• Aboard the Dolphin Fleet on a Whale Watch

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    By Dr. Carol Carlson

    As experienced whale watchers we are easy to spot; despite the sun, we dress for weather at least 10 degrees cooler on the open ocean. We want to be able to be on deck as we head off shore to see the amazing marine life found off Cape Cod.

    Our backpacks are weighted with cameras, binoculars, sunscreen and hats. Boarding, we receive a guide to the marine life of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a likely destination.

    Moving in a south-westerly direction, we approach Wood End, a solar powered lighthouse with a flashing red beacon. The steep drop-off near Wood End churns the water. During storms, it can be a navigational hazard. Whale and sea bird sightings are common here, especially in early spring.

    The boat slows down. Trained spotters on the bridge look for spouts (the high conical exhale of a whale), splashes or large numbers of birds. Visual sightings are more efficient than radar or sonar. Our naturalist announces our fi rst whale sighting.

    Using the boat as a large clock, with the bow or front 12 o’clock and the stern or rear 6 o’clock, we are directed to look out at 3 o’clock. Luckily, the seas are calm, and we see the smallest of all whales in the area, the harbor porpoise.

    Off in the distance away from shore we see a v-shaped spout. We yell and point. We’ve just found our fi rst large whale.

    “At nine o’clock we have for many the sighting of a lifetime – the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.

    Numbering approximately 500 in the world, it’s against federal regulation to approach closer than 500 yards. We will stay a safe distance away so as not to interfere with the movement or behavior of this animal, one of the rarest on earth.

    A hush has settled over the passengers as we watch this animal – one that future generations may never have a chance to see. As the right whale arches and dives,
    lifting its smooth, expansive tail high out of the water, the cameras click, the air is filled with our sounds of awe and appreciation. It is several minutes before the whale surfaces again, and we are informed that we will stay, even at a distance for this one last surfacing.

    As the whale surfaces, it lifts its head high, its arched mouth open. We see the baleen plates hanging from its upper jaw. It begins to skim feed, a specialized behavior allowing the whale to collect massive quantities of zooplankton called copepods, necessary to meet the whale’s high energy needs. Copepods are animals smaller than a grain of rice that drift at the mercy of currents, occasionally forming dense patches, clouds in the otherwise clear seas.

    As we near the Race we see a flurry of activity. A cloud of birds circles. Some plunge into the water below. The ocean seems alive, as tall spouts erupt into the air. Above the surface, common terns and Northern gannets search for small fish, the same prey of the large finback whales below.

    Our naturalist calls this a feeding frenzy- with all eyes on the prize- the American sand lance or sand eel. They are feasted on in all stages of their life, from larvae to adult. Sand lances burrow into loose sand, hence their common, descriptive name. In the sand at the bottom of Stellwagen Bank, they lie to escape predation, rest and hibernate after spawning.

    Whoosh! A large finback whale surfaces near the Dolphin IX startling us all. Its long, sleek body seems to slide through the water with little to no resistance. After a few breaths, the whale arches and slips beneath the water’s surface. The finback is long, streamlined (called “razorbacks” by whalers) and one of the fastest of all baleen whales.

    It is second in size only to the giant blue whale and can reach lengths of 85 feet. Its body is light gray to brownish black on the back and sides. The lower jaw, gray or black on the left side, is bright white on the right side, giving the finback whale the distinction of being the only animal divided in half- lengthwise- by color. The prominent dorsal fin, located 2/3 down its back, is sickle-shaped.

    We leave Race Point and continue north, venturing into the North Atlantic to New England’s only Sanctuary- the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. An ocean treasure, the sanctuary is one of only 13 sites deemed to be of such special national significance. In these productive waters, a myriad of marine life lives, from the single-celled plankton to the great whales. Among its most wellknown species are humpback and right whales, northern lobsters, Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna. It’s also a repository of historic ship wrecks.

    Our naturalist points out a small whale nearby, but all we see is the water’s rippled surface. After several minutes, we see a curved dorsal fin and back. It seems the size of a dolphin, but is in fact a baleen whale called the minke. Smallest of the baleen whales in Cape Cod waters, this seemingly small whale is actually about 20 feet long! In the waters off Cape Cod, minkes are sighted year

    round; yet, little is known about their lives. Sightings on Stellwagen are primarily of
    one individual or small groups of two or three. Unlike other species in the area, it is
    rare to see mothers with calves.

    “Twelve o’clock” shouts our naturalist. “There is a humpback whale jumping out
    of the water! This activity is called breaching.

    “Humpback whales are easily identifiable”, explains our naturalist. “They have bumps on their heads called tubercles. Each tubercle has a stiff bristle or hair, much like a whisker, that helps the whale to sense its immediate environment.”

    The humpbacks’ most distinctive feature is the long wing-like flippers, up to one third of the whales’ body length- a feature for which the whale was named. For its scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to “the big-winged New Englander.” Individual humpback whales can be identified readily through photographs of natural markings and scars, particularly those found on the underside of the tail flukes. These patterns, ranging in color from all white to all black, appear to be generally stable in adults, much like our thumb prints. The size and shape of the dorsal fin on the whales’ back, as well as acquired scars also are useful in identifying individual whales.

    To date, over 2,000 humpback whales, spanning at least 4 generations, have been
    documented during 30 years of data collection aboard the Dolphin Fleet in collaboration with scientists at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

    Our naturalist emphasizes the importance of remembering the open beauty of the area and the dynamic, fragile web of life it supports. For each day, marine life and the marine environment face a series of threats, each one serious in its own right. While pollution, ocean noise, entanglements in fishing gear, ship strikes and whaling pose threats to whales, the cumulative impact of these threats is potentially devastating.

    Each one of us can make a difference by seemingly small actions: signing petitions, writing letters, cleaning debris from a beach. And together we can work towards maintaining healthy oceans – not only to benefit the whales and other marine life – but our own species as well.

    Dr. Carol Carlson is a naturalist on the Dolphin Fleet and director of its Research and Education Program.She also is a research associate at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.

    Her work with Dr. Stormy May on humpback whale photo identification at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies inspired the PBS series, ‘The Voyage of Mimi.’ You can join Dr. Carlson and her naturalist colleagues on the Dolphin Fleet at whalewatch.com.

    Photo compliments of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.


    June 21, 2014