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.

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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!

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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.

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“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.

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

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

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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!

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.

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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!

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

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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.

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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!

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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.

July 19th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: July 14, 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!

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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.

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

Hancock

Measles

Mogul

Wyoming

Strike

Shards

Scratch

Pepper

Epee

Pogo

Dome

Rapier

Snowplow

Tunguska

Putter

An many more….

 

 

Check back soon for other update!

July 10th, 2014|

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

This past week began with great weather and some good whales sightings, however the past few days have been windy, rough, and at times very foggy which has made whale watching difficult. Even as I write this blog entry I am watching the dark clouds from tropical storm Arthur moving in over Gloucester Harbor and so unfortunately we will not be going whale watching at all today.

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A Humpback whale named “Hancock” tail breaching. Photo by Jodi Sivak.

The weather is expected to improve greatly this weekend, however, and so we are optimistic that we will once again be able to get out on the water and resume whale watching in more typical New England Summer weather.

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A Finback whale surfaces on a calm day at sea. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

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!

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A Humpback whale calf breaching. Photo by Oktay Kaya.

There have been many different theories put forth to try and explain surface activity and I think many, perhaps all, of them are true some of the time. Some of the suggested theories are: That it may be to help dislodge barnacles or parasites that grow on the whale’s skin and cause irritation. Or it may be an aid in digestion (when you eat close to 2,000lbs of food a day a little activity might help move food along in the digestive tract). In the case of younger whales surface activity may often times just be a form of play.  Young whale calves are a lot like the young of any other mammal be it puppies, kittens, or even humans in that they are often more energetic and playful than the adults.

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Hancock again. Photo by Jodi Sivak.

Most of the time, however, we believe that surface activity is a non-vocal form of communication fro the whales. The sound of the whales body (whether it be the animal’s flipper, tail, chin, or even the entire body of the whale) striking the ocean’s surface makes a lot of sound, and that sound travels great distances beneath the surface. In fact, water conducts sound much better than does air. Sound travels almost 5X faster through water (the exact speed varies depending on the density of the water) than it does through air and also travels more clearly (with less degradation of the sound signal).

Thus when a whale is active the sounds that activity makes can be heard across great distances by other whales. We have seen evidence of this many times. For example there have been many occasions we have been watching a whale that is traveling, feeding, of otherwise not engaged in surface active behaviors. Then that whale gets active and before long we start to see splashes from other whales in the distance (whales that we perhaps didn’t even know were in the area) as if these whales are responding to the surface activity they are hearing.

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A whale named “Cajun” flipper slapping. Photo by Oktay Kaya

So how does all this relate to rough weather? Well it makes sense that when the weather gets rough, and the sound of wind and waves at the water’s surface gets louder, the whales may be able to overcome that weather-related noise at the surface with surface activity. This may help to explain why we do tend to see more activity from the whales in rougher weather. Is this a proven fact about whale behavior? Well, no. It is just a pattern that we have noticed over the past 32 years of watching, study, and recording data on the whales in our waters. I like to think of it as a reward for those people who brave going out in rougher weather that they have an increased chance of seeing some of the most spectacular displays the whales can offer.

But even as I write all this about rough weather and how it affects whale activity, hopefully the weather is about to change for the better.  As I said earlier, the weather forecasters are calling for warm temperatures, low humidity (meaning no more fog), and light winds (thus calmer seas) this weekend and so hopefully we can get back to whale watching again soon.

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A Finback whale… the second largest animal on earth! Photo by Oktay Kaya

In the time it took me to write this the dark clouds I mentioned at the start of this blog have now have now moved overhead and are sending the first raindrops of what promises to be a wet and windy afternoon and night trickling down the windows of my office. I can see the wind rippling across the water as well in the inner harbor as well.

It is interesting to think about what the whales are doing while such a storm is happening. My guess is that they are largely unaffected by the weather overhead. But perhaps they are leaping and splashing and enjoying the waves. I know we will all be happy to to get out watch them again soon.

 

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

 

Finback whales

Minke whales

Harbor porpoise

Humpback whales:

Bullet and calf

Mogul

Hancock

Cajun

 

 

Check back soon for other update!

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!).

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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

Lilium

Pogo

Fracture

Cardhu

Fragment

Rocker

Grackle

Mogul

Diablo

Hancock

Valley

Centipede

Sprinkler

Epee

Lava

Lariat

Tear

Buckshot

 

 

Check back soon for other update!

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

Amulet

Cajun

Hancock

Mogul

Measles

 

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

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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!

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“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

Amulet

Aswan

Samara

Yoo Hoo

Daffodil

Pepper

Springboard

Geometry

Measles

Orbit

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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!

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

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Photo by Kevin Grierson

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Photo by S. Jay Frontierro

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Photo by Sandy Selesky

 

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.

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 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:

Amulet

Aswan

Cajun

Daffodil

Pepper

Vulture

Osprey

Springboard

Geometry

Measles

Sedge

 

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!

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!

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

 

 

 

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.

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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.

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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!

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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!)

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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!

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 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.

May 5th, 2014|

Whale Sightings Report: May 4, 2014

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.

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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.

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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.

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Spoon!

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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Hancock

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Cajun

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

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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!

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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“Cajun”

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.

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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.

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“Owl”

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!

 

 

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!

April 5th, 2014|

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