5/19/15

Log for May 19, 2015

Northern gannet

This morning on the Cetacea, we headed out in the fog and rain in search of whales. We started our search at the Northwest corner and then travelled down the western edge of the bank until we spotted some activity! 


These guys don't mind the rain

There were quite a few whales in the area today. At first, it seemed like we had happened upon a hot spot, but slowly the activity started to spread out as the fog rolled in. 

Fluke

We were able to identify Blackbird, who was kickfeeding alone off our starboard side. We also saw a whale named Terrace, a new sighting for this season! Terrace has very distinct flukes because the left fluke is pretty mangled, possibly because of an entanglement. The right fluke is distinct as well, and has a few rakemarks (bite marks from an orca) in the upper corner. 

Northern gannet

There were plenty of birds out on the bank today, including a very peculiar northern gannet who hitched a ride with us back to Boston! A similar occurrence happened last season except with a brown booby who seemed a little lost. Our gannet seemed pretty content though, and calmly sat on the bench on the second deck while we whale watched and all the way back to the harbor! Animal control said that the bird should be fine! Hopefully we will see some clearer skies soon!

— Annie Goodenough

5/18/15

Log for May 18, 2015

We had a whale watch of a lifetime Monday afternoon. It started off quickly on the southwest corner of the bank where dozens of whales were scattered about. We first spent some time watching Owl, her calf and an unknown who initially caught our eye breaching together in the distance. We then observed a large group of humpbacks including Mend, Storm, Bolide, her calf and a few others.

Wait, who's watching who?

Underwater eye

Guests were thrilled with the activity we had seen up until that point, but little did we know that we were in for a whole lot more action! As the large group left, we realized that two young members chose to stay behind to check us out. The larger of the two was one of last year’s calves born to Flamingo, likely only a year and half old. The smaller of the two, whom we were unable to ID, may have been older or younger than Flamingo’s ‘14 calf seeing as this second year juvenile was quite a big girl already.

Belly up: Barnacles and pleats

These juveniles were completely fixated on us and watched us watching them for over an hour after Captain Bill took the boat out of gear. You could definitely say it was another mugging, but this time was different. They rolled and rolled about, lying on their sides looking directly up at us with a single eye. Their behavior led me to believe that they could actually see us better when they were laying belly up. 

Can't get any closer than this close encounter

Flamingo’s 14 calf, who was the obvious ring leader, spent a lot of time on her back looking up at us. This allowed us to easily see her hemispherical lobe, indicating to us that she is female. The smaller humpback did less rolling and more partial spy hopping, but never gave us a good look at its fluke.

Close enough to touch

After I realized that we were stuck where we were on account of these animals being so close to us, literally rubbing up against the boat, I joined the guests on the first deck. I try my best not to anthropomorphize these whales, but I am confident that as I looked out over the railing at Flamingo’s 2014 calf, she was looking right back at me. At one point, she rolled and lifted her pectoral right out in front of me and I literally could have reached out and held her flipper in my hand (which I of course did not do because it is against the Marine Mammal Protection Act). This is an experience that most of our guests had yesterday and an experience I know I will never forget.

Oh yeah, and we saw a shark. A shark!

I almost forgot to mention that we also saw an enormous feeding basking shark on our way home (see photos)!

Basking shark!

The funniest thing about today was that, as we left the dock, I told everyone that this was going to be the best whale watch ever and it sure was! 

So close

I am hoping to have videos from this whale watch posted on the Boston Harbor Cruises website and/or Facebook page within the coming weeks so keep an eye out for them! 

— Tasia Blough




5/16/15

Log for May 16, 2015

We had a wonderful day on the eastern side of mid-bank with breaching, flipper slapping, open-mouth feeding, and North Atlantic white-sided dolphins!  

What a show!

We saw a total of 16-20 humpbacks, 5-10 dolphins, and tons of birds. Our first stop was on an unidentified single humpback, taking about 10 minute dives. We then continued south and found a highly productive feeding area. Geometry, Daffodil and an unknown were sharing bubble clouds and giving quite a feeding demonstration.

We were distracted by the large number of breaches occurring in front of us and scattered throughout the horizon line. We moved with the feeding trio towards Blackbird, who was also feeding solo and then came close to boat. All of a sudden Blackbird started repeatedly breaching right off our port bow! There were full spinning head breaches, head breaches, back breaches, and flipper slaps! 

