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.
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.
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!
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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!