We are roughly one month into our 2014 whale watch season and already we have had some incredible trips. Our recent sightings have included humpback, finback and minke whales, Atlantic white sided dolphins, gray and harbor seals, and several basking sharks. For our top predators, there’s a lot of food to be had right now. Many local captains have commented on the overwhelming abundance of bait despite cool waters this spring. And indeed, we have observed literally acres of bait on several recent trips.
The waters around Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are currently filled with baitfish, specifically, sand lance. A skinny eel-like fish of six inches or so, the Northern sand lance or sand eel ( Ammodytes dubius), may not be the the highest profile Stellwagen resident, but their sheer numbers this spring have made TV news. Check it out: https://boston.cbslocal.com/2014/05/22/unusual-amount-of-whales-spotted-off-mass-coast/. These wiggly, six inch fish form massive schools and are the cornerstone in the diets of many species at the sanctuary.
This has attracted large numbers of baleen whales, particularly humpback whales, who are true masters at harvesting this resource. One strategy these whales use is called bubble feeding. In bubble feeding either columns or clouds of bubbles are produced by the whale(s) to corral the fish and push them up in the water column. The whale(s) then comes up through the bubbles and takes the entire school into the lower jaw. The elastic lower jaw is emptied of seawater as the baleen filters fish from froth.
Some recent trips have observed more than 50 humpback whales feeding in the vicinity of our boat. Groups of up to seven individuals have been seen cooperatively bubble feeding, some throwing in a surface tail-slap, called a “kick”, during of the feeding effort. This kick may be used to further disorient the sand eels and is a behavior seen only in North Atlantic humpback whales. Some other whales were observed feeding solo or in pairs. These dramatic feeding behaviors have provided spectacular springtime whale watching!
We have also see many mother humpbacks accompanied by their 2014 babies. Called a cow/ calf pair, the bond that links the two lasts less than a year before the they separate for life. The calves are currently nursing on a diet of mother’s milk which will be supplemented later in the summer by the first fish the calve’s new baleen catches The calf will learn all its behaviors by observing its mother, and reinforce what it has learned through play. Maybe the only thing more exciting on a whale watch than feeding humpbacks is a playful calf, and we have actually had both on some recent trips!
Second in size only to blue whales, finback whales, at 60-65 feet in length are the largest whale species we commonly observe around Cape Cod. Sleek, powerful, and built for ambushing shoals of baitfish at high speed, seeing these massive animals feed near the surface is incredible. No passenger ever forgets seeing a finback whale lunge at the surface! We have had up to 12 individuals on some trips this past month with some feeding in pairs.
The finback’s smaller cousin, the minke whale has been observed daily, moving in between groups of larger whales. Atlantic white-sided dolphins have been seen on some trips, often in the company of finback whales. Some lucky passengers even had dolphins bow-riding right underneath them! Several large basking sharks have been seen recently as well. These 25 foot docile giants are plankton eaters and only appear menacing!
The Memorial Day weekend forecast keeps improving, and we hope to see you aboard for what may be our best holiday weekend of whale watching in years!
Photos: Sand Lance- Canadian Fisheries with Permissions, all others- Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises.