And climb the stairs to the beach...

Monday, August 19, 2013

"Strong against tide th' enormous whale Emerges as he goes."Christopher Smart *

Barnstable Harbor (photo from Hyannis Whale Watch Website)

I have been on probably a dozen or so whale watches in my lifetime and they never get old. Saturday Ed and my friend Ruth and her sister-in-law went on one out of Barnstable Harbor here on Cape Cod.

The boat we were on was 130 feet long and the fastest whale watching boat on the Cape. (Photo from Hyannis Whale Watch Website.)
The boat left Barnstable about 8:30 on a sunny and cool August morning. We had our coffee and donuts in hand. Once everyone boarded and we were underway, we headed out past Provincetown to an area called Stellwagen Bank that runs from the tip of Cape Cod to Cape Ann, where you'll find Gloucester. I think I heard that it's about 20 miles long but only 6 miles wide. It's an area that is a rich source of food for whales.

I have been on whale watches where we saw more activity, but this one didn't disappoint.
first spotting of a finback

The first sighting was of a finback or fin whale, the second largest animal to live on earth, second only to the blue whale. They can grow to be 80 feet long and 90 years old. They are long and narrow and very graceful as they glide in and out of the water. The finback never really comes up out of the water when it dives, like some other whales. They don't show their "flukes", or tails, when diving, making identifying specific animals difficult.  They are massive and sleek as they move along.
Finback, close up.

So gracefully sliding in the water. They are called the "greyhounds of the sea" because they are so sleek and fast moving.

An interesting thing is that their heads have asymmetrical markings. The right lower jaw is white and the left side is dark color. It's rare in the animal kingdom to have this kind of asymmetrical coloring, but it is thought it has to do with the fact that these whales feed with their right sides down.

An example of the one light side of the finback's head. (Photo from Hyannis Whale Watch website.)

As we left the finbacks feeding and headed further out, the naturalist who was pointing things out and explaining what we were seeing had the boat slow and told us to take a deep breath. I smelled what I would call a "fresh ocean" smell. It wasn't fishy but it was definitely a clean, beach-like smell. It was pleasant, really. She told us it was the smell of plankton and it meant there were whales nearby because this is what the smaller fish, or krill eat. And the whales need to eat lots and lots of fish and krill every day they are here.

Shortly after we smelled the plankton, they sighted a pod of north Atlantic white-sided dolphin. They were moving so fast I couldn't get a photo. But I did find a picture of them on the whale watching facebook page.

North Atlantic White-sided Dolphin (photo from Hyannis WW Website)
They were very much like the dolphins we see in Florida, about 9-10 feet long, weighing a few hundred pounds each. I'd never seen them in Cape Cod waters before.

Our guide told us that dolphins are "toothed whales" like a Killer Whale. Toothed whales don't chew their food. They use their teeth to grab their pray and swallow it whole. Finbacks and humpbacks are baleen whales. They have no teeth, just plates of keratin that catch the fish as they take in seawater. I remember learning about baleen when I was in school, but I was never too clear on how that worked.

The finback can take in 18,000 gallons of water, along with all the fish in that big gulp. He then pushes the water back out through the baleen plates, trapping the fish in his mouth. Each mouthful nets him about 22 pounds of fish. They eat about 4,000 pounds of fish and krill every day.

Soon after that we saw several whale watching boats in the distance in a large circle. We could see "blows" all over the place within that circle. It was really exciting.

Thar she blows! Baleen whales have two nostrils, or blowholes in the top of their heads. Toothed whales, like dolphins and killer whales, have just one.
A large finback was seen off to our starboard side. But we headed away from it toward humpbacks that were feeding not far from there.

These are the whales who dive and wave their flukes in the air as they go. They also will come almost completely out of the water at times, although they were not doing that while we were there.  They are very comfortable around boats and are easily identified by wildlife experts because these flukes are so unique. Our expert told us about many families of humpbacks who have returned to Stellwagen for 4 generations. Some of these whales have been identified as returning since the 80s. They only began to name the whales in the late 70s.

Humbacks have unusually long and light colored pectoral fins that look bright green in the water, making it easier to spot them.
But Humpbacks, unlike most whales, have what she called very strong "Site Loyalty" and return year after year with their offspring to the same spot.

Nile showing us her fluke.

We saw two of the most frequently sited humpbacks on Saturday. They were two females called Nile and Scylla. Both of these humpbacks have come back to Stellwagen with babies. When one of their babies have a calf, it will be the very first of the 5th generation of whales to return to this spot. They are fairly confident that will happen this year or next. Humback whales can reach 50 plus feet in length and live to be in their mid-forties.

These whales stay around this area for another month or two when they start to head down south to winter in warmer waters, probably having their calves, and hopefully making the trip back up here in the spring. They don't feed down in the southern waters. They live off their blubber all winter. They breed and bear their young and, then if we're lucky, they'll come back to Stellwagen  with their babies. Just like us, year after year, summering on the Cape, generation after generation.

Here is some video I took of Scylla at the end of our trip to Stellwagen. We stayed out as long as we could but had to get back for the afternoon whale watch. If you watch all the way to the end, you will see her dive and her fluke will be visible.

Like I said, I've been on quite a few whale watches and we didn't see as many whales this trip, nor did we see some of the acrobatics we've seen on other whale watches. But, even if I don't see any whales, and that's happened just once, it's just a nice way to spend a beautiful August morning.

We passed Sandy Neck as we headed out to Stellwagen-the lighthouse is no longer operational. No electricity out there. There is a summer population where people live primitively with no power or phone service. Sounds like an adventure!
Of course when you do get to see whales, it is awe inspiring to realize that there is a whole world out there going on under the sea. It is something that is hard to describe when you see these animals up close. They are so massive that  only  a small part of them is visible as they swim along. It's daunting when you realize how large they are and what they could do to the boat if they wanted to.

And it's almost touching to realize they are trusting that they are safe near the boat and just going about their business. We were told that after a whale gets entangled in fishing line or has a "boat strike" these animals sometimes don't return to the area for several years. But most do return after that trust returns and they give us another chance.

Nile, the humpback,  leads us onward.

If you get a chance, please put a whale watch on your bucket list. If you see just one of these animals, you will be so glad that you did.
Such a beautiful day. Makes me count my blessings, that's for sure.

Have a great day!

* Song to David by Christopher Smart click here for the entire poem

1 comment:

  1. It looks like it was ridiculously calm water! Even way out there!


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