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

4/19/15

Log for April 19, 2015

Our morning whale watch yesterday started out with an absolute feeding frenzy! We initially spotted 3 to 4 feeding groups along the northwest corner. The group closest to us consisted of approximately 10-13 humpback whales including the grand dame of Stellwagen Bank herself, Salt!

Salt

Additional members of this bubble net feeding group included Sprinkler, 747, Aswan, Snare, Grackle and a few unknowns. We had 1 or 2 calves in the group as well but were unable to pinpoint who their mothers were due to the chaotic nature of the feeding. Nearby Mend was spotted milling at the surface.

Salt

The feeding frenzy was short-lived as the group scattered. However, they collectively showed a deliberate movement northeast followed by the dolphins and hungry sea birds. After traveling for 15 minutes or so, a group of 4 humpbacks stopped to participate in a few rounds of bubble netting. We watched Aswan, Blackbird, Sprinkler and a sneaky 4th whale feed while a number of fin whales perused the area. All the while, dolphins interacted with the boat and took advantage of the efforts of the Humpback Whales.

Baleen and seabirds

As we turned for home, we saw a couple of feeding groups in the distance and recognized Zeppelin and Patchwork. Before leaving, we even had a quick minke whale encounter!

This afternoon, the feeding appeared to slow down, but it's possible that feeding was still occurring but lower in the water column. We first came across Sprinkler and 747 who were repeatedly diving beneath the boat. As captain Chip noted yesterday, we really don't know if their close approaches were due to a fascination with the boat or sand lance beneath us, but they consistently surfaced within about 20 yards of our boat for about 25 minutes.

Sprinkler open-mouth feeding

After some time a solo calf swam into the area, after which sprinkler must have slipped away and was not seen again. Although we did not observe 747 and this calf exhibiting behavior typical of a strong mother calf bond, there were no other obvious humpbacks nearby that could have been a potential mother to this calf. We will keep an eye out for this young whale in the coming days to make a positive determination as to whose calf this is.


Unknown fluke

We then moved on to a group of five humpbacks, Falcon, Persied, Snare, Mend and Canopy, which were making approximately 6 minute synchronized dives. We suspected that this group may have been in search of, or feeding on, bait lower in the water column.

Minke whales also made a strong showing in this afternoon, a number of which came unusually close to the boat giving the passengers beautiful looks of these often elusive whales. Our bird sightings yesterday included hundreds of diving gannets, herring gulls, laughing gulls, common cormorants, eiders, white-winged scoters and a pair of razorbills. We had a fantastic Sunday on the water!

— Tasia Blough

4/18/15

Log for April 18, 2015

We headed out on board the Aurora for this morning’s whale watch towards the northwest corner. Just as we approached the slow down zone we started to see lots of birds in the area and suddenly there were whales everywhere! 

Rainbows and whales

We started with five awesome fin whales which were charging through the area with tons of bird action and Atlantic white sided dolphin surfing the fins’ bow waves. We spotted a few humpback whales in the area but they hard to track through the area but we got good looks at a few unknowns, and two well-known humpbacks, Zeppelin and Geometry. The real show stoppers of the day were the massive numbers of dolphins in the area which seemed to delight in bow-riding and even doing some jumps and back flips. 

Acrobatic and entertaining dolphins

We ended the trip with two humpback whales which were quiet uncooperative on the data collection side and never fluked so we have no idea who these whales might have been. One of these completely made up for this by giving us a huge surprise breach off of our bow. 

Whale breath

Towards the end of our time out on the bank a large vessel moved through the area and we had to shift position to stay out of their way. It was amazing how all of the activity that we’d been enjoying just seemed to disappear as the ship transited the area. Large ships make quite a lot of noise and scientist’s still aren’t completely sure what sort of impact this has on the animals we see each day.

