5/17/16

Whale Watch Log: May 17, 2016

After facing quite turbid sea conditions over the past few days, the Salacia crew and I were excited to get underway in fair winds and calm seas. Our search took us to the far side of Stellwagen Bank, just north of the southeast corner, where we encountered a large pod of energetic Atlantic white-sided dolphins! 

Energetic Atlantic white-sided dolphins

These dolphins, broken into smaller groups, were distributed across a large area where we encountered three additional marine mammal species! 

Fin whale
Basin

We first spotted a quick minke whale followed by two separate lunge feeding fin whales! Last but not least, a humpback whale named Basin surfaced amongst these dolphins, only to dive back to the depths it came from.




As we waited for Basin to return from its dive, we watched dolphins surface and feed all around the boat. A few dolphins repeatedly breached in groups of three (see photo).  We also spotted a couple calves swimming alongside their mothers, as they weaved in and out of one another’s paths. The dolphin entertainment was welcomed between Basin’s long dives which we suspected were fishing pursuits. 


On one dive return, Basin surprised us with an open mouth lunge followed by a brief bout of kick feeding! On our last looks of Basin, this illusive feeder surfaced right next the boat giving guests beautiful views of its flukes before we made our way back to Boston! It was a beautiful and exciting day on the water!

— Tasia

***

Today’s 12pm trip aboard the Asteria began heading toward our 10am’s trips sightings, however as we approached the SW corner of the bank, we spotted a solo traveling humpback (as well as a few minkes), who we identified as Pinch. 

Pinch's fluke

The glassy seas gave us nice looks of this whale, and we could easily observe Pinch’s distinct flank – which has some interesting speckled white scars alongside its body (as well as a notch in front of its dorsal fin). I’m unsure of what these marking could be from, but as far we could tell, this whale appeared healthy and it’s skin-condition and/or skin-scarring doesn’t seem to effect it.


Pinch's freckled flank
After spending time with this humpback, we decided to head a little further east where the Salacia had been. On our trek further east, we start to see some splashing for a distant lobtailing/tail breaching whale, as well as a smaller whale rolling around. We had heard reports from another whale watch about a humpback mom/calf pair, so we were hopeful to see who this pair might be. As we approached closer, we were completely surprised to find that this was a mother and calf North Atlantic right whale pair!  

Right whale mom "Dragon" and calf as ID'd by the
New England Aquarium right whale research team.

Though our encounter was brief (regulations require boats to stay 500 yards away, so we did not stay with this pair – please note that our photos are zoomed-in and cropped), it was happy moment to get to observe a new right whale calf. 

Right whale mom and calf synchronized diving
Right whale mom's fluke

Recently a right whale calf was found dead off the coast of Cape Cod. Preliminary results of the animals autopsy (known as a necropsy) found several large propeller wounds suggesting a boat strike likely before death. Right whales face many threats, so I am hopeful this calf today has a brighter future in the years to come. If you observe closely on the photo of the mom and calf synchronized diving, you can actually see an entanglement scar on the calf’s tailstock, which is the other huge threat large whales face in the Gulf of Maine.

Our trip ended with a sighting of a fin whale, making it a four species marine mammal day! We also spotted common loons and northern gannets out on the bank.

— Laura

5/14/16

Whale Watch Log: May 14, 2016

Today was all about the fin whales. These whales are the second largest animals to ever live on earth, the only asymmetrically colored mammals, and the greyhounds of the sea. They don’t have the boisterous presence of a humpback whale but their understated elegance can’t be diminished. 

Mom and calf fin whales

The 10am whale watch headed out on board the Salacia to the middle part of Stellwagen Bank and found 4-5 fin whales scattered through the area. One of the hardest parts of watching fin whales is how difficult it is to tell individuals apart but they do have natural markings – the chevron patch just above the shoulder blade and scars and nicks along the dorsal fin. 

Chevron patch

One of the whales that featured heavily in all of today’s trips is an individual that I know that I saw back in 2014 as well. The highlight of the morning’s trip by far was getting great looks at a fin whale mother and her calf. We don’t see many fin whale calves on Stellwagen Bank so every sighting is always very special. The 2pm whale watch headed out to the same area and again found around 4-5 fin whales scattered through the area. 

Fin whales

We spent some time with two individuals with quite distinct dorsal fin scars which will aid in keeping track of when we see these animals in the future. The wind seemed to pick up during these trip and the whales’ surface intervals, the time at the surface between dives, decreased dramatically to even just a breath or two between long dives. While frustrating for the whale watcher it’s an amazing display of these animals’ breath holding abilities. As ever it was a fantastic day on the water with these amazing whales.

Northern gannet: Not only about whales, seabirds, too!

— Tegan

***

Today we had a beeeaaauutiful day offshore with bright sunny skies and pleasantly calm seas.  Captain Adam and Captain Deb brought us right to the edge of the middle of Stellwagen Bank where we found several fin whales milling around.  


Fin whales can be quite tricky to watch, but all of these individuals were actually quite cooperative, surfacing for several slow breaths and taking relatively short dives.  Given that these animals looked to be traveling in wide circular patterns and that we were right on the edge of the bank, it’s very possible that they were engaging in some sub-surface feeding.



We saw approximately five different individuals, three singles spread out, and – my favorite part of the trip – a mother and calf pair!  With calm water and lots of sunlight, we were able to get excellent views of these beautiful animals and their white right jaws and chevron patterns.  At one point you could even make out the white on their flippers just beneath the surface and see the outline of the flukes.  If you’re gonna see fin whales, you definitely want to have a day like today!

— Heidi

5/11/16

Whale Watch Log: May 11, 2016

Today on the Asteria we had a beautiful day offshore! The calm seas and sunny skies gave us incredible visibility, and we spotted several harbor porpoise, common loons, and gannets on our way out to Stellwagen Bank. We had to travel quite far today – east of the southeast corner, but it was well worth the travel! 

Bayou's mangled tail

Our first sightings of humpbacks were the splashes of three whales BREACHING in the distance! As we approached they slowed down and began to travel (amidst some logging humpbacks), and I identified this trio as Bayou, Glo-Stick, and Osprey. Bayou is very notable from her unfortunate propeller wound, missing half her fluke (see photo). Glo-Stick is also a reminder of the problem of ship strike for whales – her grandmother Istar was found dead a few years ago due to a likely ship strike off the coast of Long Island.

Underwater visitor
After spending time with this trio, we moved on to some other humpbacks, Basin and an unknown humpback that swam near our boat briefly. This mystery humpback that briefly joined Basin never actually exhaled and the surface, but hung just below the water near our boat (see photo).


Tracer kick feeding

Wyoming kick feeding

The spectacular finale to our trip today was two kick feeding humpbacks, Wyoming and Tracer. After a period of quiet calm seas, it was exciting to see these whales do some high tail thrashing, and then join briefly to form a huge bubble net and come open mouth lunge feeding at the surface (see photo).

Enormous bubble net
Filter feeding at the surface

Another great day on the bank!

— Laura

5/10/16

Whale Watch Log: May 10, 2016

We enjoyed another glorious day whale watching this morning on the Salacia! Although we had to extend our search for whales a bit further east than usual, there were plenty to be found! Near the the eastern edge of the bank, north of the southeast corner, we found a multispecies feeding frenzy!


Humpbacks, fin whales, and dolphins alike feasted their hearts out on a plethora of sand lance as birds hovered overhead, hopeful to snag some scraps. Animals of all sizes competed for their catch, overlapping in time and space, so much so that, at one point, I thought a fin whale had created a bubble net! 

Pinch kick feeding
Pinch chin slap

We spotted a few familiar flukes among the humpbacks including Viking, Basin, and Pinch. We observed fin whales lunging powerfully across the water’s surface alongside kick feeding and bubble netting humpbacks. All the while, dolphins weaved in and out of the chaos appearing carefree and majestic as always.

