Cape Cod Whale watching has continued to be incredible at the end of May and beginning of June. We have had multiple whales of multiple species on every trip. Basking sharks, gray, and harbor seals have been sighted on several recent whale watch adventures. Huge schools of bait continue to attract hungry predators as we move toward summer at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.
Humpback whales continue to dominate our whale watches with lots of individuals near the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank. They are here in the Gulf of Maine, as they are every year, to take advantage of the seasonal abundance of food that occurs through the Spring and Summer and into the early Autumn. This year, the unbelievable numbers of sand lance or sand eels have brought whales in from all over!
The mix of abundant baitfish and hungry humpbacks have resulted in some spectacular feed shows; at times with up to 10 humpbacks cooperatively feeding. More frequently the whales are feeding in pairs of two or three, racing from one school of fish to another. The groups split and break up, only to reinvent themselves every few feeds. This can make for challenging data collection for our research interns from Whale and Dolphin Conservation who ride along doing photo identification and behavioral research!
Much of the feeding has been taking place at or near the surface as enormous schools of sand lance are actively moving in the water column. Humpback whales are masters at fishing these bait shoals and one of theri most interesting strategies is to use bubbles to concentrate the bait. Clouds or columns of bubbles are produced below the school to confuse and corral them. The whale or whales rise up, obscured by the chaos of the bubbles, finally lunging upward and gulping in a mouthful of fish and seawater. The plates of baleen in the upper jaw filter the catch as the whales as the whales collapse the elastic fold of skin in the lower jaw. The best way to understand it is to observe- watch this amazing video posted by Jennifer Day on our Facebook page!
Some humpbacks also employ a variation on this behavior called kicking. In kick feeding, at some point in the feed, the whale slaps its tail on the surface causing a concussive wave to further confuse or stun the fish. This is a behavior that is only seen here in the Gulf of Maine population of humpbacks. Interestingly, it is only whales born after about 1980 that use this technique, suggesting it is a recently evolved behavior that is learned by baby whale from their mothers.
Speaking of baby humpback whales, numerous cow/calf pair have been observed during recent whale watches. The calves were born in the Caribbean at after a 12 month gestation period and have been at their mother’s side during their 1600 mile spring migration. Their days occupied by nursing, and playing, they have provided some amazing whale/human encounters as the curious little whales often approach the boat under their mother’s watchful eye. Their antics include a number of practice attempts at behaviors that humpback whales are famous for including tail, and full breaching, flipper flapping, and lob-tailing. Practice feeding attempts are becoming commonplace as the babies try their hand at licking, gulping, and bubble blowing, all skills they will need to survive on their own.
Finback whales, the second largest animals on the planet, have been seen on most trips with some amazing surface lunges as these massive whales rush forward at great speed to gulp up schools of fish. Minke whales, the smallest of our baleen whales have been observed feeding singly in the proximity of their larger cousins.
Basking sharks, the second largest fish in the ocean, have been occasionally spotted on calm days. Up to 30 feet in length, they filter tiny zooplankton from the water using extensions on their gills called rakers. Gray and harbor seals have been seen hunting larger species of fish. Seabird sightings have included manx, and sooty shearwaters, leach’s storm petrel, and parasitic jaeger.
People often ask what the best time of year for a whale watch is. Given the activity we have had recently, the best answer would probably be: right now! We hope to see you aboard!