Sea life abounds

In the afternoon we headed back out to the same area where we’d had luck in the morning. The wind and seas had picked up quite a bit and the cloud cover made the sighting conditions less than ideal. When we got out to the bank we could spot the blows but actually seeing the whales was much harder – almost like we had sea-chameleons on our hands. There were a few fins and humpback whales around but we really couldn’t spot them. Today is the first day that some of the boats out of Gloucester are running so the northwest corner is no longer ours alone so we headed over to where one of the other boats was finishing up and picked up a huge group of dolphins which had a great time bow-riding. We eve spotted a few calves in the group. 



We found the group of five humpbacks that the other boat had been watching and were able to identify Mend, Perseid, Falcon, 747, and an unknown Type 5 (all black fluke). We stayed with this group for the rest of the trip. Seeing a group this size is always a treat and we got to watch them over several surfacings with some more whales (including some breach!) off in the distance.

All in all another great day on Stellwagen Bank.

— Tegan and Heidi

4/17/15

Log for April 17, 2015

Though a bit rainy, we had a great trip today aboard the Aurora. The sightings locations have been bouncing a bit around the NW corner the last few days, so captain Jeff decided to travel across the entire NW corner to find whales, and it paid off.

Lunge feeding behavior

When we arrived on the corner, we started seeing various splashes in the distance, and also began to be surrounded by scattered Atlantic white-sided dolphins. When we got closer to the splashes, myself and the passengers were very excited to see that it was actually lunge feeding behavior! Lunge feeding is one of my favorite behaviors because it always takes you by surprise and you really get to witness firsthand the amount of force these whales can exert - and today was no exception!

Sandlance scatter

We began the trip by watching a pair of two humpbacks (later ID’ed as Sprinkler and another unknown we have sent to Center for Coastal Studies to help ID) continuously horizontal lunge feeding together. Passengers were really fascinated on how this pair worked so well and quickly together! In some of the photos you can observe their prey (sandlance – see photo). This pair gave us some excellent close to boat lunges as well (see photo).

Lunging together

As this duo worked together, a third humpback, Trance, was side-lunging in the same location, but not associated. In the latter half of the trip, this group eventually formed into a trio, and while we were watching this group lunge, a large fin whale began lunge feeding close by! (see photo). It was a great teaching moment to explain the different feeding techniques of the two species.

Fin lunge

The fin whale lunge (see photo) is much sleeker and quicker, and makes quite a big wave! Also fin whales almost always lunge on their right side – it’s hypothesized that maybe their lighter-colored chevron patch on their right side (see photo) helps confuse the prey they are corralling.

You can barely see the lighter patch on this whale's side

Overall a fantastic day of lunging humpbacks and fin whales, and white-sided dolphins following alongside. We also spotted a minke whale and harbor seal, making it a five marine mammal-species day. Plus we saw tons of gannets and gulls!

— Laura Howes

4/16/15

Log for April 16, 2015

We had another amazing trip to the northwest corner today with an enormous amount of diversity! To start off, we sighted at least seven different minke whales and four gray seals! While we don’t usually stop to watch seals, these smaller marine mammals were extra interactive today! The first gray seal we saw was swimming with a fresh catch! 


Take a look at this little guy carrying a giant codfish in its mouth! After chowing down on this ground-fish which he most likely swam to a depth of about 300 feet to catch, he joined a seal friend who had been watching us from the other side of the boat. While seals often haul out together on land, it’s rare to see two swimming together in the open ocean because they are typically solitary foragers. These curious ocean-puppies seemed as interested in us as we were in them (see photo)!


We then came across a group of seven to eight humpbacks. These “winged New Englanders” repeatedly approached the boat closely giving passengers beautiful views of their enormous pectoral flippers. The heightened clarity of the water today allowed us to see deep into the water column giving us full body views of these whales (see photo of Mend). 


While they were making frequent dives, they also spent long periods of time at the surface. This group included a whale named “747”, Egret, Mend, Perseid and Zeppelin. We also saw one of Tegan’s unknown from yesterday who we are still hoping to ID in the coming days.



A number of fin whales also swam through the area including a duo who appeared to be circling, a behavior indicative of feeding. We saw hundreds of dolphins today which were again scattered across the northwest corner interacting with many of the baleen whales in the area. Guests enjoyed watching the acrobatic, bow-riding dolphins right next to boat just about the entire whale watch!

We had some awesome bird sightings today as well! Common loons, eider ducks, various species of scoters and gulls and northern gannets all made a strong showing. We additionally saw a few large groups of razorbills and a couple thick-billed murres! These two species are part of a larger group of birds, known as alcids, which include puffins and auks. These alcids are a fan favorite for bird watchers!

 

What a great time for whale and bird watchers alike to come out on a ride to Stellwagen Bank!

Tasia Blough
naturalist and photographer


4/15/15

Log for April 15, 2015

Today’s conditions couldn’t be any better for a beautiful April whale watch; limitless visibility, a light breeze, small seas, and the sunshine finally beginning to be warm things up. All in all, it was the perfect whale watch. 


We headed out to the northwest corner, our usual stomping ground. Eagle-eyed Captain Deb spotted a blow so we trundled up the top deck to start our search as a group of 20-30 Atlantic white-sided dolphins frolicked in the area delighting our passengers and then bam – a humpback whale surfaced on our port side. 


We watched this whale surface a few times, got some good ID photos but have not been able to identify this animal. Then a few minutes later a second whale surfaced with our first. This one we did identify as Sundown, a well-known Stellwagen whale. These two dove and we waited to see what might happen next. 


What followed was whale watcher heaven. In the depths we started to see the green splotches of humpback pectoral fins rising to the surface very close to the boat. Pleats, named for the scars running down this whale’s back, surfaced next to the boat several times, passed under our bow pulpits and generally just gave an awesome show of twisty dives, rolling, bubble blowing, tail stock slapping, and spyhopping for the next half hour. It was an amazing opportunity to really take in how large these animals are and how nimble and flexible they are in the water.


Personally it was a thrilling trip and a great start to my season.

Cheers,
Tegan

4/14/15

Log for April 14, 2015

We had another fantastic whale watch with lots of feeding activity! Atlantic-white sided dolphins dominated the entire northwest corner of the bank. As we saw last week, these acrobatic cetaceans were associating with many of the minke and humpback whales in the area and were especially abundant around fin whales. We saw at least seven different fin whales across the western part of the corner, one of which was surface lunge feeding!


We saw a lot of small, single humpbacks as well, many of which were producing very minimal spouts which made them difficult to detect from further away. We easily spotted the white water of some kickfeeding humps a couple miles southeast of our initial location. Our kickfeeders who were fishing separately turned out to be Pleats and Sundown. This learned behavior varies among individuals. 


Like many of the humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine, Pleats and Sundown each have their own distinct style of kickfeeding which one becomes very familiar with after spending a considerable amount of time with certain whales. Sundown’s tail kicks are completed over a full 90 degrees with a somewhat floppy fluke, whereas Pleats’ kicks are shallow and more controlled (see photos).


As we were preparing to head back to Boston, Pleats was joined by one of our unknowns who was with Landslide on Monday. Unfortunately, we were once again unable to capture a fluke ID shot of this whale. Hopefully over the next couple of days we will be able to solve the mystery of who this sneaky whale is! The only other solo humpback whale we were able to ID in the area was Aerospace who surfaced sporadically as the others fished.


Overall, it was another great day on the water!

Tasia Blough
Naturalist and Photographer


4/13/15

Log for April 13, 2015

We were mugged again on Monday! Two curious humpback whales for some reason chose to spend about 30 minutes right at, around and underneath our boat. They spent a lot of time directly next to our boat hovering within visibility, about 15 feet beneath the surface. This duo never surfaced together and were in fact never seen at the same time. They instead alternated surfacing for air, each time within feet of the boat. 


Additionally, they had very similar dorsal fins and never gave us a clear view of their ventral flukes which gave us the impression that this was a single whale. It wasn’t until we were going through our photos in the office that we realized from some scarring that our singleton was actually a duo! We were unable to determine the identity of both whales but IDed one as Landslide!


As this duo escorted our drifting boat, we watched over a dozen whales within a couple miles of us and were eager to see what else was out there. We were able to sneak away when a third whale joined them and they finally distanced themselves from the boat. We spent the rest of our whale watch observing a group of four, Venom, Snare, Mural and Mostaza. These humpbacks were making about 6 minute dives, surfacing in random locations and spending little time at the surface between dives. Based on their behavior, we hypothesized that they may have been searching for food or subsurface feeding; however, we couldn’t say for certain what they were doing at depth.


It’s worthy of note that, unlike last week, we did not see Mostaza’s 2014 calf with mom. There were, however, nearby whales whom we were unable to capture ID images of which may have been this second year humpback. We will continue to keep a look out for this juvenile to determine if and when this separation between mom and calf, which is typically a year, has occurred or will occur.


We also had a couple of fin whales and a handful of minke whales in the area, but there were no signs of the dolphins we’ve been seeing. On our way to and from Stellwagen, we saw white-winged scoters, black scoters, lots of common loons, eiders, and various gull species. Finally, the northern gannets were out in full force today! We got to see some amazing diving behavior by these beautiful birds.

Tasia Blough
Naturalist and Photographer

4/12/15

Log for April 12, 2015

We had a great morning today out on Stellwagen. We headed to the Northwest corner where whales were last seen yesterday. It didn’t take long before we spotted two spouts a couple of miles away. Within a few minutes we encountered a small pod of about five Atlantic white-sided dolphins. They stayed with us until we slowed down for at least three groups of humpbacks in the distance!


We initially had a group of three surface. They spent a couple of minutes at the surface and then stayed underwater. Luckily, we had a very active group a little under two miles away. As we headed over, one of the juveniles breached. This was only the beginning-this group of 10-12 whales was extremely surface active, though rarely fluking. In addition to this large group of humpbacks, there were at least 12-15 other humpbacks in the area as well as 2-4 fin whales and 5-10 minkes. A pod of 20-30 Atlantic white sided dolphins also stayed in the area the entire time.


We spend the rest of the trip with this group of humpbacks. They were bubble feeding, kick feeding, as well as surfacing and trumpeting extremely close to the boat. There were also gannets and gulls swooping in and out to pick up the scraps. While these whales were constantly splitting up and joining together it was hard to tell who was associating with who-especially since they were fluking so infrequently! We identified one whale as Falcon and one, potentially, as Moonlight, but the rest will take a little more work to figure out!


When we left the area, the group was still actively feeding and we consistently spotted spouts on our way out of the Sanctuary. It was a great trip!

—Annie Wolf


4/11/15

Log for April 11, 2015

Both of Saturday’s whale watches were filled with feeding frenzies right near the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank! It was exciting and overwhelming to see three different species all working on prey patches at the same time, including Atlantic white-sided dolphins, fin whales and numerous humpback whales!  


There were about 5 fins, 20 humpbacks and 25-40 dolphins all within a 3 mile radius continuously feeding throughout our whole first trip. A pair of fin whales were side-lunge feeding, which is always unexpected and gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping. Two humpbacks were tail breaching while others demonstrated feeding behaviors like kick-feeding, forming bubble clouds and rings and coming up open-mouth, and some were raising their heads up out of the water perpendicularly! Even by listening to the blows you knew they were excited as they were trumpeting and stuttering near our boat.  


The North Atlantic white-sided dolphins were also taking advantage of all the available feed, with some jumping out of the water and others quickly zooming around our bow. I did however wish the humpbacks fluked more because it was tricky to identify them moving in and out of the area and not announcing themselves. Pleats was one of the main kick-feeding whales and stayed near our boat most of the trip, joining with two other humpbacks. I also could identify Aswan in a group of three and passengers received a gorgeous view of the fluke right next to us.


For the 2:00 trip the feeding frenzy continued!  I figured the commotion would have ended by the time our boat made it back to the bank but I underestimated how hungry these whales and dolphins were. We watched groups joining together and splitting until it seemed to have settled into two groups of 4 feeding humpbacks, a group of three, a pair, and then several singles in the area. There were whales on every side of our boat and it was impossible to keep track of them all at the same time.  The white-sided dolphins were still with the fins and humpbacks and were even more energetic than the first trip. We ended on watching a group of 4 humpbacks moving out of the area while a group of three stayed right next to our boat. We observed a mother calf pair with an escort but I have not been able to identify them yet. At one point the mother hung beneath the surface while the calf stayed right on top of her logging, then started swishing its tailstock at the surface and curving its body around in an “S” shape.  We had such a variety of behaviors and species today it was definitely worth the trip to get to see them all!

