Part III: Whale Watch Season Ahead!

New England Aquarium Whale Watch Season is just a one week away! We'll head out with our partners at Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC) starting March 29! So with that in mind, let's brush up on the sights and cetaceans from last season. This is a cross-post from the Boston Harbor Cruises blog by Laura Howes, Director of Marine Education and Conservation at BHC.  

After all the craziness of activity during the month of May last year, I was definitely gearing up for another summer of endless bubble clouds and flukes, like my previous two seasons had been. This included stocking up on memory cards, printing out fluke guides and prepping our summer New England Aquarium interns to be able to help spot blows and collect a fury of data in the midst of a whale feeding frenzy.

Humpback whale blow—or the vapor that sprays when the whales breath—is a ways the naturalists spot whales

The end of spring brought a bit of a storm and several days of fog – once the fog cleared, we found a dramatically different Stellwagen Bank than we did in mid-May. The beginning of June found us on primarily on the Northwest corner, with sightings of Reaper, Shuffleboard, Boomerang, Mogul, Hornbill, Sedge, Pinball, Satula and Venom. On June 5 we were treated to some spectacular open-mouth feeding by Venom and Shuffleboard, but overall the month was quiet with only several humpbacks and fin whales, a few minkes, and very few birds – mainly gulls and Northern gannets were of the few we saw.

Venom and Shuffleboard bubble feeding

By mid-June we spent most of our trips up north on Jeffrey’s Ledge, with our two main whales of the month—Satula and Pinball. Most of what we saw these two doing were subsurface bubble feeding, a feeding technique which utilizes bubble blasts to corral bait into a tighter ball, and lots of defecation (my favorite behavior to point out!). While it isn’t the most pleasant of topics to talk about, there is actually a lot of important information scientists can learn from whale feces. Needless to say, we saw a lot of it, which is great to see from an endangered population.

Pinball and Satula were usually seen in the same area unassociated, but one day in June we were surprised to find them feeding, rolling around and slowly slapping tails together!

Satula lobtailing

By July, things slowed down even more – and for the majority of the month we spent time with our leading lady Nile, named for the river-like marking on her left fluke.

Nile - named for the river-like marking on her left fluke

Other than a sighting of humpback Mudskipper and some Atlantic white-sided dolphins early in the month, Nile was pretty much the only whale sighted in the Stellwagen area for the month of July. We usually found her on her predictable spot on the SW corner, subsurface bubble feeding or deep feeding, but occasionally she would surprise us with spectacular displays of head breaching (i.e. chin-slapping the water!), or sometimes takes big gulps at the surface filtering out seawater through her baleen.

Nile head breaching

One of our naturalists included the following in her trip notes from July 8: "Next, we found Nile again. She was textbook deep feeding, until on the surface where she lunged out of the water and slapped her chin on the water. This was followed by a series of full breaches right next to the boat!  It was one of the best trips I’ve been on this year!"

We occasionally had sightings of fins and minkes, and with the exception of Vulture feeding with Nile on the 23rd, Nile was almost always sighted alone for most of July, much like a solitary fisherman set at his favorite fishing spot. And it wasn’t just a slow summer for humpbacks at Stellwagen – there were a lack of seabirds as well. Some of our favorite visitors such as the Great Shearwater – were sighted few and far between from June to September.

Great Shearwater flying near Pinball

This summer, a team at the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary office satellite tagged several shearwaters to learn more about their distribution – and as you can tell from the maps, they didn’t spend much time on Stellwagen.

Even throughout the Gulf of Maine, other species have had irregular distributions. A big question that’s on many of the minds of scientists, naturalists, mariners, and fisherman is what’s causing this fluctuation. Scientists studying the North Atlantic right whale have also been puzzled as to where these critically endangered species have been. (Read more about the Aquarium's right whale research program.)

Whatever is the case, hopefully this coming season we will see a bit more activity. But as I stated in my last post, every day on the water is different and seasons can vary based on the prey availability and other environmental factors. That’s one lesson I’ve learned about ecology—change is constant.

