Whale sightings & trip reports from the Privateer IV

Whales & Wildlife of Stellwagen Bank

Why Do Whales Breach?

We have seen a lot of breaching recently, and that has prompted many questions from our passengers about why whales sometimes engage in this most spectacular of behaviors. Thus I figured I’d write a blog about breaching behavior in whales… Humpback Whales in particular. It’s kind of long, but I hope you will find it fun, education, and interesting. Plus the photos are GREAT and all were taken about one of whale watching trips during the summer/fall of 2014 (many in September and October)!

Breaching is perhaps the most sought-after behavior by whale watchers (and it is certainly the most common photo on any whale watch company’s brochure!

In this spectacular display of athletic prowess, the whale will dive beneath the surface for a few seconds or minutes only to surface vertically with great speed. Often the animal will twist while in mid-air and then come crashing down with thunderous splash.

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While all whales have the ability to breach, none do it as often as the Humpback Whale. But while breaching is quite common amongst Humpback Whales it is certainly not something that we see on every whale watching trip.

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Trying to predict the odds of seeing a whale breach when you go whale watching is difficult. In essence, your chances of seeing a Humpback whale breach is quite good– maybe 50%– when there are a lot of whales in the area. When there are fewer whales in the area the chances that one of them will become active is, of course, less (maybe less than 10%). So, to some extent at least, the chances of seeing breaching on a given trip is dependent upon the overall abundance of whales.

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Another reason that predicting when whales will become active is that there is no time of the year or day that whales are more likely to breach! You simply need to be in the right place at the right time to see it when it does. Obviously the more time you spend watching whales the better the chances you will see one breach. Ultimately that’s really how ALL of nature watching works: The more time you spend watching, the more you will see.

Sure there are those that go out on their first whale watch and see lots of breaching/active whales… but that’s really just luck. There are plenty of people who go whale watching many, many times before seeing a whale breach. So it all averages out. The one possible exception to this is that we it seems as if breaching may happen more in rough weather than in calm seas. So it can be a reward for people who venture out to sea on less-than-ideal days. I’ll explain the reason for this possible connection between rough weather and surface activity in a bit…


But WHY do they breach?

All this talk about what the Humpback Whales do when they breach and when they are likely to do it doesn’t tell us anything about  why they are doing it. There are many different theories that have been put forth that attempt to explain breaching behavior, and, to be honest, I think they are all true at least some of the time.

Some of the main theories include:


Whales breach ( or flipper-slap/tail-breach/etc) to help rid themselves of parasites.  Whales, Humpback Whales especially, sometimes carry a variety of external (as well as internal) parasites that may cause itching and irritation to their sensitive skin. These parasites include barnacles (Humpback can carry close to 1,000lbs of barnacles on their body which sounds like a lot of extra weight to lug around but relative the total mass of the whale it is only equivalent to us wearing shorts and a t-shirt!) as well as small crustaceans called “Cyamids” or “Whale Lice.”


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Above: A close-up of three Cyamids. Below: A photo of a “spy-hopping” Humpback Whale where you can see a few Cyamids who are living on the whale’s chin! IMG_0238_C


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Barnacles tend to cluster on the whale’s chin, flippers, tails, and bellies. Cyamids tend to congregate on rough or folded regions of the whale’s skin and feed directly on the whale’s skin tissues.

Perhaps the tremendous forces associated with surface activity helps the whales rid themselves of these unwanted pests.


Whales may breach to help move food along in their digestive tract. While visiting the coastal waters of Massachusetts a Humpback Whale might consume over 1 ton (2,000lbs) of fish every day!  That’s equates to well over a million calories worth of food each day! Some people have theorized that increased activity may help move food along through the whales digestive system… a lot like if you were to go for a walk after eating a big meal.

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A feeding Humpback Whale. 


Certainly in the case of young calves breaching could very often just be for fun! Young whales, just like the young of any mammal, do have a keen sense of play which is actually quite important for exercising growing bones and muscles, as well as building body awareness and coordination.

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A breaching Humpback Whale calf.

So just like a puppy, kitten, or even a human toddler, whale calves can be very playful and active, especially when the adults are occupied with other things like feeding.

Imagine bringing a child to a restaurant where you are meeting a few friends who are also bringing their kids. When you and the other adults are gathered around the table talking about grown-up stuff the kids might get a little bored, restless and start running around and getting into mischief. This might be similar to when the adult whales are busy feeding on the massive schools of fish so commonly found in our area and the calves are left unattended.


Perhaps the most widely accepted theory of whale surface activity, however, is that it is  a non-vocal form of communication amongst whales.


If you are fortunate enough to take a whale watching trip to Stellwagen Bank or Jeffrey’s Ledge and witness surface active Humpback Whales yourself, you will no doubt be struck by the tremendous amount of sound created by the body of the animals pounding at the water’s surface. Now consider that sound travels about 4.5X faster through water than it does through air, and that water also conducts sound signals “better” than air in the sense that sound signals do not degrade as quickly in a liquid medium (such as seawater) as they do in a gaseous medium (such as air). So it is not unreasonable to think that when a whale is breaching that other whales, possibly tens-of-miles away, could be hearing the sounds produced by this activity.

There have been many times when we are watching a whale that suddenly becomes active and then we observe splashes in the distance a short time later from other whales that we didn’t even know where in the area! It seems as if these whales heard the activity of the whale that we were observing and then answered back by performing a similar activity. This would lend credence to the idea that the activity is a means of communicating with other whales. This is, perhaps, why we do tend to see breaching more regularly in rough weather. As the sound of wind and waves at the water’s surface get louder, breaching may be a way to overcome the noise and keep in contact with other whales in the area.

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But what are they trying to say? Well, no one knows for sure. I like to make an analogy however and say that it is similar to shouting in humans. Imagine if aliens came down to Earth and asked you why people shout. You might have trouble answering that question decisively because people shout for all kinds of reasons. People shout when they are angry, or excited, or frightened, or when they are trying to get someone’s attention to warn then of some impending danger, or when they are trying to communicate with someone who is far away. In other words, people shout for lots of reasons and the reason someone is shouting depends on the context in which it is done. I think the same could be said for breaching in whales. Whales breach for lots of reasons and to “say” lots of different things. But if we could translate what a whale was saying with a breach it would be typed in all caps and have an exclamation point after it!

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In conclusion: No one knows why whales exhibit this spectacular behavior. They probably become breach for all these reasons listed above at one time or another… and maybe for reasons that haven’t even occurred to us yet. All we as whale watchers can do is hope to be present when these behaviors occur… and hopefully we’ll have our cameras ready too!

By |March 29th, 2015|

Whale Watching in Fall

Over the past week we have seen some changes in the distribution of the whales, as well as changes in the individual whales being seen. This is likely due to the fact that fall is rapidly approaching.


A Humpback Whale mother and calf pair (“Echo” and calf) on Stellwagen Bank. 

I love whale watching in autumn (in fact it’s my favorite time to go whale watching!) and even though we technically have a few more days of summer left before the astronomical beginning of fall (the Autumnal equinox is on September 22 at 10:29 PM) from a biological standpoint fall is definitely here and signs of migration are everywhere.

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The long pectoral fin of a Humpback Whale (a whale called “Seal”).

While some of the Humpback whales that we have been seeing off-and-on all summer are still in the area (such as Scratch, Echo and calf, Tornado and calf, Pele, Pepper, Bayou, Eruption, Springboard, Etch-a-sketch and calf, etc) there have been a number of “new” whales passing through the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary area of late: Nike, Quote, Ampersand, Draco, Liner, Follicle, Salt, Seal, Chromosome, Sirius, and Valley just to name a few.

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Two Humpback Whales (“Sirius” and “Springboard”) diving. 