Feeding with an audience

Then we had a wonderful show by 747 who started conducting high lobtails and bringing its fluke high into the air. 747 was also demonstrating perfect formations of bubble clouds right next to our pulpits and the crowd was floored by all of the acrobatic activity and feeding commotion. Geometry, Daffodil and their associate had about 10 little white-sided dolphin escorts swarming around them as they were feeding.  

Fluke

The large amount of birds in the area definitely helped guests to determine which group of whales to pay attention to next. And there was a large amount of juvenile northern gannets in the area, which was quite a treat to see diving into the water around us and really added to the atmosphere. We were also able to identify Lightening and her calf, who came into the area as we were ending our trip.  It was a windy afternoon on the bank but definitely worth the trip! One passenger said it was “the best day of her life” as she said goodbye on the dock.

— Laura Cupicha and Annie Wolf

5/6/15

Log for May 6, 2015

On today’s whale watch aboard the Aurora, we headed to the NW corner where all our whale action was yesterday. It was a beautiful bright day with calm seas to look for whales!

Swirly chevron pattern on its back

We when arrived near the corner, we first spotted the tall blow of a fin whale. We got some great looks of this whale’s chevron pattern (see photo), and while we were observing this whale, another fin whale was swimming nearby.

Egret

After spending time with these two fins, we decided to check around for some other activity, and ended up finding a pair of humpback whales. When the first whale of the pair fluked, I was delighted to see that is was Egret, a calf of one of my favorite whales from my whale watching days in Bar Harbor, Siphon. I hadn’t seen this whale since it was a calf, so it was great to see it again! (see photo of fluke). The second, larger whale that wasn’t fluking for us, but it was later ID’ed as Zeppelin. These two appeared to be working together to deep feed today, with Egret diving deeper in the water column while Zeppelin stayed more shallow.

Zeppelin going the bathroom

Zeppelin must have been feeding well lately, as she defecated several times at the surface during our trip (see photo of her lifting her fluke to aid in this action!). Compared to Egret, a whale born in 2007, you can definitely see the life-experiences this whale has had. Each time Zeppelin would surface, we could see the white scarring on her mouth, indicative of lots of time bottom feeding for sand lance (Zeppelin appears to be a “righty”). 

Egret's and Zeppelin's dorsal fins

Zeppelin's dorsal fin

Also Zeppelin bears a scar on her dorsal fin (see photo), which was disfigured by an entanglement in a gill net in 1995. Luckily she has still thrived since then (20 years later!). She is the mother of Milkweed, who’s calf we witnessed briefly get entangled last season on our whale watch. Definitely food for thought today when thinking about human impacts.

Laura Howes

5/5/15

Log for May 5, 2015

It was grey and overcast as we set off for Stellwagen Bank in light rain with the hopes of finding the humpback whales that have been moving around the area for the past few days. We spotted a blow and went to investigate – finding two humpback whales! Both of these whales were taking shallow non-fluking dives (the bane of every naturalist’s existence!) but were coming up quite close to the boat, even right between the bow pulpits! 

Our mystery whales could not have been closer

Our captain, Jeff asked me if I wanted to stick with these whales or go see what else might be around and I really wanted to be able to identify these whales and they were not being helpful. A few more non-fluking dives and finally I got enough of the fluke to identify Subterranean, a whale first spotted by my colleague Tasia earlier this week. 

Subterranean blues: Took a long while before we could ID this whale!

Satisfied with an id shot we headed off to explore further and quickly spotted another whale travelling slowly. This whale was taking shallow dives and the near glass calm seas today allowed us to see the trail of fluke prints, slick patches of displaced water created by the animal’s tail, leading in a straight line to some destination unknown. 

Echo

It seemed to be heading in the direction of some more blows so in the spirit of discovery we went to see who these whales might be. This time it was a group of 4 humpback whales and I was quickly able to identify 3 of them: Tornado, Echo, and Ventisca. The fourth whale, despite a good picture remains unknown. These three whales are all females, who had calves last year, and in fact I saw Ventisca’s 2014 calf on a trip earlier last month. They are well known and regular visitors to Stellwagen Bank. Echo is the first whale that I have sighted all four seasons that I’ve been working out here and Ventisca is the first whale I ever learned to id. Like many of the whales earlier in the trip this group were taking shallow dives and just travelling along. We got to spend some time for a few surfacing and the captain called that our time was up and we headed back to Boston. It was a wonderful whale watch, spending great quality time with 7 different humpback whales and I’m sure everyone on board was very pleased.