This summer was also another lesson in learning to share the whales (or whale I should say). We often had many different whale watch boats from several companies all watching Nile, so it was essential that whale watching guidelines were followed in order to respect this protected species. All whales, dolphins and porpoises in the northeast region are federally protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Read more.

Everyone loves Nile: Here we're sharing a peek at this whale with other boats

A few other exciting notes from July:

Despite the low seabird sightings of typical Stellwagen birds like the Northern Gannet or Great/Sooty Shearwaters, we had an exceptionally rare Brown Booby sighting on July 7th! This tropical visitor even made headlines after it landed on our boat during a sunset whale watch and hitched a ride all the way back to Boston (and later Hingham where our boats dock at night). Environmentalists came the next morning to locate the bird, but by then it had flown from the vessel. It was certainly an exciting and unusual sighting!

Brown booby

We also had great looks at a fin whale fluking on the 12th. Seeing the fluke of a fin whale is always a rare treat. Their streamlined shape makes it so they typically don’t need to lift their tail out of the water to dive, unlike the more-buoyant humpback that uses it to help push themselves deeper.

Fin whale fluking

By the end of July we started spending more time in the middle of Stellwagen bank near the Boston shipping lane, and also started seeing Pinball and Satula, along with Nile, exhibiting more subsurface bubble cloud feeding. Though our sightings were still few – it was still interesting to see activity so close to the recently moved Boston Shipping Lane, which was moved in a collaborative effort to reduce the impact of potential ship strikes with large whales.  Read more. Overall the SW corner tends to be our usual hotspot – but yet again, every season is different! Ship strike is one of the biggest threats to mortality and injury to large whales, which is one reason why collecting GPS location data of where the whales spend their time is crucial.

Pinball in the shipping lane

We also spotted humpback Fulcrum and her 2013 calf! Fulcrum has an injured dorsal fin due to both a boat propeller wound and an entanglement in fishing gear.

Fulcrum and Calf

Besides humpbacks, we also had sightings of Minkes (some of them lunge feeding!), Fin whales, blue sharks, basking sharks, and more gannets.

A curious Colt approached the boat

By August a few more flukes were seen in the area including Colt (who exhibited his famous curious nature by swimming under our boat), Doric, Decimal, Geometry, and Etch-a-Sketch. Nile was seen associating with other females including Pinball, Scylla, and Tongs – sometimes flipper slapping, logging, or deep feeding together.

Humpback Mogul put on a spectacular display of breaching on the 16th of August – which including 15-20 repeated full breaches and flipper slapping right in front of the Aurora! Mogul is often seen alone feeding, but occasionally puts on a show like he did in August – making him one of my favorite humpbacks and one of my favorite sightings from 2013.

Besides exciting humpback behavior, August didn’t spare with other species. Early in August we watched a fin whale appear to bubble cloud feed. We observed it making deep bubble clouds and turning at the surface each time the cloud came up – much like humpbacks do! There have a been a few documented cases of a fin whale bubble feeding, but I’ve never seen it myself and was quite excited to see this rare behavior from a fin whale. Something truly unexpected to see!

By the end of August, we had a few more calf sightings including Valley and Clipper, and their 2013 calves. We also had a lot of ocean sunfish (Mola mola) sightings – including this exceptional close-to-boat look alongside our vessel Cetacea.

Ocean Sunfish, also called a Mola Mola

Labor Day weekend started out with some fog, but then treated us to sightings of Common Dolphins (with some calves alongside!). We also enjoyed the new flukes of Pepper, PiƱa and Sirius. Mogul also surprised again with some tail breaching and tail flicks.

A frisky dolphin cruises alongside the boat

We're hopeful and excited that it's going to be another tremendous season on Stellwagen Bank. And it all starts today! Click to buy tickets for your whale watch adventure online.

Sunset reflects off a diving whale


Part II: Whale Watch Season Ahead!