It is possible that these whales have spent the summer feeding further north and now that the fall migration south to the whale’s breeding grounds in the Caribbean has begun these whales are simply passing through this area on their way south, perhaps to do a bit more feeding and pack on a few more pounds before beginning their long winter fast.

It is important the whales are able to put on as much weight as possible before heading south because the entire time the whales are on their breeding grounds in the Caribbean they are eating very little, if anything at all. This means that for about 4 months each winter these whales are fasting and during this time they can lose up to 1/4 of their total body weight… somewhere between 8,000 to 12,000 pounds!

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A group of feeding Humpback Whales. 

This is why they spend so much time feeding while up north here in the Gulf of Maine. They need to build-up the fat (“blubber”) reserves necessary to fuel the 1,500-2,000 mile swim south to the Caribbean, to sustain them during this long fast, and to then fuel the migration north again in the spring.

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A “flipper-slapping” Humpback Whale. 

The reason the whales head south to the Caribbean even though there is little-to-no food for them there is because the calves need to be born in warmer waters. When the calves are first born they do not have the protective blubber layer that the adults have and so if they were to be born in these northern waters (such as those off the coast of New England) they would quickly succumb to hypothermia. So the whales ned to seek out warmer waters in which to give birth to their young, and then the young nurse upon their mother’s rich milk to build-up the fat reserves necessary to survive colder temperatures. Only after they have done so do the whales begin the migration north (usually in early-to-mid March.)

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A diving whale on Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. 

But don’t let all this migration talk make you think the whales have left for the year already! If you haven’t had a chance to get out whale watching yet this year it is not too late! There are still many whales in our area probably will be for a couple more months.

In fact some will linger in thew waters off the New England coast all winter long. Whales that are less than 5-6 years old and have therefore not reached maturity yet have no reason to migrate to the breeding and calving grounds and so some of those animals will remain in our area year-round. But many of the older whales are presently still being seen and they will likely linger until at least the end of October before heading south.

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The spout of a whale just of the coast of Gloucester, MA. 

Fall whale watching can be wonderful, as this is the time of year when animals of all kinds are very much on the move. Each day brings the possibility of seeing something new and out of the ordinary. This why fall is my favorite time of year to be on the water.

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Thatcher Island’s north light of the coast of Cape Ann, Massachusetts.

Hopefully the good weather will continue for a while longer and we can enjoy a few more weeks of great whale watching!

By |September 16th, 2014|

Whales on Northern Stellwagen Bank!

Whale watching on Stellwagen Bank has been very good over the past week, as has the weather.

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A Humpback whale called “Pitcher” breaching just a few miles of the coast of Gloucester, MA. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

In the first few days of September we have seen quite a few whales move north along Stellwagen Bank and thus the whales are now much closer to Gloucester than they were in August (when we frequently were traveling 30+ miles to find whales.)

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A whale called “Pele” diving very close to our boat! 

Giving an “average” number of whales that have been seen…or could expect to be seen…on any given whale watch trip is difficult, so perhaps it’s more accurate to just give a range and say that anywhere from 2 to 20 Humpback whales have been sighted on each trip and smaller numbers of Minke whales are usually present as well. Finback whales have also been sighted a handful of times recently but much frequently than the other Humpbacks and Minkes.


Two Humpback whales surfacing on Stellwagen Bank. Afternoons in late summer can create some beautiful lighting conditions for photos!  

Interestingly, many of the individual Humpback whales we are seeing are “new” individuals to the area this season. For example we have seen “Columbia,” “Chairlift,” “Draco,” “Anvil,” “Ampersand,” “Follicle,” “Etch-a-sketch” and calf and a few other whales that had not previously been sighted in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary area this season.

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“Pitcher” (foreground) and “Follicle” (background) flipper-slapping. Photo by Oktay Kaya

Perhaps these whales spent the spring and the first part of the summer feeding further north or further offshore and are now passing through this area on their way south towards the breeding grounds in the Caribbean?

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A breaching Humpback whale.

It’s hard to say, but that is why it is so critically important that we recognize not only what species of whale we are seeing, but what individual whales we are seeing as well.


Individual Humpback whales can be recognized by the black-and-white markings on the underside of their tails. This is a photo of “Draco” diving.

By monitoring the movements of each individual whale we can get a clearer picture as to how the entire population moves throughout the region, and how the whales utilize different habitats and food resources found throughout the Gulf of Maine. This information is critical in developing better conservation measures to ensure that the whales are with us for generations to come.

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A Humpback whale flipper-slapping.

Other than these “new” whales, we have seen many of our 2014 regulars also. “Nile” and calf, “Pitcher,” “Pele,” “Eruption,” “Geometry,” “Mogul,” and and ‘Freckles” are just a few of the whales that have been on-or-near Stellwagen Bank for the majority of the spring and summer months are still present during these first few days of September. It’s good to know that there is still enough food (small schooling fish) to entice these animals to linger a bit longer!

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A diving Humpback whale.

We have also had some wonderful surface active displays on a few of our trips. While it is difficult (if not impossible) to predict when these displays might happen, when there a good numbers of whales in the area (as there are right now) the chances of seeing one-or-more of the whales get active naturally increases.

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“Pitcher” breaching.

So hopefully the number of whales on Stellagen Bank will continue to increase..or at least remain steady…so we can enjoy another week of good sightings and fun days on the water. The advanced forecast os for another week of good weather!


A Humpback spout acting as a prism in the late-afternoon light. 

Check back in a few days for another whale sightings update (or better yet come out and see for yourself!)

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By |September 5th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: August 24, 2014

After being rather inconstant and sometimes hard to find for the first part of August, the whales have settled into a somewhat predictable pattern and remained in the same area for a while now.


A group of four Humpback Whales (only three are at the surface in this photo… but you can see the blow of all four!) on the southwest corner of Stellwagen bank.

How long this consistency will last is, of course, anyone’s guess, but for now at least we have been enjoying some very good trips on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank… about 28 miles form Gloucester.

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A Humpback Whale makes a close approach to our boat! Photo by Oktay Kaya

28 Miles is about the double the distance we normally travel in order to find whales, but we certainly don’t mind going the extra distance to get the best trip possible and the whales have certainly made the ride well-worth the extra time spent on the water.


A Humpback Whale calf (Mudskipper’s calf) chin-breaching.

One of our new favorite whales and the star of many recent whale watches is the calf of a whale called “Mudskipper.” Mudskipper and calf have been one of the most frequently sighted pairs of Humpback Whales recently and the calf has often put on some amazing displays of surface activity (see the three photos below).




On three different occasions over the past week we have seen this calf breaching, flipper-slapping, tail-breaching, rolling and the surface, and she (we were able to determine it’s a female) has even come over to investigate the boat on a few occasions!


Mudskipper’s 2014 calf is a beautiful whale with striking black-and-white checkering all along her underside.

Besides Mudskipper and calf we have seen a number of other well-known members of our Humpback Whale population: Nile and her calf, Freckles, Pele, Eruption, Storm, Mogul, and Pitcher have all been seen recently.

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“Storm” diving.

The forecast for the last week of summer before is for sunny skies, calm seas, and some of the warmest temperatures of the year so far… so it should be a great week for whale watching! Hopefully the whales will continue to be found and put on the great displays we have been so privileged to enjoy this past week.


“Pele” surfacing right under the bow!

Check back soon for another update!

By |August 24th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: August 12, 2014: Whales On The Move

It’s been an interesting week. At times whale watching has been great, at other times it has been very difficult. Please let me explain….

The whales have been moving about the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary a lot, sometimes moving more than 15 miles from the morning trip to the afternoon trip! This makes deciding where to go to look for whales, and predicting how many whales you can expect to see on a given trip– or even what species of whales you might expect to see– challenging to say the least.

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A Humpback Whale called “North Star” Diving. North Star, along with another whale named “Hippocampus” has been one of the most regularly sighted whales in our area.

