Friday, September 2, 2011
9 am trip:
As we left the dock this morning, we had clear skies and light winds. We traveled toward Race Point to see if the concentration of humpbacks off the backside of Cape Cod were still around. A we approached Race Point, the sharp eyes of our passengers found an ocean sunfish swimming lazily at the water's surface. Our captain was kind enough to stop and give us a look at this strange and unusual animal.
Ocean sunfish are the heaviest bony fish in the world. They have a very unusual shape to their body as they have large dorsal and anal fins and a very small caudal (tail) fin. Ocean sunfish are common visitors to our New England waters in late summer for they feed on jellyfish and other gelatinous critters that are quite abundant in our waters this time of year. Swimming next to the ocean sunfish was a smaller fish with striking black and white features. This was a pilot fish and they are often seen accompanying ocean sunfish.
As we moved away from the sunfish, we picked up a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. This was a very exciting sighting for all of us onboard, even me, for I haven't seen dolphins in over a month. The Atlantic white-sided dolphin is the most common dolphin in our waters this time of the year. And like any toothed whales (Odontocete), they travel in pods or family groupings. Our captain estimated at least 40 individuals comprised this pod including mothers and their calves of this year.
What fun it was to see the dolphins frolicking right next to the boat. Some of the dolphins swam right under the bow of the boat and this gave our passengers a really great look at them. One or two individuals breached or jumped right out of the water and came down with a splash. All to soon we had to move away from these amazing animals as we continued our journey down the backside of the Cape.
As we headed past Race Point, we started seeing a large number of shearwaters resting on the surface of the water. Shearwaters feed on the same small schooling fish as the whales, so seeing shearwaters is a very good sign.
As we continued southeast, we saw a blow a few miles off our bow. This turned out to be a single humpback whale that was resting (logging) at the surface. Logging is not the most exciting behavior that can be exhibited by humpback whales, but this behavior does allow us to get some really close looks at the animal.
We saw the whale exhale from its blowholes, which are the nose of the whale. Humpbacks and other baleen whales have a paired opening to their nostrils, just like we do. And as this animal dove beneath the water, we saw quite a few scars on its tailstock, probably caused by recent encounters with fishing gear.
We decided to push on and allow this whale to rest. We picked up a pair of humpbacks that were also being lazy at the surface. Unlike the first whale on our trip today, we did get a peek at the ventral tail pattern of this pair. Nice to know that we had Midnight (very black tail pattern) and Tear (very white tail pattern) resting just off our starboard side.
We were running out of time in our trip this morning, so we kept on moving southeast down the backside. As we slowly moved through the area, we noticed a small harbor seal just off our port side. Harbor seals and gray seals are the most common seals in our waters this time of the year. And this little guy seemed to be just as lazy and lackadaisical as all the other critters we saw so far.
Our last sighting was doozy for it was a trio of humpback whales that turned out to include Salt, my favorite whale. OK, I know you are not suppose to have "favorites", but she is definitely up there on the top 10 list. Salt was the first whale to be given a name by my friend Captain Erin Avellar. Erin named Salt, and he named me Krill, so she and I will forever be connected in spirit.
Salt was resting with Buzzard and a third humpback that I was not able to identify. These three whales just floated next to the boat, aware of our presence, but obviously not concerned. Suddenly, Salt rolled on her right side exposing the left tip of her tail. Not sure why Salt did this, but right afterwards, all three whales fluked-out. Was that a cue to the others in her party that it was time to dive? We shall never know.
What a great morning. We can hardly wait for the afternoon trip.
Humpback whales identified include: Tear, Midnight, Salt, Buzzard and Entropy. Seabirds include: greater shearwater, sooty shearwater, manx shearwater, Wilson's storm petrel and Northern gannet (juvenile).
2 pm trip:
For our afternoon trip, we headed back down the backside of the Cape to find those lazy humpback whales we had on the morning trip. As we headed down the backside, our captain spied a dorsal fin skulling back and forth at the surface. Yep, another ocean sunfish! This fish let us approach very closely and it even swam right under our bow. What a beautiful sight for all onboard today.
After leaving this sunfish, we found Tear and Midnight once again as they traveled side-by-side This time, this pair was a bit more active and we even saw Tear roll over and flipper slap a few times. Our passengers got a great look at both of their tails and it was easy to see how different and unique they were. Tear has a very white ventral tail pattern with a black vertical line on the left fluke. This whale was named for that black mark for it looked like a tear rolling down the fluke.
Midnight has a very black ventral tail pattern, of course, with some very distinctive white markings on both sides of the fluke. How fun it is to see this "fingerprint" pattern that allows us to identify individual humpback whales. And how wonderful that we can use these natural markings to identify individuals instead of having to mark them with some invasive, man-made tag.
When Midnight fluked-out, we saw quite a few barnacles on the tips of this whale's flukes. Barnacles are common ectoparasites on whales and the tips of the flukes are often covered with barnacles. The barnacles don't bother the whales, but they probably are a bit of a nuisance.
Well, we found ourselves off Highland Light once again. We could see many small groups of humpback whales scattered throughout the area. One pair of humpbacks that we approached turned out to Pogo traveling with Scyalla's 2008 calf.
Both animals were moving slowly through the area and would occasionally stop to feed deep. As the whales surfaced to breathe, they were making rainbow spouts that spiraled high in the air. How beautiful is that!
Our last sighting was another pair of humpbacks who started to feed at the surface. We identified the individuals in this pair as Echo and Joy. Echo was kick feeding in her usual "unusual" style. Most whales kick once or twice in an effort to disturb and confuse the bait before creating a bubble net and rising mouth open. Echo would kick slowly four or five times in a row before starting her bubble net. Just a reminder that each whale displays unique and individualistic behaviors.
At times, there were so many birds hovering around the humpbacks as they lunged mouth open that it was difficult to make out the whale. Birds, whales and fish all in a mix of life and death. One animal's life ends so another life can continue. A reminder that Nature can be beautiful and brutal at the same time.
Wednesday, August 31, 2011
9 am and 2 pm whale watch trips - Leah
Yet another perfect day out on the water. It was beautiful, calm, cool and excellent. This mornings trip was nice and mellow. The humpbacks we saw today were relaxed and calm. Which may have something to do with needing a break after that crazy storm we had over the weekend.
|Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)|
It had an absolutely amazing pigmentation pattern on it's body. Then we finished our day with Buzzard and the other humpback.
2 pm trip:
This afternoons trip started off with an awesome look at an ocean sunfish and became more "joy"ous as the trip went on. Then we moved onto a set of humpback whales. They again weren't staying up at the surface all that much and didn't even give us that great a look at their tails so it's been hard trying to identify them.
In the same area that this set of two was there was a basking shark but it wasn't at the surface long enough for us to go take a look at it. Then one of the captains from another boat said one of my favorite things to hear over the radio. Our captain, Russ, was gracious enough to move even further around the back side of the Cape to have an opportunity to take a look.
|Atlantic white-sided dolphin|
I kept it quiet from our passengers, until we got in the area, so they would have a pleasant surprise. We had found a massive pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, there had to be 100 to 150 in the pod. I was ecstatic!!!! It was the first time I had seen them all summer and they were even breaching. There were mothers and calves of the dolphins traveling together, the babies are so cute. And we even got to see just how much of a burst of speed they can sustain because they were moving to get ahead of us.
|Pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins|
After we stayed with the dolphins for a little while we moved on and found a humpback named Joy. She was a delight to see and then we picked up the whale I couldn't identify from this morning. Then we continued on to a group of 3 humpbacks and then another one showed up behind them out of the
blue, or green, since that's the color of our water. And after those four we made our way back home.
We also did have a few distant looks at minkes and had some tuna splashing around. Overall, we had quite the productive species day out on the water this afternoon. I never expected to have a trip like that today.
11 am whale watch - Krill
As we left Plymouth Harbor, we were blessed with clear skies, calm seas and no wind, not even a whisper. We headed down the backside of Cape Cod where we have had sightings of humpbacks and minke whales over the past few days.
As we approached Race Point, the tip of Cape Cod, one of passengers saw an ocean sunfish at the surface. Our captain was nice enough to turn around and try to get a better look for our passengers. And what a look we got! The sunfish stayed at the surface as we slowly approached and even swam right over to the boat.
Ocean sunfish are common visitors to our waters this time of the year. They have migrated great distances from more tropical areas to feed on jellyfish, ctenophores and other gelatinous critters. Ocean sunfish are classified as the heaviest bony fish in the world and they are also considered by many to be the most unusual looking fish around. And for some reason, they spend a great deal of time on their sides when they are seen in our waters. But an ocean sunfish can right itself and swim like all other fish. Why they chose to spend long periods of time on their sides with their dorsal fin sweeping in and out of the water is still a discussion by biologists and scientists alike.
The New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance, NECWA, is a volunteer nonprofit that collaborates with Captain John Boats. They maintain a community-sighting network for basking sharks and ocean sunfish in the New England area.
If you see a live or dead ocean sunfish offshore, please report the sighting to the network by going to their website at www.necwa.org. They also respond to live stranded and dead carcasses they come ashore Cape Cod beaches each fall. If anyone sees an animal on the beach, dead or alive, please call their hotline at 508-566-0009.
One of the whales spread its flippers out in front of its body and arched its back lifting its fluke out of the water at a low angle. You don't often see this type of behavior, but it almost looked as if the whale was stretching after a long nap. Both whales eventually lifted their tails out of the water, but the angle was not good for photo-ID.
Our next sighting was a very special pair of humpback whales. We had found Salt who was traveling with Echo. Both are adult females and both have had calves born into the population. But Salt is the most famous of all the humpback whales for she was the first whale to be named for a mark on her body.
Salt was named for the extensive white scarring on the top of her dorsal fin. Even though the scarring is more extensive on the left side of the dorsal, the right side also shows a good deal of scarring. When Salt flukes-out, she always lifts her fluke very high out of the water. What a sight!
Salt returns each year to feed in our cold northern waters. She has brought back 12 calves so far and is now a grandmother. What fun to see her right next to the boat in company of another adult female. Salt and Echo seemed to be taking it easy as they slowly swam at the surface. Salt did a similar behavior to what we had just witnessed with our first pair of humpbacks that were logging off Race Point. Salt arched her back and lifted her tail slightly out of the water. Was this another example of stretching in whales?
|Ventral tail pattern of Midnight|
Our last sighting was another pair of humpback whales that seemed to be feeding deep. This pair was Perseid traveling with Midnight. Both whales have very black ventral tail patterns, but even so, you can see differences that can be used to help identify these individuals.
|Fluke-out by Perseid|
|Ventral tail pattern of Perseid|
All of our passengers were thrilled by the days events. Many said that the trip over exceeded their expectations. We like to hear that and we hope that all our passengers will come back to visit us and the whales soon.
Humpbacks identified include: Salt, Echo, Perseid and Midnight. Seabirds observed include: greater shearwater, sooty shearwater, Wilson's storm petrel and common terns.