Saturday, April 16, 2011
12 noon Whale Watch - Krill
Winds were picking up out of the SE as we headed offshore on our whale watch today. With increasing winds and rain in the forecast, we were anxious to get offshore at least once this weekend.
As we headed out of Plymouth Harbor, we had some great views of adult Northern gannets and sea ducks. Many of the gannets were displaying aerial feats as they plunge-dived into the water to feed. A few gannets fly right by our vessel, wings outstretched, as they glided past. Adult Northern gannets display a striking black & white plumage which helps identify them from a distance.
We continued on our journey as we moved into Cape Cod Bay. We were hoping to pick up some of the finbacks, sei whales and humpbacks that had recently been reported in this area.
Our first sightings were distant looks at North Atlantic right whales. This spring, many right whales have been reported feeding just off Race Point and Herring Cove. Since they are the most endangered of all the large baleen whales, Federal Regulations require that we stay at least 500 yards away from any individual. So we headed a bit more south, deeper into Cape Cod Bay, in an attempt to avoid a few individuals that were closer to Race Point.
Our strategy paid off for we found ourselves in an area just off Herring Cove where at least 3 finback whales were feeding. Finbacks are the largest baleen whale that regularly feeds in our coastal waters. They are close to 80 feet in length and are one of the fastest whales offshore. This gives them their nickname "the greyhounds of the sea." Finbacks are also nicknamed "Razorbacks" for they have a large and sharply pointed dorsal fin.
As we held our position, one of the finbacks surfaced right off our port side and very close to the boat. This gave us the most amazing look at this individual, one of the best looks at a finback that I have had in many years.
You could see the right lower jaw of this individual and the blaze and chevron pattern that starts on the right head and sweeps over the back of the animal towards the dorsal fin. The blaze and chevron are unique to each finback whale and therefore, can be used as a way of identifying individuals.
As the finback slipped effortlessly beneath the water, many of passengers were amazed at the sighting they just experienced. There are no guarantees when watching wild animals in the natural environments. And moments like this remind us of how special those encounters can be. We headed back to Plymouth excited about our whale watch today and ready for more whale watching this coming season.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
April 9th, 2011 - 12pm Whale Watch - Leah
On my first whale watch of the season, I celebrated my 24th birthday and got quite a surprise while out on the water. Today we got to see one of the most endangered whales that are in our waters, the North Atlantic Right Whale (Eubalaena glacialis), and got to experience the caution and patience that is necessary when traveling around these whales. Federal regulations require that we stay at least 500 yards away from any right whale. So we slowly moved away from these animals each time we saw them.
On a personal note it was quite fascinating to me to see these creatures and this trip allowed me to check off two new species on my list of one's I'd like to see. The other checked off species was the Sei Whale (Balaenoptera borealis).
Our trip today started off immediately. As we traveled through the inner harbor heading out of Plymouth, we scanned for shorebirds and for other animals if they were around. As we got closer to the end of Plymouth Beach, there was a harbor seal (Phoca vitulina) that was hauled out on the beach, taking a rest and warming up in the sun. When you see an animal on the shore like a seal it doesn't always mean there's something wrong with the animal, sometimes they just need a break. This playful little animal was waving its tail in the warm spring air.
As we continued out of the harbor, we soon saw a number of spouts or blows on the horizon. We encountered a group of whales that included 2 right whales, and 6 sei whales. Both species were skim feeding, a type of surface feeding. Shortly after spotting this group, we picked up a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus). We call this species "Lags" for short.
We also saw a large group of Northern gannets (Morus bassanus) while out on the water today. Interestingly enough a large group of gannets that are traveling together is called a gannetry.
We continued moving slowly through the area and saw more right whales in the distance. They seemed to be slowly making there way into Cape Cod Bay. We also continued to see more sei whales, and one was rather curious about a bright red buoy that was drifting at the surface.
Also in this area was a single humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), but as quickly as it came up for a breath, it dove right back down. This behavior made it impossible for me to get a photograph of this individual. The only way that it was able to be identified as a humpback was the fact that it has extremely distinct long white flippers that on average can be 12-15 feet in length. After we cleared this area we tried to move on to a group of humpbacks further offshore, but we ran out of time and had to turn back to port.
We traveled back in a wide circle avoiding the area where the right whales were feeding. As we continued on our way, we came across a grey seal (Halichoerus grypus) that was bottling (resting) at the surface. It looked just like a buoy, but then it dove and was not seen again.
We then saw another pod of lags that were in the same area as another humpback whale. This humpback spent more time at the surface allowing us to get a photograph of her fluke. When back at the dock, we were able to identify this individual as a female named Palette. We didn't get to hang out with her for to long, but we at least were able to get a photo-ID shot. We are still waiting for a large portion of our humpbacks to continue their journey north and arrive in our area. Everyday they get closer and closer and we can't wait for all of them to return.
New this season is a fun activity called Flipper Fact Trivia that I wanted to try out while offshore. During the trip, I asked our passengers a number of questions about whales that pertain to their biology and life history. It was fun to see everyone getting involved in this trivia game, especially the kids.
I am providing the answers to my trivia questions below and am challenging the other naturalists to try out this activity with their passengers when whale watching offshore. It's fun learning new bits of information about these special and unique marine mammals.
Today's Flipper Fact Trivia Questions were:
Question 1: How old is your naturalist, Leah?
Answer: She turned 24 during the trip!!
Question 2: The common characteristics of all mammals are: mammals are warm blooded, have live births, nurse their young and what is the 4th?
Answer 2: They have hair.
Question 3: Our baleen whales are Mysticetes - What is the Greek meaning of the word Mysticetes?
Answer 3: It means mustached whale.
Question 4: Atlantic white-sided dolphins are nicknamed "Lags." Where does the term Lags come from?
Answer 4: The term Lags is an abbreviation of the Genus name for this species which is Lagenorhynchus.
Question 5: What is the average length of the humpback whale flipper?
Answer 5: The flippers average length is 12-15 feet.