The best way I can think to accurately explain just how variable our recent whale watches have been is to simply list what was seen on a trip-by-trip basis. Here goes:

August 7th and earlier: For nearly three weeks up until August 7th we were almost exclusively seeing the same two Humpback Whales, “North Star” and “Hippocampus,” on the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Then something interesting happened…


Hippocampus flipper-slapping with North Star flipping his tail in the background.

August 8th: On the morning of August 8th we found North Star and Hippocampus in their usual spot, but soon we saw the blows of more whales heading our way from the south. Eventually three more Humpbacks joined with North Star and Hippocampus and for a brief period we had a group of 5 whales: North Star and Hippo, along with Cajun, Samara, and Komodo.


“Komodo” diving.

By that afternoon Cajun, Komodo, and Samara had split from North Star and Hippocampus but all 5 whales were now moving south along the Bank. I had a feeling this meant that our pair was finally leaving the area. Unfortunately I was right.



August 9th: On the morning of August 9th we went to Stellwagen Bank and found that North Star and Hippocampus had, indeed, moved on. Despite a diligent search neither they nor any other whale was found despite many boats looking.

In the afternoon we decided to go a different direction. Instead of going southeast towards Stellwagen bank we instead went north to another popular whale watching spot– a place called “Jeffrey’s Ledge”– where we found 4 Finback Whalesand 2 Minke Whales!

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Two Finback Whales on Jeffrey’s Ledge.

August 10:  On August 10th we spent both the morning and afternoon whale watches up north on Jeffrey’s ledge with a pair of Finback whales and a few Minke Whales. It was great to spend some time with Finbacks again. They are truly beautiful whales.

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A “classic look” at the brilliant white jaw of a surfacing Finback Whale.

August 11th: On the morning of August 11th we once again headed north only to find that the Finback Whales had moved on. Again we searched many miles of ocean, but were unable to find a large whale. We did see a Minke Whale, but still decided to give “rain checks” to our passengers to come again because we didn’t spend much time with the Minkes… we really wanted to find a big whale!

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A beautiful, calm day on the ocean… just with no whales in sight.

In the afternoon of August 11th we headed southeast towards Stellwagen Bank again. We had to travel over 25 miles but eventually we found a Humpback Whale– a whale called “Springboard”– who breached a number of times, then did some feeding, and then started traveling quickly to the west. Phew!

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August 12th: On the morning trip we headed south and again found “Springboard” but this time she was moving very fast to the south, so as I write this blog on the way in from this trip I am honestly unsure where we will go this afternoon… Springboard may be very much out-of-range if she continues south at the rate she was going.

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We will get reports from fishing vessels up north and perhaps head that way this afternoon. It’s honestly kind of fun trying to figure out where to go!

So as you can see things have been changing a lot from day-to-day. This makes it difficult to say what an “average” whale watch trip has been like over this past week or what the “average” number and species of whales seen has been. We have had some great trips with lots of whales, some trips where we have had to work hard to find just a couple of whales. We have even had two trips where wen were unable to find any whales at all! Again, this is exceptionally rare, especially in August.

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Two Finback Whales in Ipswich Bay… just north of Gloucester, MA.

In fact, at the time of my writing this blog we have thus far done 122 whale watches this season. We have seen whales on all but 4 of them. So that’s a 96.7% success rate. That’s good… but not being able to find whales is always something that I take very hard. For those of you that came out one one of those trips I really hope you are able to use your free pass and come back again soon!

I think that it is important to point out, however, that this is all part of the nature-trip experience, and whale watching is a nature trip in the truest sense. We go out on the open ocean to look for wild and endangered creatures. It is fundamentally quite different than going to a zoo or aquarium where animals are kept in cages or pens and possibly trained to perform “tricks” on command.

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Being wild animals that are free to roam the ocean at will gives whale watching and inherent unpredictability, and that’s all part of the fun, part of the adventure. We never know what to expect from one day to the next. It’s not always easy, but if it was then seeing a wild whale in its natural habitat wouldn’t be such a thrill. When whales are moving around a lot as they are now finding them can be a challenge, but the challenge is part of what makes whale watching great.

By |August 13th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: August 2, 2014: Northstar and Hippocampus

For the past week we have continued to find whales on Stellwagen Bank’s northwest corner. The number of whales seen per trip has varied from as many as 8 to as few as 2 individual Humpback whales, with the occasional Minke Whale spotted as well.


“Scylla” and calf.

The number of whales seen from day-to-day does vary quite a bit depending upon the abundance of food (ie small schooling fish such as Mackerel, Herring, and especially Sand Lance) that is in the area for the whales to feed upon. Simply put: more fish=more whales, less fish=fewer whales!

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A diving Humpback Whale. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

The two most frequently seen Humpback whales over the past week have been “Northstar” and “Hippocampus.”

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A Humpback whale called “Hippocampus.” Photo by Oktay Kaya.

Hippocampus is a male whale who was first seen in our area in 2009 and is named for a white marking on the tail that looks a little like a Seahorse (“Hippocampus” is the latin name for the genus of marine fishes commonly called called Seahorses).

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“Northstar” diving.

Northstar, named for a white spot on the underside of its tail, was first seen in 2008 and is of unknown gender.

Humpback whales– like all baleen whales– are usually pretty solitary by nature. When we do see groups of two, three, four, five-or-more Humpback whales together those are usually feeding aggregations. Whales will often group together to feed cooperatively when food is particularly abundant, however the feeding associations are usually very temporary in nature. The whales will stay together only as long as the feeding behavior lasts (maybe a few hours) and then go their separate ways. The only long-term association that we normally see is that of the mother-and-calf pairs who stay together for usually just under a year (about 10 months.)


There are times, however, when two-or-more whales will form a long-lasting association. On these rare occasions whales may stay together for many days, weeks, or even months!


Northstar chin-breaching

Northstar and Hippocampus seem to have formed one of these rare long-term bonds as these two whales have been seen continuously in each other’s company for nearly two weeks now. Exactly why these whale have chosen to travel and feed together is a mystery. It does seem, however, that just as we recognize individual whales, the whales themselves can identify each other as individuals and certain whales do seem to prefer the company of certain other whales. Again, whales seem to make “friends.” That might be a slight of anthropomorphization the whale’s behavior, but that’s certainly what it seems like to me!

Northstar and Hippocampus are usually seen in almost the exact same spot on Stellwagen Bank, thus they have been very reliable for us whale watchers over the past few weeks and a staple of many of our whale watching trips.


Hippocampus (left) and Northstar (right) double breaching. Photo by Jodi Sivak.

On occasion Northstar and Hippocampus have put on some pretty spectacular surface active displays! It’s not often that we get to see this type of activity, and it is very hard to predict when these behaviors will occur. It’s really just about luck and/or persistence… the more time you spend watching, the more likely it is you make get to see one of these behaviors.

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Besides Northstar and Hippocampus we have seen a few other individual Humpback whales recently, namely: Pumpkin Seed, Music, Scratch, Alphorn, Hancock, and and unidentified type-5 (all black tail) whale.


“Music” diving. Notice the Orca (aka “Killer Whale”) teeth-mark scars on the flukes of this whale. 


“Scratch” is one of the older whales on our population. She was first seen in 1979.

It will be interesting to see if North Star and Hippocampus remain in the area and if they remain together over the coming days. It will also be interesting to see if more whales join them on the northwest corner. Only time will tell.

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Check back for another update soon!

By |August 2nd, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: July 27, 2014: Whales Numbers Remain Strong on Northern Stellwagen Bank

Whale watching continues to be very good on northern Stellwagen Bank. For the past week whale numbers have remained strong, with between 2 and 12 whales being seen daily.


A group of four Humpback Whales on Stellwagen Bank’s northwest corner.

The exact number of whales that are seen on an “average” trip is difficult to say, as the that number changes depending on weather conditions, sea conditions, and whether-or-not the whales are concentrated in one spot or spread out over a larger area. But the continued presence of large amounts of American Sand Lance (the small schooling fish that whales most prefer to eat in this area) means that there are still good numbers of whales around, and thus we have had many excellent trips of late. Hopefully this pattern will continue for a bit longer!


A breaching Humpback whale calf (“Perseid’s” calf).

I think that it’s important to remember, however, that it is not always the number of whales that you see that makes a whale watch…. it’s the quality of the looks you get and (especially) the behaviors you see. A great example of this the whale watch we had on the afternoon of July 26th when we saw 3 Humpback whales. We started by spending some time watching an adult female named “Hancock” who was traveling and doing some rather long dives. Then we went and watched a pair of whales, “North Star” and “Hippocampus,” who were resting. Despite some very good looks it seemed as if it was going to be a slow trip from a whale-activity standpoint. But just as we were about to leave and start making our way back to Gloucester North Star and Hippocampus erupted into one of the best surface active displays of the season! They began breaching, DOUBLE-breaching, flipper-slapping, tail-lobbing, and performing lots of other great behaviors.


“North Star” (right) and “Hippocampus” (left) breaching.

It was a great trip choreography and made for one of the more memorable trips of the year so far. You never know when these displays might occur. Whale watching is, after all, a nature trip and the animals we see are wild… they are not captive animals trained to perform on command and that’s part of why visiting with them is so much fun: you never know what might happen!

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Another short of “North Star” breaching.

We have also seen a few mother and calf pairs recently, in particular we have seen a lot of “Nile” and calf and “Perseid” and calf. Both Nile and Perseid calves are very energetic, playful young whale who who are a lot of fun to watch. We have often seen these two playing at the surface together.


Above: “Nile” with her new calf diving on the foreground. 

Below: Nile’s calf taking a peek at our boat! 



One more shot of Nile’s calf… this time tail-lobbing. This new calf is a lot of fun to watch! 

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A Humpback whale diving on Stellwagen Bank.

Well it’s time for me to board the boat again for this morning’s 8:30 whale watch. I am looking forward to seeing what the whales have in store for us today. Be sure to check back soon for another update!

By |July 27th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: July 19, 2014: Good Time To See Whales!

For the past few days we have been privileged to have a large number of Humpback whales right in our own “backyard”…. that is to say, right on the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. Exactly how many whales are present right now is hard to say for certain, but what I can say for certain is that we identified 34 individual whales in the past two days alone (see the list below), and I’m sure we didn’t get to all of the whales that were out there!

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The reason for this large aggregation of whales is simple: food. The whales visit our area each year to feed upon schools of fish that are often abundant in our waters. So in that sense the whales are easy to figure out: When food is abundant, so are the whales. When food is scarce, the whales are too.


Right now conditions are right for producing massive schools of the whale’s favorite food, a small, pencil-sized, pencil-shaped fish called the “American Sand Lance.” We have seen huge schools of Sand Lance rippling at the surface and even leaping from the mouths of feeding whales on many occasions recently. This is a very encouraging sign!


Above: A school of American Sand Lance… whale food!  Below: Sand Lance leaping from the mouth of a feeding Humpback whale.


Now how long will conditions remain this good? How long will the whales be this abundant? Again, those are questions that are hard to answer. This is the fourth time this year that whales have been gathered in such great numbers, and the second time we have seen such a large number of whales in this area of northern Stellwagen Bank (the first being just a few weeks ago.) In all of the previous four events we have seen the whales gathered in large numbers for a few days (maybe a week) and then the numbers slowly dwindled until “just” a few were left. Then for a few days the overall number of whales was remained on the low side until, without warning and literally overnight, a large number gathered together again.


Will this pattern continue? I suspect it will. No matter how much fish (again, Sand Lance in particular) are present in a given area, a group of 30-40 whales can consume the majority of those fish (and scatter the remaining survivors) in just a few days. Each Humpback does eat close to a ton of food per day after all! So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that such large feeding aggregations are unstable and don’t last long. But as I said before, what is most encouraging is that the conditions are right for producing these periodic explosions in the Sand Lance population. As long as this is the case I strongly suspect that we will almost always have at least a few whales around, and occasionally a lot more than a few. There may be times when finding even a single whale is difficult, but I think those days are going to be fewer and fewer as the Summer progresses. I think it’s important to remember, however, that ANY time you see a wild and endangered animal in its natural habitat it is a special sighting!


In short, this a good time to be going whale watching. Conditions are better now than they have been in years. So if you have been thinking of going out looking for whales but just didn’t know when to go… this is the time!

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Here’s a list of the individual Humpback whales we identified on July 18-19, 2014:

Erosion, Tectonic, Pepper, Scratch, Bayou, Cajun, Tornado and calf, Buzzard, Fulcrum, Nile and calf, Jabiru, Draco, Timberline, Samovar, Pinch, Putter, Canopy, Isosceles, Pox, Banyan, Sweep, Canopy and calf, Milkweed, Daffodil, Hornbill, Ember, Xylem, Etch-a-sketch, Midnight and calf, and Gumdrop.

By |July 19th, 2014|

The Nature of a Whale Watch

Today was example of just how fast things can change on the ocean, and just how much one whale watch trip can differ from the next. In fact, in my 32 years of whale watching I have probably never seen such a dramatic difference from the morning to afternoon trip. Let me explain…

This morning we travelled over more than 70 miles of ocean total in search of whales. We started on the northwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. There we found two Minke whales and were able to get very good looks at one of them. However we wanted to try and find a larger whale, or a greater concentration of whales, and so we continued south on Stellwagen Bank.

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A Minke Whale surfacing

For the next 15-or-so miles we travelled along various southerly courses which took us through many of the places that we have seen whales in the past few weeks. We visited some of the most productive areas of Stellwagen Bank but unfortunately no additional whales were spotted.

After careful and  thorough search of Stellwagen Bank we headed east towards an area called “Tillies Bank” where we had seen a large number of whales feeding about week ago in hopes that perhaps the whales had moved back into that area but no…. still nothing.

In a final attempt to find whales we headed north to southern “Jeffery’s Ledge” where there have not been many whales seen yet this year but given that all of our usual spots had had come up empty we decided to give it a shot. We found one more Minke whale on southern Jeffrey’s but nothing else.

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A Humpback whale diving… photographed on the afternoon of 7-14-2014

So we headed home feeling a bit defeated. Despite that fact that we had seen two Minke whales, and got good looks at them, everyone got a free pass to come back again because we didn’t spend a lot of time with them.

Now we had to decide on a strategy for the afternoon trip.  After considering our options, we decided to head to western Jeffery’s Ledge or, more specifically, to a place called “The Prong.”  This is an area about 20 miles north of Gloucester that we had not been to yet this year because reports were that whales were few and far between there so far this season.  But it’s a place where whales have been seen in the past and so we hoped that we might find one… or a few. Well, there more than a few!


Six Humpback whales (there were actually 7 in the group) feeding together on Jeffrey’s Ledge

What we found on The Prong was a group of more than 20 Humpback whales! There were single whales, pairs of whales, and even a group of 7 whales all feeding at the surface. Some of the whales were the same whales that had been on Stellwagen Bank a few days earlier, while others were whales that we had not seen in many, many years.

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A Humpback whale called “Sockeye”

For example we saw a male Humpback called “Sockeye” who we had not seen since the mid 1990’s! Sockeye received his name because of a deformity that gives him an underbite and makes him look a bit like a Sockeye Salmon!