Dolphins, graceful and agile as always

Guests were treated to some exceptional views into the mouths of humpback whales today, an opportunity not had by many. On three occasions a trio of humpbacks unexpectedly lunged nearly into the side of the boat without the usual bubble net precursor. 

Big lunge
Pinch chin kick
I suspected that perhaps the fish were just beneath the boat, and Captain Matt kept us floating along as we waited for the humpbacks to pounce on their prey beneath us. We cruised back to Boston across glassy calm waters while enjoying one of our first warm spring days here in New England!

— Tasia

5/9/16

Whale Watch Log: May 9, 2016

On our 12pm trip today aboard the Asteria, we headed to where the Salacia had been in search of whales. We often see a lot of movement of prey and predators while out on the bank, and today was no exception. In just a few hours after our 10am trip, even more awesome activity moved into the area – totaling about 15-20 humpbacks, 3 fin whales, 30-60 white-sided dolphins, and many herring gulls!

Feeding frenzy

Our first initial look from a distance was a splashing kick-feeder, and as we approached it a large fin whale passed. Before even approaching the humpbacks, we suddenly started to see several scattered small splashes which turned out to be Atlantic white-sided dolphins, in a radius of about a ½ mile. 

White-sided dolphin
White-sided dolphin

While many were foraging amongst the whales, a small pod of dolphins began to mill around our boat – a few dolphin calves included! This small section of the pod seemed to be quite fond of our boat – as we slowly moved away towards the humpbacks, this group kept following us (giving us dolphin “sidekicks” for the day that hung out with us most of the trip). In-between bouts of kick and bubble net feeding humpbacks, the dolphins would continue to pop up around us.

Blackhole kick feeding
Breach kick feed

Some of our identified humpbacks today included new ID’s for the season Blackhole (see photo of her kick feeding) and Mayo. But our humpback of the day was Scylla’s 2014 calf – a juvenile who was curious to our boat swimming around us for about 10 minutes! I recognized this smaller whale by its jigsaw-like dorsal fin (see photo).

Scylla's calf

Fantastic day!

— Laura

5/8/16

Whale Watch Log: May 8, 2016

We had some absolutely spectacular whale watches aboard the Asteria! As we approached the western edge, midway along Stellwagen Bank, we noticed a current line had formed right at the bank's steepest edge. This visible line on the water's surface was very similar to evidence of upwelling I have seen in the past. For those of you who don't know, upwelling is an oceanographic phenomenon which brings nutrients to the ocean's surface and drives many marine ecosystems. 

Chin slap feeding

Interestingly enough, we observed a somewhat orderly row of at least eight groups of humpbacks feeding right along this current line. As we looked to both the north and south, blows were visible for miles. We conservatively estimated that there were over 50 humpbacks in the area! Captain Joe brought us to a handful of these groups and, for a lot of the time, just kept us in place as whales surfaced all around us! 

Bubble net
Bubble net
Among these humpbacks, we identified Weathervane, Landslide, Photon, Whirlygig, Lobo, Pinpoint, Alligator, Cajun, Crisscross, Rapier, Rapier's 2015 calf (kick feeding alongside mom) and Xylem. Most of these animals were bubble net feeding in dynamic groups of 3-6 individuals alongside a handful of kick feeders, but we also observed a few HUGE bubble nets of up to 9 whales! Between bubble nets, groups moved very quickly up and down this line of feeding whales, perhaps to take advantage of schools of sand lance which were rapidly being consumed by the aggregating whales.



Dual filtering
Kick and filter

Open mouth

This afternoon, the activity had calmed down a bit, but we still saw many humpbacks in the area. We first spotted Jabiru (one of my favs) cruise by our boat, but quickly spotted some breaching in the distance so continued on. The breacher turned out to be Tornado's 2016 calf who spent time alongside mom between relatively long dives. We then moved on to Viking, Pipette, Tracer and Daffodil who were lazily traveling northeast. We had some beautiful looks of these graceful humpbacks and even got to see a couple lobtails from them! It was clear that at least some of them had participated in the morning feeding as evidenced by the present Viking left for us at the surface upon diving (see photo). 