As we headed west we started to spot some more whales in the area and even a small group of feeding humpback whales. On the way out to Stellwagen, our captain had spoken to a friend on one of the tugboats heading down from Portland who said he’d seen some feeding whales. We figured this had been a group of four but boy were we wrong. Our captain figured we had just enough time to swing by these feeding whales and get some additional looks. Suddenly there were 16 whales in small groups kick feeding and lunging all around us! 

Glo-Stick kick feeding

We stayed between two pairs – Glo-stick and Pleats, and Triton an Reaper – who gave awesome kick feeding action of either side of the boat before rising open mouthed to the surface to be mobbed by the hundreds of gulls. It was a sight to behold! Kick feeding, when the whale slams its powerful peduncle on the surface of the water, is an amazing and dynamic behavior to watch, especially Glo-stick’s particularly “flippy” style.

Gull mob

At last we really did have to leave and head home but it had been an excellent trip with 20-22 humpback whales and 4-7 minke whales and hundreds of sea birds and tons of fun!

— Tegan

5/3/15

Log for May 3, 2015

Our Sunday morning started off with a female veteran humpback named Mars going to town on some sand lance. I call Mars a veteran because she is visibly weathered and has clearly come across her fair share of obstacles throughout her life. If you look at her fluke (which was posted in Saturday’s log), you can see that something at one point carved a huge chunk out of her right fluke. If you look at her tailstock, you will also find a deep indentation around her peduncle. While I’m not in a position to say for sure what has caused these injuries, they are very consistent with entanglement scars and are likely anthropogenic in nature. 

Putter kick feeding

Despite such setbacks, Mars has continued to produce a healthy and resilient line of offspring (more on that later) and is actually mother to one of our local favorites. If you guessed Nile, you are correct! Mars spent her morning fishing for sand lance with bubbles and powerful surface lunges! We had great views of the her enormous throat grooves which function to maximize the volume of water she can filter, making these energetically costly lunges worth her while.

Unidentified humpback breach

Nearby, we had a feisty juvenile exhibiting a behavior that I sometimes call (though it’s definitely not scientifically termed) breach lunging (see photo). This little guy could have easily been mistaken as a calf had he/she not been displaying grown up whale feeding behavior. The one-sided facial scarring was also a give-away as it is evidence of bottom side-rolling, another grown up whale feeding behavior. That being said, we saw our fair share of calves rocking fresh facial scars towards the end of last season, likely from mirroring the behavior of their mothers’ feeding, maybe even catching a fish or two in the process.

We also had a set of humpbacks displaying synchronized lunges who put on quite a show for us! One of these individuals showed fresh injuries on its tail stock right behind its dorsal fin. Born last year to Lichen, it is this juvenile’s first season alone on the feeding grounds. Most of these young, returning whales will pick up battle scars as they learn the ropes in this multifunctional, shared habitat. Though I have an idea, it’s unclear as to what specifically caused these injuries.

Sei whale skim feeding

While we had awesome humpback activity this trip, I can’t forget to mention the gorgeous skim-feeding sei whales we enjoyed yet again Sunday morning. In total, there were seven to eight of these sei whales in the mix with these humpbacks. At one point we found ourselves in a situation I like to call whale soup! No complaints here. That is a dream come true for most whale watchers!

By the afternoon, the sei whales had moved on to brighter pastures (AKA thicker copepod patches). Nonetheless, we found humpbacks aplenty, and many of these were now kick-feeding. Tornado, Strike and Putter were among these humpbacks. We had a lot of fun watching this feeding activity as each whale worked the bait in different ways.

Putter's ventral pleats splayed as he filters a mouthful of food
Tornado's enormous open mouth
More snacking for Putter

Putter’s behavior was extra exciting to observe as he lifted almost half of his body perfectly vertical out of the water with each kick (see photo). This gave us a clear view of his genital slits reaffirming what we already knew, that he is of course male! Being another offspring of Mars’s and half-brother to Nile, seeing Putter brings us back to the subject of Mars’ matriline. It’s amazing how many generations scientists have been able to track and learn from over the past 40 years. To learn more about this matriline and the anthropogenic threats they have resiliently faced, follow this link to NOAA's page about Nile

— Tasia Blough

5/2/15

Log for May 2, 2015

Today started out a bit foggy and chilly, but it turned out to be a great day for whale watches! The 10 a.m. trip on the Aurora headed out into 3 ft seas but we were definitely rewarded. After traveling towards the Northwest corner for an hour and half we encountered between 3-5 sei whales feeding. They were active and surfaced multiple times. While these animals weren’t exhibiting feeding behaviors there were ripples everywhere indicating there was some bait in the area!