New England Aquarium Whale Watch Season is just a one week away! We'll head out with our partners at Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC) starting March 29! So with that in mind, let's brush up on the sights and cetaceans from last season. This is a cross-post from the Boston Harbor Cruises blog by Laura Howes, Director of Marine Education and Conservation at BHC.  

Passengers get up-close looks at bubble feeding on Stellwagen Bank

Whale posse

Humpbacks, unlike toothed species such as dolphins or killer whales, have loose social bonds and don’t form pods or long-term associations. In feeding grounds, we sometimes see individuals form small groups for a few days, weeks or even a whole season as a strategy to maximize their feeding. Each day out on the water, it was interesting to see this growing group work together in a similar pattern, as if it was becoming a "whale posse," as one our spring interns Tegan joked.

A group of humpback whales surface together in bubble clouds

This all being said, there are often exceptions to the non-long-term association theory (for instance, pairs such Echo and Tectonic have seen many seasons together), proving that there is so much more to learn about humpback associations and their social groups. Perhaps next season we’ll see this whale posse together again!

Cetacean Stars


A few other stars of May included male humpback Rocker (seen kick feeding and tail breaching true to his name) and female 16-year-old humpback Etch-a-Sketch (also grand-calf of the famous oldest known humpback Salt), that was observed doing her unique style of kick/bubble feeding. She's often not shy to do it right next to our whale watch boats!

Etch-A-Sketch puts on a feeding spectacle for passengers

Etch A Sketch

Zeppelin and Fracture were also seen bubble feeding consistently, a pair Captain Chip of the Aurora fondly remembers seeing together in the 90’s during a sparse humpback season on Stellwagen. A few new calves of 2013 included Apex (aka Octave), Buckshot, Pogo and Bungee—Bungee’s second calf in two years! Humpback gestation is about 12 months, so while consecutive births are possible, it’s not very typical.

Zeppelin and Fracture

As if all that excitement wasn’t enough, the month of May ended with a Memorial Day humpback much closer to shore than usual – Boston Harbor! Early in the day, our vessel Salacia spotted a juvenile humpback whale while fueling near Charlestown, and by the time our 10 a.m. whale watch left the dock – this whale was spending time between Deer Island and Spectacle Island.

Humpback in Boston Harbor

While having a whale this close to shore isn’t unheard of, it certainly is an unusual event that drew quite the crowds not only on the water, but also with the media coverage on land! This was also an excellent opportunity to educate the public about proper whale watching guidelines on both whale watch boats and personal recreation boats. While it’s exciting to see a large marine mammal in the water (especially so close to shore!) it’s important to give the animal space and not alter its natural behavior. Luckily, this young humpback appeared to head back to sea by the end of the day, and wasn’t spotted in the harbor after Memorial Day.

After May, things out on Stellwagen had quite the change of pace. Stayed tuned as we look back on 2013 in anticipation of the start of whale watch season starting this Saturday. Be among the first people to check on the whales arriving at Stellagen, buy your tickets for the first trip of the season! 


Part I: Ahoy! Whale watch season ahead

New England Aquarium Whale Watch Season is just a one week away! We'll head out with our partners at Boston Harbor Cruises (BHC) starting March 29! So with that in mind, let's brush up on the sights and cetaceans from last season. This is a cross-post from the Boston Harbor Cruises blog by Laura Howes, Director of Marine Education and Conservation at BHC.  

Sea life abounds on Stellwagen Bank

It was a busy year during our first season of the New England Aquarium and Boston Harbor Cruises partnership. This was my third season working with BHC, and my first official year as BHC’s Director of Marine Education and Conservation. During the whale watch season you’ll usually find me out on the water, and during the off season there are many things keeping me busy here at the Long Wharf office to prepare for 2014.

Nile fluking during the last whale watch of 2013

Our 2013 season ended November 17, so after some time for reflection about the 500+ whale watches this year, I’ll be posting about our exciting and unusual season.

Whenever a passenger asks me when is the best time of the season to see whales on Stellwagen, I usually give them the answer that every day on the water is different. Generally the summer tends to be the peak of season when the majority of the species we typically see are in the area, but every season can vary based on the prey availability and other environmental factors of that year.

