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!
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!
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.