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Orca (aka “Killer Whale”) teeth-mark scars on Sockeye’s tail

Other whales we saw today were: Viking, Rattan, and Aerospace just to name a few. These are all whales we have not seen yet this year. This is significant because it means the whales we saw this afternoon were not the same whales we had been seeing (and didn’t find this morning).

So it was an amazing afternoon trip. One of the best of the year.  But to be honest I didn’t enjoy it all. I spent the entire trip thinking about how I badly I felt for the people who were out in the morning (although a few came out with us again in the afternoon…. boy were they happy!) and wondering how in the world I was going to write this report.

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In the end I decided to just tell the truth. It is tough because I know that if someone from the morning trip reads this it will be a bit like rubbing salt in their wounds… and I really don’t want to do that. But (as I say ALL THE TIME in these sightings reports) whale watching is a nature trip. It is fundamentally different from going to a zoo or aquarium where animals are kept in cages or pens and often trained to perform on command.

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The whales we go and search for are wild and endangered animals. They visit our waters each year to feed and thus they are found wherever the food is. As their food (schools of small fish such as Sand Lance, Mackerel, Herring, etc) move about the southern Gulf of Maine so do the whales. And so it is not always easy to predict where the whales will be from one day to the next. Sometimes they spend many days, weeks, even months in one spot. At other times they can move many miles in just a few hours. It can make whale watching a challenge, but that challenge and unpredictability of what you may see each time you leave the dock is a big part why whale watching is so much fun.

By |July 14th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: July 10, 2014: 20-30 Humpback Whales Just 10 Miles From Gloucester!

The past few days have been amazing. In fact it has been some of the best whale watching we have seen in years! This is because more than 30 Humpback whales moved into the area literally overnight (the night of July 6th)!

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This massive movement of whales into the area was do doubt precipitated by an explosion in the population of American Sand Lance which are the preferred food of the Humpback whales in this part of the world. Sand lance are a small, pencil-sized, pencil-shaped fish that are sometimes sometimes called “Sand eels” because the do look like eels but are in fact a true fish.

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While Humpback whales can (and do) eat a wide variety of prey such as Mackerel, Herring, Krill, Menhaden, and many other types of small schooling fish, here in the Gulf of Maine they prefer Sand lance and so whenever Sand lance are in abundance it is a pretty safe bet that there will a good number of whales around too.

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It is not surprising, therefore, that the explosion in the Sand lance population enticed a large number of Humpback whales into the area also. But the big question is “How long will these great sightings last?” The honest answer is that no one knows. But if the past is the best indicator of the future it is not likely that this number of whales will remain in the area very long.

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In fact we have seen such a concentration of whales form and then dissipate twice already this season: The first time was in late May when 25-30 Humpbacks were gorging themselves on massive schools of Sand lance just off the coast of Cape Cod (about 30 miles from Gloucester) and the second was in mid June when a similar number of whales were gathered in place called “Tillies Bank” about 22 miles north of Gloucester. In both of those cases the whales only stayed concentrated in one spot for a week (maybe a bit less). After that the number of whales slowly dwindled as their intense feeding on up to 2,000lbs of fish per day quickly depleted the supply of fish that had attracted them in the first place.

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So will we see a similar pattern with the whales that are now concentrated just 10 miles off the coast of Gloucester? My guess is that we probably will. But is an encouraging sign that the whales are here at all! It means that the conditions in our waters are right for creating these periodic explosions in Sand lance population and I expect that there will always be at least a few whales in the area, and at times we are going to see these large concentrations of whales form in areas and at times when Sand lance numbers peak.

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So my feeling is that we are likely in for some good whale watching in the weeks ahead. While it is impossible to guarantee that 20 or 30 whales will be seen on any given trip as the number of whales on Stellwagen Bank will always fluctuate quite a bit from one day to the next…. and even during the course of s single day… it doesn’t take 20 whales to make a good trip. Any time you venture out onto the open ocean and see even one wild and endangered whale in its natural habitat it is a good day!

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Here’s a partial list of the individual Humpback whales we have seen recently:


Tornado and calf

Anvil and calf

Nile and calf

Milkyway and calf

Echo and calf
















An many more….



Check back soon for other update!

By |July 10th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: July 4, 2014: Whales, Surface Activity, and Rough Weather

Even though we have experienced some rough seas over the past week, we have also seen some spectacular displays of surface activity from the whales (especially an adult Humpback whale named “Hancock”). In fact, we have come to expect to see more surface activity during periods of rough weather. Surface activity (such as flipper-slapping, breaching, chin breaching, tail-lobbing, etc) is very often what people are hoping to see when they go whale watching. It is not surprising, therefore, that a very common question we receive is “When do the whales breach?” Unfortunately there is no simple answer to that question. The reality is that we never know when such displays of surface activity may occur. In fact, no one even knows for certain why whales engage in surface activity at all!

By |July 4th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: June 21, 2014

It’s been a week of very good whale watching. We have seen whales on every trip and, just as importantly, we have enjoyed a week of spectacular weather for being on the ocean…  calm seas, mainly sunny skies and seasonable warm temperatures (it is officially Summer now after all!).


A Humpback whale (“Pixar”) alongside some lucky whale watchers. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

Ok back to the whales… the number and location of the whales has been changing  dramatically from day-to-day. Regular readers of this blog are probably tired of me saying this, but it is important to remember that these whales are wild and in many cases very endangered animals that are free to roam the ocean at will in search of food.

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A “kick feeding” Humpback whale. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

The whales will therefore be found in the greatest numbers wherever and whenever food is most abundant. As the availability of food (ie schooling fish such as Mackerel, Herring, Krill, and especially Sand Lance) changes so does the number and distribution of the whales.

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A very close look at a Humpback whale.

This means that it is very difficult to predict how many whale will be seen on a given trip.  The only “safe” answer probably something like “Somewhere between 2 and 20.”

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A feeding whale and few scavenging Seagulls.

If you want an example of just how fast thing can change on the ocean all you need to do is compare the trips we had on June 19th and June 20th. Both were very good trips but were entirely different.

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A whale named “Fragment” diving. 

On June 19th we had a wonderful time watching a whale named “Diablo” on Stellwagen Bank’s northwest corner. When we first arrived in the area Diablo was “flipper-slapping” (pounding her pectoral fins at the surface), then she did a bit of surface feeding, and then that was followed by Diablo showing a bit of curiosity towards the boat . The whale repeatedly circled the boat, and sometimes positioned herself directly under the boat and blew clouds of bubbles all around us (these were not feeding bubble but rather “social bubbles”).

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A flipper-slapping Humpback whale calf.

On the following day, June 20th, we were planning on heading to the same area with hopes of seeing Diablo and perhaps another whale-or-two and maybe getting to see some of the same activity we had seen the day before. But on the way out we got a report of there being a few whale to the east of Stellwagen Bank near a place called “Tillies Basin” and so we decided to head that way.

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A Humpback called “Epee” tail-lobbing. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

What we found east of the Bank was a big surprise. Overnight more than 20 Humpback whales had moved into the area! Why did so many whales move in the the area so suddenly? As you might have guessed it was because of a sudden increase in food availability. There were Schools of Sand Lance (the favorite food of Humpback whales in our area) rippling at the surface of the water as far as the eye could see. This sudden and dramatic increase in Sand Lance is obviously what attracted all the whales as we were treated to a spectacular Humpback whale feeding frenzy!

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A Humpback whale named “Pixar” diving. Photo by Oktay Kaya

Now how long will these sighting last? The truth is no one knows. Probably not long however. In the 32 years that we have been whale watching we have no doubt learned that there is a constant ebb and flow to everything in the ocean… including the whales and food that entices them to visit the waters off the Massachusetts coast each year.


My best guess is that the whales will probably linger in this area in good numbers for a few days, maybe a bit longer. Then They will have consumed and/or broken-up the vast schools of Sand Lance and so their numbers will dwindle as they spread-out and move to other areas in search of the next place where food is more abundant. This will give the Sand Lance in the Tillies Basin/Tillies Bank area time to regroup and when they do the whales will once again gather here in great numbers to feed.