Thanks and have a good evening!

Laura Cupicha

4/7/15

Log for April 7, 2015

Has anyone heard of the term getting "mugged" by whales? Until this winter, I had not. I was introduced to this term by Hannah and Annie, two of our naturalists who are spending the winter and much of the spring working aboard whale watches on the island of Maui in Hawaii (tough life). During my visit, they explained to me numerous times that getting mugged is not when someone swipes your wallet but rather when you have a really close encounter with a whale. I didn't, however, truly understand what getting mugged by humpbacks entailed until yesterday.

 

Our whale watch started off pretty great with all four species showing a strong presence on the northwest corner of the bank. As we seemingly inched forward at a speed of about 10 knots, three separate humpbacks convened ahead of the Asteria slowing us to a stop. After quick non-fluking dives which provided us with no ID shots, a duo surfaced on either side of the boat. These whales, one of which appeared to be a juvenile, were incredibly close to us giving passengers the opportunity to see every detail of their gorgeous anatomy including their tubercles, blow holes and even the barnacles growing on various parts of their bodies. We noticed evidence of a, possibly recent, entanglement on the juvenile who displayed linear chaffing in the indents between her tubercles (see photo) and around her tail stock. Luckily the young whale showed now outward signs of poor health and was quite active.

 

These whales stayed very close by and exhibited lots of trumpeting and darting about (see photo). As the humpbacks repeatedly swam from one side of the boat to the other, only occasionally did the third whale surface with the other two. Each time all three swam beneath the boat, only two would pop up on the other side. We suspected this third whale, who we quickly realized was Milkweed (a 2014 mother), was spending most of her time directly beneath the boat. I can't explain the behavior we observed throughout this time but it certainly gave us something to think about. 

We drifted for about 45 minutes over which time the current and wind blew us a couple miles southeast. These three whales who turned out to be Milkweed, Tornado's 2014 calf, and an unknown stayed within about 20 yards of us the ENTIRE time! By the time our whale watch neared the end, Captain Joe and I were concerned about whether or not we could safely depart for home with these whales circling us! Luckily just as we were looking for an out, Mostaza's 2014 calf and Sundown came to save the day. As Milkweed and this new duo separated off from Tornado's 2014 calf and our unknown, we were finally able to safely turn for home.

The term "whale mugging" simply refers to a circumstance when the captain can't safely maneuver the boat until a whale departs which is certainly the situation we found ourselves in yesterday! So for everyone who joined us on this very special whale watch, you can go home and tell your friends and family that you were "mugged" by three humpbacks!!

 

Before signing off, I want to note another very unusual occurrence from yesterday. It appears that the strong westerly winds that gave us quite the roller coaster ride on Saturday blew a large number of shore birds out to sea. These perching birds, which are not used to long periods of flight and can not float atop waves as seagulls do, were flying circles around our boat looking for an opportunity to rest. As I was sarcastically directing guests to make perches with their fingers, a bold but tiny golden-crowned kinglet, gracefully landed on a gentleman's gloved hand (see photo). The kinglet remained on his glove for about 10 minutes but soon found shelter elsewhere. This wasn't the only lost bird looking for shelter. Captain Joe experienced a mugging of his own when a large northern flicker decided to take up residency in the wheelhouse right as our trio also joined us. This woodpecker hitched a ride to land with us and had a front row view all the way home (see photo)! As we slowed into the inner harbor, I noticed a few other stowaways flying out of crevices throughout the boat. It was nice to see that we were able to bring some of these lost birds safely ashore.  

These early whale watches have been so exciting. Despite the cold weather conditions, I can't wait to get back on the water! 

Tasia Blough
Naturalist and Photographer