Friday, August 19, 2011
Wednesday, August 17, 2011
9 AM trip:
With clear skies, calm seas, perfect temperatures, we headed offshore. What a difference a day can make!
On the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, we found endangered humpback whales spread throughout the area. Whales were traveling mainly singly, with a pair in the mix. The clear, calm waters made it easy to see the long white pectoral fins glowing bright green below the water’s surface. The white reflects the green plankton in the water, giving them a bright tint.
We got to spend time with several different humpback whales, including a few newly named whales and whales that will be named this fall. One juvenile humpback swam back and forth around and under us, a bit curious of the large floating object in the water.
We had flukes/tails going high out of the water in many directions. Several whales were heading south and were just a few miles off the tip of Cape Cod. Galactic swam right next to our boat, having been in a pair that separated, as associations are very loose and often don’t last too long.
One of those whales was a very popular (top 50 on Stellwagen) whale named Seal. Seal was born in 1982 to a humpback named Mars. He was given his name for a mark on his lower right fluke that resembles the shape of a seal. He also has a strong linear welt in front of his dorsal fin.
His mother, Mars, was seen quite a bit in the 80’s, but spends most of her time elsewhere now. She was named for the god of war because of prominent entanglement injuries she sustained. Seal is related to Nile and Putter (born in 1993), both very popular and frequently seen on Stellwagen Bank.
Seal and his sister and brother (Nile and Putter) have all had known entanglements, Nile in 2001 and Putter in 1998. Both had attempts by rescuers to be cut free; ultimately Nile freed herself, but after three attempts, Putter was cut free by the team from a life threatening entanglement. Nile had her most recent calf in 2009; with 2-3 years between calves, it is possible she is pregnant this year and could bring us a calf in 2012.
Both Nile and Putter are currently satellite tagged as part of a joint project with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and the Marine Mammal Laboratory in Seattle. This project is helping us to understand the movements of whales, as well as best placements for tags and tag longevity. This is a family that’s very well known and studied and has shed quite a bit of insight in to the biology of humpback whales.
2 PM trip:
With perfect conditions, we headed offshore and found ourselves surrounded by 2 dozen or more endangered humpback whales. Several minke whales were in the area as well, making it a multi species trip!
Humpback whales were popping up in every direction around us, traveling in pairs, trios and some even larger groups. Literally, in every direction we had whales surrounding us and passengers hollering in delight!
One of our largest group was a familiar association which included Cajun, Pele, and Milkweed, all of which spent a great deal of time together last year too. At one point, this group surfaced right off our bow and came down the sides of our boat, just feet away from us, giving everyone an amazing view right through the clear, calm waters--There’s nothing like an eye to eye encounter with a great whale to get your blood flowing!
Pele and Springboard (both seen on this trip) are two of the satellite tagged whales and his tag remains in his lower left side, giving researchers information with every surfacing about his movements. His travels and those of the other 15+ tagged whales can be seen at the following website:
Humpback whales seen today, included: Venom and calf, Pele, Milkweed, Cajun, Canopy and calf, Seal, Peninsula, Springboard, Rapier’s 09 calf, Belly, Citation, Pitcher, Hancock, Pumba, and Storm.
We traveled offshore with decreasing winds and increasing clouds. With the winds and storms of the day prior, we expected and found a significant swell offshore. With winds from the east the day prior, the seas build and take some time to diminish.
We made our way out to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank where we found feeding humpback whales. We had one whale that was kick feeding and blowing a bubble cloud, with another larger group bubble net feeding in unison.
Kick feeding is a behavior that spread through this population of whales about 20 years ago and many of our whales use this form of feeding which makes use of the smacking of their tail flukes against the water’s surface to help send shock waves through the water column. The whale comes up through bubbles below that ‘smack’ and devours the prey. Whales are typically quite specific if they kick once, twice or three times, they always kick that many times.
Our larger group of whales was coordinating their efforts and blowing a large net of bubbles, which traps the prey in the center. The whales would surface together through the middle of the bubble net.
As we watched the feeding whales, more and more whales continued to move in to the same area.
Interestingly, we had Hancock and Pumba (named for the character in the movie the Lion King) in the larger group. These two whales have been seen together for quite some time over the last few weeks, having formed a longer term association. They also spent time together last year too.
One of the most exciting sightings was Canopy and her calf. Canopy’s calf was reported entangled with monofilament gear on its right flipper on July 31 of this year, but is believed to have shed the gear and be free at this point. Over 60% of humpback whales have entanglement scars on their bodies and 200-400 humpbacks are believed to get entangled each year, with many getting out of the gear on their own, while some are the recipients of disentanglement efforts by teams of rescuers.
While the seas made some of our passengers sick, the whales were abundant and active making it worth the journey!
Humpbacks identified included: Canopy and calf, Hancock and Pumba, Infinity, and Perseid.