Thursday, September 19, 2013

Thursday, September 19th 2013

This humpback whale is probably going on a deeper dive, raising its tail flukes high out of the water.
 We had an action packed day, including a bunch of firsts for our season. We started off the day with some good looks at some fin whales not far past the Isles of Shoals. While we were watching these animals we started to see some other blows just a little bit in the distance. This is often the case, as when we slow down in an area that has whales, we have a better chance to take a really good look around. Sometimes whales might be on a deeper dive as we travel through an area and so they can be easy to miss. If only we had enough time and patience to cruise the whole ocean slowly, imagine what we could find!

This fin whale is also going on a deeper dive, but it doesn't need to raise its tail to slip beneath the waves.
This fin whale is just coming up to the surface, traveling away from the camera. You can see its blowholes wide open as it finishing exhaling and starts inhaling in preparation for another submergence.

When we checked out the other whales in the area, we found that they were three humpbacks spending a lot of time just floating at the surface. It soon became clear that these were different animals than we have been seeing in the past week. Humpback whales are identified mainly by the patterns of black and white on the underside of their tail. As you can see in some of the pictures below, the dorsal fins of humpback whales also vary a lot and can be helpful in telling individuals apart. One of these whales we recognized right away because of its distinctive dorsal fin and flukes, as Valley. It also looks like Valley was traveling with a calf. Female humpback whales will give birth in the winter, but will nurse and swim next to their young for an entire year after birth, until the young whale is big enough and knowledgeable enough to find food on its own.

Looks like all these gulls were hoping this fishing boat pulls up a lot of fish in that net. Humans and whales often fish for the same species.

One of our trio of humpback whales fluking.

 Besides traveling with a calf for about a year, humpback whales using swim alone. So it was a special treat to see three whales together. The other whale appears to be one named Cacophony. Cacophony means a clanging mishmash of sounds, perhaps whoever named it was inspired by the trangle of lines and marks that can be seen on the back of its tail. We're not sure if Cacophony is male or female. It is pretty much impossible to tell if whales are male or female from looking at their back, but since we've seen Valley with several calves over the years and calves only travel with their mothers, we assume Valley is a female.

At this angle it looks like the mother humpback whales tail alone is bigger than her entire calf! The perspective is playing some tricks here, but a large humpback whale might have 15 foot flukes. When calves are born they are somewhere around 20 feet, but they grow quickly...
You can see how all three of these whales have very different dorsal fins. This is one of the ways we can tell them apart.

This humpback has a huge dorsal fin, it almost looks like a fin whale.

Calves sometimes have more powdery, indistinct colors on the underside of their tail. Within a couple of years the pattern seems to stabilize and will stay pretty consistent through the rest of the animal's life.

All these sightings would've made a great whale watch, but there was still more to come! Thanks to some helpful calls from some fishermen and other whale watching boats, we were able to get pointed in the right direction to see some rarer activity. Apparently there were quite a few pilot whales in the area. There are actually two species of pilot whales, long-finned and short-finned. It is pretty impossible to tell these two species apart just by looking at them from a boat, and in our area the two species' ranges overlap.

Here is a whole mess of pilot whales coming to the surface at once. Do you see the huge dorsal fin on the whale in the foreground.

Pilot whale face.

Pilot whales are really fun to watch, as they spend a lot of time at the surface, apparently socializing. There were several groups in the area, sometimes called pods, and they had a variety of animals from very small young ones to very large adults. Some of the calves were rolling around at the surface on top of their mothers. Some of the other whales we could hear making little clicking and other popping sounds at the surface.


Apparently this pilot whale was wondering what was happening above the water.

Pilot whales are thought to be very intelligent. In fact they are part of the same family as dolphins, a group which has some of the biggest brains in proportion to its body size in all the mammals. The other big brained mammals include the primates (the group we belong to along with the great apes), and elephants. Scientists think that perhaps dolphins evolved big brains to keep track of the complicated social politics that come up when you live in a big group and depend on the group for your livelihood. This is also one of the leading theories for why primates evolved big brains. Once a species has a big brain, it is probably useful for all sorts of other things and so it tends to get bigger rather than smaller.

Lots of whales at the surface.

We don't see pilot whales very often. Most of the time we think they are farther offshore, probably in search of some of their favorite food, squid. These whales can dive really deep in search of squid, which they suck into their mouths whole! Sometimes they wander in closer to show and we get a chance to see them. Some researchers in Spain have been working hard to photo id pilot whales (just like we identify humpbacks) and learn more about them. In addition, they have been tagging these animals to track their underwater movements and learn more about how they hunt. You can read about this and see some great pictures at their blog.

Finally, we noticed a whale resting at the surface on our way back towards Rye. It looked like Patches again (we saw this whale yesterday as well). Their was still mud on Patches' nose. So either it isn't clean yet, or it has been doing some more feeding on the bottom. Looked like Patches just wanted to rest when we saw it though, and we soon left it alone to continue with that while we headed back to the harbor.

You can see the blow from this whale just behind it. On such a calm day, it takes a long time for blows to blow away.
Going for a dive.

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