A lively tail lob from a calf

That being said, the 2013 season was one of our more atypical seasons at one of the biggest marine feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine.

We kicked off our season with a bang at the end of March with our first sighting of humpback Bounce, a female humpback born in 2007. Every year I always have a lot of anticipation of what the first whale sighted will be, especially since we’re usually one of the first boats out on the water. For the first few weeks, we spent our time on the Northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank and sightings included several humpbacks – mainly adult females such as Cardhu, Giraffe, Loon, Wizard, and Blackhole, a few of which we saw around the same time the previous spring.

We also saw a few minkes, several finbacks, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoise.

Passengers get an upclose look at Atlantic white-sided dolphins

The majority of the birds we saw tended to be Northern gannets; we also sighted various gull species, Wilson storm petrels, and common terns. We also sighted a few elusive North Atlantic right whales (which is why we slow down to 10 knots for the majority of the spring) – but were unable to get photographs due to their behavior and by doing our part to aid in conservation by abiding by the Federal requirement to stay 500 yards away from these critically endangered species. (Learn more about these special animals and the research being done by Aquarium scientists on the Right Whale Blog.)

On April 14, we spotted Whisk and her 2013 calf. A bit early in the season to see a mother and calf pair. Although Whisk seemed a bit thin (most humpbacks are thin when they first arrive in the spring), we did observe the calf healthily nursing and breaching!

Cardhu shows off a nice fluke

By the end of April we traveled father north to Jeffrey’s ledge spotting many humpbacks such as Reaper, Tongs, Satula, Cardhu, Pinball, Geometry, Badge, Colt, Springboard, Yoo-Hoo, and Jigger and Bolide. This last pair were observed lunge feeding together!

Then came the month of May – with a flurry of activity! Early in May we had an unusual sighting of several skim-feeding sei whales. They were feeding near humpbacks on Stellwagen, indicating they most likely were feeding on krill instead their usual diet of copepods—similar to that of right whales.

A great look at a sei whale's baleen

On one of our trips we had a fabulous look of an individual’s baleen. The best way to describe a sei is a cross between a fin and minke whale, and we don’t often see them on our trips so our naturalists and New England Aquarium interns were quite excited.

Bubble feeding

By mid-May we spent most of our time on the southern edge of Stellwagen, where there was quite a bit of bait. We had some days with often 15–20 scattered humpbacks on average, with lots of kick and bubble feeding!

Bubble feeding humpback whales surface together while the sea  birds are looking for a quick meal.

To give you an idea of what the activity was like and what species we saw, here’s a trip report from one of our naturalists Christine, from May 17:

Today on the 10am Asteria whale watch we had ANOTHER great trip to the SW corner of Stellwagen bank. There were 15–20 humpbacks in the area, most of which were surface feeding or exercising some type of surface behavior within view of the boat. Passengers got to see bubbles and bubble nets being created by the humpbacks while they were beneath the surface and then got amazing looks as they came up with their mouths full of fish and water. We even saw a few open mouths come up in the distance. There was splashing all around with the occasional chin or tail slap. 
There was also a mother calf pair that showed up towards the end of the trip. Feeding minke whales were popping up around the boat (3-5 total) and Atlantic white-sided dolphins were scattered amongst the whales throughout the trip (approximately 200+). There were lots of gulls and some diving Northern gannets as well. The humpbacks were spread out in all directions, in groups of 1–3, rather than feeding in one large group. Passengers were able to get great looks no matter where they were on the vessel.

With a big gulp, humpback whales fill up their mouths and extend the pleats.
Then the water is filtered out leaving the food inside their mouths.  

During this part of the month we also spent time with an associated group of humpbacks (plus or minus a few individuals at times) that included Falcon, Perseid, Aerospace, Eruption, Jupiter, Jabiru, and Mend deep feeding consistently together for about two weeks.

There's so much to share about last season. Stay tuned all this week while we touch on the highlights of last season—which makes us really excited about the season that's just a week away!

— Laura