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I write all this just to illustrate how you never really know from one day to the next what you might see when you leave the dock and head out looking for whales. Whale watching is a nature trip after all and therefore very different than going to a zoo or aquarium where animals are in cages and pens and trained to perform on command. Whale watching is inherently unpredictable but that’s a big part of what makes it so much fun. It’s a nature trip in the truest sense.


Here’s a list of some of the individual Humpback whales we have seen recently:


Nile and calf

Tongs and calf





















Check back soon for other update!

By |June 21st, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: June 9, 2014

We have had some very nice whale watches over the past week. While we still sometimes have to travel a considerable distance to get to the whales (30+ miles), on at least  a few occasions we have found whale considerably closer to Gloucester.

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It is always difficult to say what the “average” number of whales seen on a trip actually is. On some trips we have seen 2 or 3 whales, while on other trips we have seen a dozen-or-more. The important thing to remember is that it’s not always the number of whales that you see that determines how good the trip was… it’s the behaviors you observe, the quality of the looks you get, the amount of time you get to spend with the whales, and even the weather conditions (having a nice, calm day at sea makes ANY trip more enjoyable!) that really matter.

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Just as an example, on June 8th we had a beautiful calm, sunny, warm day on the water. Perfect weather for whale watching. As we were heading south on the western edge of Stellwagen Bank we first got a GREAT look at a Basking shark which the kids loved (see pics below). A short while later we spotted the blow of a Finback whale just a little to the east of our course. Thinking that there may be other whales nearby we headed in that direction to investigate.

As soon as we arrived at the spot where the Fin whale was last seen it unexpectedly lunged through the water with it’s jaws wide open, then rolled upside sown exposing its snow-white belly, pectoral fin, and tail at the surface! It was one of the best Fin whale feeding lunges I have ever seen… and I think nearly everyone on the boat was looking in the right direction to see it!

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While we were watching the FIn whale we saw the blow of two whales together not far away. After getting a couple more looks at the Fin whale we headed in that direction and found it was Nile and her calf. Nile is one of our (and everybody else’s) favorite whales so we very happy to see her in the area again.

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For the next hour-or-so we watched Nile feeding while her calf rolled at the surface, circled very close to our boat, and even did a spectacular breach just in front of the bow (I was too slow with the camera to get a photo though)!

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It was great trip… one of my favorite trips of the past week. However if you look at the total number of whales seen (2 Humpbacks and 1 Fin whale) it would not look to be that way. In fact it was the lowest number of total whales in recent trips! It’s ironic how the best trips are not the ones that would seem, a on paper at least, to be the best!

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But that’s how nature watching goes. It is inherently unpredictable and that’s a big part of why it is so much fun.

You never know what to expect when you leave the dock and sometimes you get surprised with something truly unusual. That was certainly the case on June 1st when we saw a YELLOW-NOSED ALBATROSS while watching whales!

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This is an INCREDIBLY rare bird. In fact it is approximately the 36th ever seen in the North Atlantic!

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Besides the whales and birds, we have also seen a number of Basking sharks (the second biggest fish in the world) in the past few days. Here’s a few shots of one shark VERY close to the boat. It’s great when we get to see a Shark when there’s a lot of kids onboard… they usually end up more excited about the shark than the whales!

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Finally, here is a list of just a few of the individual Humpback whales we have seen recently. See any you recognize?

Tongs and calf

Wizard and calf

Tornado and calf







So it has been a fun week. Hopefully next week will be just as good. I think it will be.

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By |June 9th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: June 1, 2014

***If you’ve come here looking for the report on the Yellow-nosed Albatross you can see it below this most recent whale blog!***

Whale sightings so far this season have been very good. It is difficult to say what an “average” trip consists of as the number of whales spotted changes so much from day-to-day (and even from trip-to-trip). Over the past week we have seen anywhere from 2 to 20 whales on a trip, though ironically some of the best trips have been the one where the fewest number of whales were seen. It’s not always about how many whales you see, it’s really more about the behaviors you observe and the quality of the looks you get!

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Nile’s calf breaching

It is important to remember that a whale watch is a nature trip in the truest sense. The whales that we visit are wild and endangered creatures that are not in cages or pens, nor are they trained to perform “tricks” on command. They are wild whales that are searching for areas of the ocean that are rich in the food that they need to survive. They need to feed intensely during the Summer months in order to build up the thick layers of blubber required to keep them warm and fuel their epic migrations back-and-forth between their feeding and breeding grounds.

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Three feeding Humpback whales

The whales will therefore be found where ever, and when ever, food is most abundant. For the past few weeks that has been in southern Massachusetts Bay. How long these sightings will last no one knows for sure.*

IMG_8769 copy * On June 1st many of the whales that were on the southern end of Stellwagen Bank were seen feeding on Mackerel much farther north in a place called “Tillies Bank.” So things can change fast out there! 

 The number whales being seen and the behaviors being observed changes from day-to-day, even hour-to-hour as the abundance and concentration of fish (specifically a pencil-sized, pencil-shaped fish called the American Sand Lance) moves throughout the region and vertically through the water column. 

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A Humpback whale with a mouth full of fish and seawater.

In other words, even though sightings have been often been very good, there is no guarantee that 20+ feeding Humpback whales will be seen on any given trip. To expect to see that number of whales and that level of activity, and to be disappointed if “only” 2 or 3 whales are seen, is to fundamentally misunderstand whale watching (or any nature watching) actually is.

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A Humpback whale called “Tornado” feeding.

The truth is that anytime you venture out onto the open ocean and see a wild and endangered whale in its natural environment that it is a special experience!


“Orbit” diving.

The only way to ensure you get to see everything that you can see in nature is to spend a lot of time observing it. How much you see is directly related to how much time you spend looking.

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“Glostick” and calf.

I have personally been whale watching for 32 years (working for 7 Seas for 25) and I still see new things on a regular basis! I’ve also been a birder for 30 years and still find new species and observe new behaviors from familiar species all the time.. see the Yellow-nosed Albatross post below! But it takes effort. There simply is no way to “see it all” in just a single day. What is most important is getting out there, exploring nature, and appreciating that which you did see.

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A Gray Seal taking a peek at our boat.

So all that having been said, here is a list of just a few of the individual Humpback whales we have seen recently:

Tongs and calf

Wizard and calf

Tornado and calf

Nile and calf

Glostick and calf




Yoo Hoo







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“Nile” diving.

The whales we are so privileged to see are wild and endangered animals that are free to roam the ocean at will. Fortunately the productive waters off the Massachusetts coast often do provide the food resources required to bring a large number of whales into the area and, while that has certainly been the case recently, no one can say how long it will last. Hopefully we can enjoy more great sightings in the days and weeks to come.


Check back soon for another update!

By |June 2nd, 2014|

Albatross Sightings Report: June 1, 2014

On June 1st I spotted a YELLOW-NOSED ALBATROSS 17 miles east of Gloucester (on the northeast side of Tillies Bank.)

It was a thrill to see this bird and I was very happy to have been able to share the sighting with so many great people. I love that there were a few birders onboard who knew how rare this bird is in the North Atlantic. I bet you all thought the 2 Fulmars we saw earlier would be highlight of our day on the water, huh?! ?!

Our excitement was contagious, and I know from talking with other passengers that we ignited the spark… the love for birding…  in at least a few other people. How funny is it that they will have “Yellow-nosed Albatross” marked-off in their book before, say, Wilson’s Storm Petrel?!?! I suppose that’s how it happens for a lot of us though. I know I have a few anomalies in my old Peterson guide that represent my indoctrination into the love of seeing the natural world through the pursiut of the birds that are so superbly adapted to it.