Sei whales

After spending some time with these whales we encountered a single humpback whale. While this whale turned out to be Sundown he/she wasn’t surfacing consistently and there was more activity in the distance so we ended up leaving. Doing so allowed us to follow a group of three humpback whales who spent the rest of the trip feeding, fluking, and changing association with each other. 

Mars fluke

These whales, who turned out to be Thumper, Mars and Zeppelin, exhibited some great open mouth feeding giving our passengers a fantastic look at their baleen. Additionally, these whales consistently surfaced close to the boat and even kick fed a few times. While we spent the majority of our time with these three there were other humpbacks, minkes and seis close by and in the distance.

Humpbacks feeding

The 2 p.m. trip started out similarly to the earlier trip though we headed out further north to help alleviate the 3 ft swell that hadn’t yet abated. Barely an hour into the trip we encountered another set of sei whales. These whales were very surface active and were consistently lunge and skim feeding and gave passengers a great look at their narrower rostrum and shorter baleen (compared to humpbacks). 

These whales slowed down after some time and we decided to move on to a single unidentified whale in the distance. This animal was a T5 (all black) but unfortunately didn’t give us a great look at his/her fluke. However, there were plenty of whales in the area and we were able to then follow a group of two who turned out to be Falcon and another unidentified whale. These two spent little time on the surface so we moved on to another single whale, Thumper from earlier, and then a group of two whales. This second group of two included Etch-a-Sketch and another unidentified humpback. 

Spunky calf

Lastly, we settled with a group of three that included a mother and calf pair. The calf was very active and rolled multiple times sticking his/her pectoral fins out of the water, kicked, and stuck its tail in the air. Unfortunately, neither mom nor the other whale with this calf fluked.

All in all, it was another wonderful, although chilly!, day out on Stellwagen.

— Annie, Rich, Sam, and Meaghan-Elizabeth

4/30/15

Log for April 30, 2015

On today’s whale watch aboard the Aurora, we headed back to the NW corner where our sei whale action was yesterday. The corner today was a bit more quiet, but I was elated today to spot a sei whale still out there. We also spotted scattered Northern Gannets throughout our trip.

Sei whale

We first spotted the blow in the distance, and each time the individual would also exhale 1-2 times at the surface before taking its dive. This whale continued to keep up with this behavior throughout the trip, often changing direction. We didn’t observe any skim feeding today, so I’m guessing perhaps the prey was deeper in the water column, or this animal was just looking for food.

Sei whale

Sei whales have been observed to take 40-60 second breath intervals, which is what myself and fellow naturalist Heidi also observed today. Later in the trip this whale began not to travel as much, and graced us with some nice looks alongside our boat.

Every day on the water while collecting whale sightings data, we have also been collecting data on the marine debris we see – which is quite a lot throughout an entire season! Today as we spotted some floating plastic in the water while watching our sei whale, it was a grim reminder of a recent article posted by National Geographic, How a DVD Case Killed a Whale, which is about a wei whale that had a piece of a DVD case lodged in its stomach, preventing it to eat. This unfortunate story can hopefully be shared with many as a reminder to be conscious about our plastic consumption, and where our trash ends up.

— Laura Howes

4/29/15

Log for April 29, 2015

After yesterday’s rough sea conditions we were excited about getting back on the water today and headed out to the northwest corner in much more favorable conditions. Despite the light rain that greeted us at the northwest corner we were successful in finding a group of five feeding sei whales. 

Sei whale skim feeding

This is our second day seeing sei whales and I hope that this doesn’t diminish how exciting these sighting are! Sei whales are not a common visitor to Stellwagen Bank though they are found throughout the North Atlantic and other oceans. Sei whales are known for their “invasions” when suddenly a large number of sei whales will be seen in an area, likely drawn by an abundant food source. 

So many sei skim snackers

This is possibly what is happening here at the moment; sei whales feed on copepod zooplankton, just like right whales, and there are also a large number of right whales being currently sighted in Cape Cod Bay. With any luck we’ll have a few more days of sei whale sightings to come.

Sei whale

Sei whales are rorqual whales, just like humpback and fin whales, which are characterized by the grooves or pleats running down the throat allowing the skin to expand. Today we got to see lots of this as the whales were doing what we call side lunges, when the animal lunges with its mouth wide open sideways through patches of prey. 

Sideways skim feeding

Many rorqual whales have pinker skin on the inside of these grooves which is only visible when these grooves are expanded. Sei whales are smaller than our fin and humpback whales, only about 40-50 feet in length and are incredibly streamlined. Though our whales were lazily feeding today, they are very fast swimmers and can reach speeds of over 30 miles per hour.

