales did dive before the tuna boat reached that spot, the calf was still quite obviously at the surface almost directly in the tuna boat's path (just slightly - about 25 feet - to the left of its path). The boat ~never~ slowed further, ~nor~ did it turn (to its right) away from the calf, ~nor~ did it come to a stop (which is what would legally - and intelligently - have been the proper response). The boat just kept on dragging its hooked gear right alongside the young whale so close by at the surface.
As it turned out, we did have two US Coast Guard Auxiliary members on board for that trip (and we do indeed have USCG Auxiliary people on board periodically on some whale watch trips, spot-checking our actions around the whales and, I would suppose, watching other boats around the whales, too). I did email my (full-size) photos of the incident to one of the Auxiliary members who did provide me with his email address, but, upon checking with his superior, he emailed me back, saying he was told that, since he himself could not provide a videotape that he personally had taken of the incident, no formal action would be taken. (I would have hoped that at least a polite warning would have been in order...)
Is there any doubt as to which species has fully earned the title of "The Most Dangerous Species on This Planet"? Methinks not.
11 am Whale Watch Trip - Krill
It was a fabulous 4th of July offshore. The weather was cool and not too humid. Perfect conditions for sightings out on the waters. As we headed to the west side of Stellwagen Bank, we passed our sister ship, the Tails of the Sea. We were able to get a nice photo that included naturalist Joanne and Captain Dave waving to us on the fly bridge.
After passing the Tails, we picked up our first sighting on the SW corner of the bank. This pair turned out to be a special sighting of a mother and calf humpback whale. A quick look at the size and shape of the dorsal fin allowed us to quickly identify this mom as Orbit. Orbit and her calf of this year were slowly moving through the area.
We left his special pair and kept moving to the east for we had reports of a large concentration of humpback whales that were subsurface feeding. Our first sighting in this area was another very special one. We again had looks at a humpback whale mother and calf pair and the mom turned out to be Salt, the most famous humpback whale in the world.
Salt appeared to be feeding deep while the calf, named Zelle, was spending more time at the surface waiting patiently for Salt to return to the surface. While we watched this pair, we saw three other groupings of humpback whales in this same area.
We counter over 10 humpback whales clustered in the small area to feeding on small schooling fish at depth. With so many other groups of whales in the area, we decided it was time to leave Salt and calf in order to pick up a few more sightings.
Our next and final sighting turned out to include 2 mother and calf pairs. These moms were Cajuna and calf as well as Circuit and calf. Both moms appeared to be feeding deep while the calves spent more time on the water' surface. Fun to see the calves interacting with each other as they patiently wait for mom's return.
Soon it was time to head home. As we were preparing to leave, another of our sister ships, the Capt. Rudy Thomas, joined us offshore. The Capt. Rudy Thomas runs the ferry service from Plymouth to Provincetown. While the ferry boat passengers are enjoying themselves in town, the Capt. Rudy Thomas takes folks in Provincetown on a whale watch off Race Point. We saw Marianne waving to us from the wheelhouse. She is one of our very favority galley girl.
Big smiles from everyone onboard. A great way to celebrate the 4th of July.