Anyway, here are few pictures generously given to me by passengers aboard today’s trip. I would especially like to thank Sandy Selesky, Kevin Grierson, and Andrew Wylie for their great work. Thank You!!!!

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Photo by Sandy Selesky

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Photo by Sandy Selesky


Photo by Kevin Grierson

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Photo by S. Jay Frontierro


Photo by Sandy Selesky


By |June 1st, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: May 23, 2014

Whale sightings over the past week continue to be very good on the southern end of Stellwagen Bank. This means that we are still having to travel quite a distance (25-30 miles on average) before we reach the area where the majority of whales are located, but I think most everyone would agree that it is very much worth the extra time on the water to see the amazing sights that we have been so privileged to witness.


 Nile’s calf breaching. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

We have seen anywhere from 5 to 25 HUMPBACK WHALES on most of our recent whale watches, and in addition to the Humpbacks we have also seen a good variety of other whale species including: FINBACK WHALES (with as many as 10 Finbacks seen on 5/22), MINKE WHALES, HARBOR PORPOISE, and even a SEI WHALE on 5/20!

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A whaled called “Vulture” feeding alongside our boat.

Other interesting marine wildlife seen recently include a NORTHERN FULMAR, a 1st Winter ICELAND GULL, and many GRAY SEALS.

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“Amulet” feeding.

The most commonly observed behavior of late has been feeding. In fact we have seen feeding on all of our trips over the past week! Sometimes it is a whale feeding alone, while at other times large groups of more than 10 Humpbacks have been seen feeding cooperatively. These large feeding aggregations are rare and occur only when food (ie small schooling fish) are particularly abundant.

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“Vulture” diving with two other Humpback whales nearby. 

We have also seen a number of mother-calf pairs in recent days. This is perhaps because the calves take a bit longer to make the journey north from the whale’s breeding grounds in the Caribbean than other whales and so they are just now beginning to arrive en masse to the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary area.


Humpback whale mother-calf pairs sighted over the past week include:

Nile and calf

Reflection and calf

Tongs and calf

Wizard and calf

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Other Humpback whales recently include:













I’m sure I will ID many more when I have a chance to go over all of my photos!

How long these great sighting will continue is, of course, very hard to predict. Whenever you are dealing with wild animals there is always an element of unpredictability but that is a big part of what makes whale watching so much fun. It is nature watching in the truest sense and so it is very different from going to an aquarium or zoo where animals are in cages or pens and trained to perform on command.

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“Tongs” alongside our boat.

The whales we are so privileged to see are wild and endangered animals that are free to roam the ocean at will. Fortunately the productive waters off the Massachusetts coast often do provide the food resources required to bring a large number of whales into the area and, while that has certainly been the case recently, no one can say how long it will last. Hopefully we can enjoy more great sightings in the days and weeks to come.

Check back soon for another update!


I know this is supposed to be a whale blog, but I just can’t help but share this photo I took this week of one of the resident Barred owls that are once again nesting in the woods behind my house (this is the male of the pair).

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They are spectacular to watch. This bird was sitting in a Beech tree disemboweling some poor, furry, little creature (probably a Meadow vole) that it had just caught. I suspect that the owlets have hatched because the owls are hunting at all times of day and night now. There must be a lot of hungry mouths to feed!

By |May 23rd, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: May 15, 2014

It was extraordinary whale watch today. We once again had to travel a bit further than normal to reach the area where the majority of the whales were found, but it was well worth the extra effort. In total we saw 25-30 Humpback whales– including 3 mother-calf pairs– and 4 Fin whales.

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All of the whales were actively surface feeding. There were groups of six and seven Humpback whales all working together to catch prey. In typical Humpback whale fashion, they would blow huge rings of bubbles around the vast schools of fish (which were easily visible in large patches at the surface) that serve as a “bubble-net” to trap the fish and keep them concentrated in one spot. After encircling the fish within these bubble nets the whales would then lunge through the middle of the ring with mouths wide open– scooping up the trapped fish.

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Seeing 30-or-so whales engaged in a veritable feeding frenzy is NOT a common sight. The conditions have to be just right in order for such an event to take place. The principle condition that needs to be met is that there needs to be an abundance of Sand Lance (the primary fish species that the Humpback whales eat while in New England waters). It was certainly an encouraging sign to see so many whales on Stellwagen Bank so early in the season, but what was even more encouraging was the sheer numbers of Sand lance that were seen. There were huge patches of Sand Lance visible at and just beneath the surface. As long as Sand lance are present in such great numbers there is good reason to suspect that there will be good numbers of whales present too– and sometimes they will gather together and feed in the spectacular fashion we saw yesterday.

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I want to be clear that there is no way to guarantee that we will see 30+ whales on a given trip. Whenever you are dealing with wild animals there is always an element of uncertainty. The truth is we never really know exactly where the whales will be, how many whales there will be, what species of whales we might find, what activities they will be engaged in, or–quite frankly– if we will see any whales at all! But what we can say is that Stellwagen Bank is an area that is renown for its biological productivity (that is why it was declared a marine sanctuary after all!) and often times conditions are such that a good number of whales can be found feeding in this area. Right now conditions are, indeed, right for whales. I sincerely hope that this will remain the case for a long while (ie the entire Summer!) but whether-or-not this happens is anyone’s guess. But if you have been thinking of going whale watching now might be a good time to go!

Now on a non-whale related note:

Spring is in full swing in the forests around Cape Ann! After cleaning the boat I headed home and, given that it was a beautiful evening, I took my daughters canoeing on Chebbaco Lake in Essex (the town just to the west of Gloucester).While on the lake we saw an Osprey swoop down and catch a fish! Then while we were riding our bikes home we saw a Barred Owl in a tree and I got this picture (with my phone–thus the poor quality) just as it was taking off. It actually dropped to the forest floor where it grabbed a mouse or vole or some other little critter. It was good teaching moment for my girls… they felt bad for the rodent! Circle of life and all that…

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Then, later on that night (after taking out the trash), I found this Spring Peeper stuck to the glass doors leading to my kitchen!


Feeding whales, fish, frogs, owls and Ospreys— it was a great day for wildlife! 




By |May 16th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: May 4, 2014

Today’s whale watch had a little bit of everything: We saw four species of whales (Humpback, Finback, Minke and White-sided Dolphins), we saw feeding, breaching, and we saw our first mother-calf pair of the season! We had sunshine, clouds, rain, a gentle sea-breeze and calm seas, and then strong winds and very, very rough seas.

Here’s a brief summary of todays whale watch:

Shortly after leaving Gloucester Harbor we received reports of a good number of whales about 20 miles to the south. On our way there we happened across a Finback whale that gave us spectacular views! Finbacks are the second largest animal in the world (second only to the Blue whale) and commonly reach lengths of 65 to 70 feet! They are not always the easiest whale to get good looks at because of their fast speed and elusive nature, but this Fin whale was very cooperative and swam right alongside our boat for few minutes allowing us to get great looks at the beautiful patterning that makes this species one of the most striking of all the world’s great whales.


The Finback whale seen on May 4, 2014. Photo by Oktay Kaya (see more of Oktay’s photos)

After getting a good look at the Finback whale we continued south a few more miles where we found an adult female Humpback whale called “Hancock” (a strange name for a female whale, I know. She is named for a marking on the underside of her tail that resembles a signature) who was accompanied by a pod of Atlantic White-seded Dolphins! Exactly why Dolphins sometimes follow larger whales is not known for sure, however we suspect it has something to do with feeding. It is possible that as the larger whale (in this case a Humpback but Dolphins are also known to “shadow” Fin whales as well) is feeding on huge schools of fish beneath the surface the dolphins will follow the whale to pick-off any confused, injured, or disoriented fish that the whale leaves behind.