Red-necked pharalopes

The calm seas also allowed us to spot an interesting bird species, two red-necked phalaropes, a tiny wading bird. It was a very peaceful morning with the calm season, gentle rain, and five skimming sei whales.

— Tegan

4/27/15

Log for April 27, 2015

Our whale watch yesterday was a very special and unforgettable experience. We had a few usual suspects out there including Atlantic white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoises, minke whales and fin whales. But more importantly, we had a scattered group of about 10 skim feeding sei whales.

Sei whales skim with the Boston skyline in the distance

This was my very first time seeing sei whales, so it was an especially exciting trip for me! Sei whales are large, 40-60 foot baleen whales that rarely, but occasionally visit the inner waters of Massachusetts Bay.

Look at that baleen! 
Synchronized skim feeding

Calanus copepod, sei whale food
While they are rorquals like fin, humpback and minke whales, their prey and feeding habits are more like right whales. Sei whales, like North Atlantic right whales, feed primarily on copepods, a type of zooplankton. When large patches of copepods are present, they sometimes swim through this area in groups taking advantage of this feeding opportunity. I had a lot of guests asking me about these copepods so I thought I'd add a photo to give our readers an idea of what type of animals these sei whales are filtering out of the water (see photo). Considering how small these animals are, you can imagine they have to filter a very large volume of water to get the biggest bang for their buck. They do this by opening their enormous mouths and swimming very slowly across the surface of the water for extended periods of time. This is what we call skim feeding. You can see from the photos that this type of feeding is very different from the powerful lunge feeding we are used to seeing humpback and fin whales displaying.

Open mouth, coming our way

Skim feeding is a very tranquil and beautiful behavior to watch and something, in four years of coming out to Stellwagen Bank, I have never been able to experience. This slow and graceful feeding gave guests the opportunity to observe, in slow motion, the function of ventral pleats and baleen. As these sei whales fed, they filtered seawater on their sides allowing guests to watch their ventral pleats stretch, their throats expanding as they slowly filled with seawater (see photos). We then observed this water flow through their baleen as they filtered their food out of the water.

Baleen and ventral pleats on full display

We watched these whales feeding in awe the entire trip and enjoyed listening to them breathe against the silence of a calm sea. I felt very lucky to have been on our whale watch yesterday and I know our guests did as well! It was an experience I know I will never forget!

Flat calm and peaceful skim feeding

I promised I would provide an update regarding an entangled whale we heard about over the VHF radio on Sunday. Fortunately, the humpback whale was successfully disentangled by the Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team. However, with deep wounds and being underweight, it is likely still suffering from the effects of the entanglement.

— Tasia Blough




4/26/15

Log for April 26, 2015

We had two unbelievable whale watches yesterday! Passengers on both trips got to see six different marine mammals (and possibly a 7th, more to come on that)!!! 

Lobo rolling while filtering

These sightings included gray seals, groups of feeding humpbacks, traveling fin whales, minkes, lots of scattered harbor porpoises and large groups of Atlantic white-sided dolphins.

Aswan and Tornado gulping

On our first trip, we had 3-4 scattered groups of kick-feeding humpbacks! We chose to spend our time with Falcon, Daffodil, Tornado, Lobo and Sundown who stayed together kick-feeding and bubble-netting next to one another throughout the entire trip. Guests had the amazing opportunity to observe powerful surface lunges as these whales filtered sand lance out of the water.

Tornado and company feeding

This afternoon we still had whales kick-feeding in the area, one of which was Sundown. We also had a few whales bubble-net feeding together. Daffodil, Aswan, Tornado and Streamer spent a good amount of time bubble netting while dolphins fed on the fish that got away. A whale named Canine swam through the area at one point throughout this feeding along with a couple fin and minke whales.


Dolphins breaching

We had a number of harbor porpoise sightings on both trips today which can often go unnoticed due to their small size and rapid surfacing. Luckily the sea conditions were super calm today, which allowed us to notice even minor disturbances in the water.

Among the many minke and fin whale sightings today, we suspected a couple of them to have been sei whales, a species that is occasionally seen in the Stellwagen Bank area around this time of year. Unfortunately, we were unable to get close enough to these animals to be certain of the species.

Lobo kickfeeding

In conclusion, we had our Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary Seabird Stewards on board today which always adds to the excitement of our trips. Among their many seabird sightings, I can say for certain they were most excited about a group of common murres they spotted, not to mention the amazing whale activity observed! Today was definitely a day of cross-species feeding frenzies!

Kick feeding and bubble feeding

— Tasia Blough