Viking scat
As we headed back for Boston, the sun finally came out making for a beautiful ride home after an amazing day of whale watching!  

Tasia 

5/7/16

Whale Watch Log: May 7, 2016

Today the whale gods smiled on us even if the weather gods did not! The Salacia headed out for the 10am whale watch into heavy fog. Captain Adam decided to head towards the middle of the bank and do the old fog whale watching trick – stick your head out the window and see if you hear any whales, in less than half a mile of visibility this seemed like the easiest way of finding whales. No sooner had we slowed down and started our foggy search that we noticed a passenger pointing at something out in the fog. It was a whale! 

Kick feeding

This one miraculous whale turned into multiple whales kick feeding, bubble cloud forming, and lunging open mouthed out of the water. We spent the majority of our trip with a well-known female named Rapier. Rapier is a very energetic kick feeder and we got awesome looks at every part of her feeding process. There was a second whale with Rapier that wasn’t as interested in the feeding. It would surface in the bubble clouds every so often and seemed to be feeding but was mainly just hanging around and occasionally came close as though to give us a curious once over. 

I saw Rapier with her calf last year and though this individual was displaying calf-like behavior I doubted that Rapier would have such a large calf just one year after her last. It was quite a surprise when I did get a fluke photo to identify this whale as Rapier’s 2015 calf! Most mothers and calves separate after a single year and by this time the juveniles would be completely independent from their mothers so I can’t really say what’s happening here. It was definitely a first for me! I was additionally able to identify two other humpbacks: Xylem and Ventisca.

Fluke
Surfacing

On the 2pm whale watch we headed back to the middle of Stellwagen Bank where subsequent whale watch boats were marking the location of the whales, visible on our radar if not actually visible to the eye. The fog was still close around with less than half a mile of visibility but we were able to find an area of 7-10 humpback whales. The whales were travelling rapidly through the area which combined with the fog made them extremely difficult to track. None the less we were able to spot a number of bubble rings and lunge feeding, particularly from two groups of 4 animals which made for some exciting sightings. The whales weren’t inclined to fluke as much this afternoon so we’ve come away with just a few identifications including Xylem, Viking and Pleats. For a foggy day that showed no sign of letting up that ability to spot these animals in such poor conditions made for an exciting and satisfying day of  whale watching.

— Tegan

5/3/16

Whale Watch Log: May 3, 2016

Despite the rain and grey clouds, today was a spectacular day on the water! We entered the Sanctuary headed aboard the Salacia to the NW corner of Stellwagen, to find 7 scattered humpbacks bubble net and kick feeding. The was little to no wind today, so the glass calm seas made it easy to spot bubbles at the surface forming into nets, and the whales didn’t disappoint!

Buzzard's fluke

Our first looks were of humpback whale Buzzard and another whale with an all-black fluke, working together to kick and bubble net feed. A second group (that included humpback whale Swimmer) appeared to be doing the same – but instead mainly bubble fed, feeding just beneath the surface a few meters.

Trio feeding
Trio of humpbacks lunge feeding

But the real stars of the shows today were a trio of very active spiral net cooperatively feeding humpbacks, Tracer, Viking, and an unknown whale (we’ve had many unknown flukes popping up this spring!). This trio made huge nets over and over near our boat, and all of us would anxiously wait for the whales to come up mouths agape full with water and sand lance! 

Filtering sand lance

I can never get tired of watching this behavior! Since we were able to watch so many repetitive feeding bouts, we were able to notice some of the distinct feeding traits of each whale. Tracer and Viking would drag (filter) at the surface, but in particular each time Viking finishing filtering, it would then do some sort of chin slap/mouth snap, almost as if Viking was trying to gargle/shoot down the rest of its food into its throat (see photo). It was hard to really interpret this behavior, but cool to observe nonetheless!


Viking chin slap

We also spotted many herring gulls and Bonaparte’s gulls (see photo), which have been in the area the last few days.

Bonapartes gulls

— Laura