Hancock with Atlantic White-sided Dolphins

Dolphins, of course, have the ability to echolocate. his means they can send out blasts of sound, listen to the echoes of those sounds, and get an acoustical picture of what’s in the water around them. They use this echolocation to follow the whale as it feeds deep beneath the surface. This all works out very well for us whale watchers because it means that if we just stay with the dolphins they will lead us right to where the whale is!

While we were watching the Dolphins and Hancock we spotted the blows of two other whales nearby. We could tell from the blows that it was likely a mother-calf pair because one of the blows was very large and the other much smaller. It’s always a treat to see a mother and calf pair and, especially since this was our first sighting of one of this season, we were excited to go see them. Our plan was spend a few more minutes with Hancock and the Dolphins and then head over to where the mother-calf was, just a few hundred yards away. As it tunes out we didn’t need to do this because, without warning, a huge ring of bubbles appeared right next to our boat and then both Hancock and the mother whale lunged up through with mouths wide open!


Hancock and Nile feeding! Photo by Oktay Kaya.

We quickly recognized the mother as a whale named “Nile” who we saw a lot of last year. It was great to see Nile again, and seeing her with a new calf made it even better. We suspected Nile was pregnant last year and we were hopeful that when she returned to our area this Spring it would be with a new calf… and she did!

For the next few minutes we watched Hancock and Nile feed together. They put on a spectacular feeding display as they repeatedly blew rings of bubble to surround schools of fish and then lunged through the bubble-rings with wide-open mouths, sending water and fish flying everywhere.

As if all this wasn’t enough, at the very end of the trip Nile’s calf began breaching! The calf leapt completely out of the water in an impressive display of whale athleticism. Nile’s new calf reminds us a lot of it’s mother as Nile herself was a very active whale when she was younger (and sometimes still is today!)


Nile’s new calf breaching! Photo by Oktay Kaya.

As the calf was breaching the wind was really picking up, and as a result the seas were steadily building. Of course most everyone was paying attention to the breaching whale so the growing waves were going rather unnoticed… until we started home that is. The ride back north was one of the rougher rides in recent memory. For all of you who were aboard this trip I’m glad you got to see such truly great whales and such an impressive surface active display… you earned it. That ride home was… well… you pick the adjective!


 A rain squall in the distance. It was beautiful to watch this front pass by. The wind that followed however…

I guess in some sense it’s all part of whale watching. I often say that whale watching is a nature trip in the truest sense. It is an excursion out onto the open ocean to look for wild animals in their natural environment. The reality we never know for sure species of whales we are going to see, how many we will see, what behaviors they will be engaged in, or exactly what the weather conditions may bring. Today’s whale watch brought a bit of almost everything, both good and bad, and even though it’s only May, I am willing to bet that it was trip that will stand out as one of the most memorable whale watches of the entire 2014 season for many reasons.

By |May 5th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: May 4, 2014

By |May 4th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: April 27, 2014

Our third whale watch of the season was today and I’m happy to report we found 3 different species of whales (plus a Harbor seal)!

We had a total of 7 different whales: 1 Finback whale, 2 Minke whales, and 4 Humpback whales.

As recently as 24 hours ago we weren’t sure this trip was even going to happen. The weather forecast was for rough seas and possibly some rain too. Rough weather can make it not only uncomfortable to be on the ocean, but it can also make finding whales a big challenge (last Monday’s whale watch was a good example of this). But the wind that was forecasted for today never really materialized and by mid-afternoon the sun even broke through the clouds and so it ended up being a pretty nice day to be on the water looking for whales.


A Minke whale photographed by 7 Seas Whale Watch naturalist S. Jay Frontierro.

The first whale we found was a Minke whale… our first sighting of this species of this season. Minkes are a relatively small whale species — relative to other whales that is —  and reach lengths of between 15 and 20 feet on average. They are fast-moving and elusive whales so getting a good look at one can be difficult. This Minke whale, however, was quite cooperative and afforded some nice looks. It was a good to see a Minke whale again and it made for a good start our trip.


A Finback whale photographed from the 7 Seas Whale watch vessel Privateer IV.

After leaving the Minke whale we didn’t have to travel far before we spotted the spout of a larger whale. It turned out to be a Fin whale (aka “Finback”) that was busy feeding. The Fin whale is much larger than the Minke (often exceeding 65 feet in length!) but they are also fast moving and rather shy whales and so, like the Minke, they can also be a challenge to get a good look at. It took us a few tries but eventually we did manage 2 excellent looks at this beautiful whale.

After getting a few more looks at the Finback we once again headed off in search of other whales in the area. We ended up finding a group of 4 Humpback whales slowly traveling along just beneath the surface. We spent a long while with these whales and got many great looks.



They weren’t showing their tails very often as they were not diving deeply at all, but we were able to get enough looks at the tails (and of course the dorsal fins) to identify three of the four. The whales we recognized were: Cajun (who we saw on our first whale watch back on our first whale watch of the seas on april 19th), Hancock (our first sighting of this whale this year), and Spoon (also seen for the first time this year and one of our all-time favorite whales!).



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Hopefully these whale will stay in the area for a while and we will be able to identify the fourth animal.


A Northern Gannet photographed by Oktay Kaya.

In addition to the whale we also got a quick look at a Harbor seal (while watching the Fin whale) and some fine views of Northern Gannets (a beautiful seabird). It was a good day on the water!

By |April 27th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: April 19, 2014

On our first trip of the 2014 season we saw 4 HUMPBACK WHALES and 1 FINBACK WHALE!

It was great to be back on the water again. Based upon the most recent reports from fishing boats in the area, we decided to head north out of Gloucester harbor to visit the northern part of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a place called “Jeffrey’s Ledge.” This was a good decision as we did indeed fin a good number of whales!

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A Finback whale… our first whale of the season!

The first whale we spent time with was a Fin whale which was doing some deep-feeding. The whale was diving for about 6 minutes at a time, but it was staying in the same small area so each time it surfaced it was relatively nearby the boat. After a few tries we managed to get a very good, close look at this whale. Fin whales are always an impressive whale to see up close as they are very large… the second largest animal in the world… and one of the most beautifully patterned of all whales. Their fast speed and shy nature often makes them a challenge to get a good look at, but today a little hard work and patience paid off and we were indeed able to a get a great look.

While we were watching the Fin whale we spotted the blows of what looked like two other whales just a few miles to the east of our location. After getting a last look at the Fin whale we headed in that direction to investigate and what we thought was two whales turned out to be a group of three Humpbacks!

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Humpback whales are always great to see, and these Humpbacks were especially fun because they were three very well-known females: “Shark” (who we haven’t seen in a number of years), “Owl” (who we saw a few times in basically the same spot last year), and “Cajun” (a whale we have seen A LOT of over the past few years). It’s great when the first whales you see for the year are three big matriarchs of the population! They looked very healthy and strong. Hopefully they will be around the area for long while.


A female Humpback whale called “Shark.” Note the black markings on the right tip of her fluke that really does look like the face of a shark! 

Shark, Owl, and Cajun were initially traveling and making only 4-5 minute dives, but after a few surfacings they apparently began to deep-feed much like the Fin whale we had seen earlier and so took to doing longer dives…. some over 10 minutes in length. When they surfaced, however, they stayed at the surface a long while which allowed for some really great looks.



There was a fourth Humpback whale in the area that we saw only briefly and from a distance. It appeared to be doing long dives and so we decided it was best to stick with the group of three, but it’s good to know that there are more whales around.

All-in-all it was a very successful first trip and an encouraging sign for the future. The 2014 season is off to great start!



By |April 19th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Update : Coming Soon!

Our first whale watch is tomorrow at 1PM! Hopefully the weather will be good. Check back tomorrow for a sightings report and my first photos of 2014!

By |April 5th, 2014|