Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sightings Report from our Fall Seabirds & Whale Tales Excursion

Hello from Krill!

Hot off the press! I am sending along the trip report and sighting information from our fall Seabird & Whale Tales excursion. A big thank you to Wayne Petersen and Joanne Jarzobski for writing up this report and for all their efforts while offshore.

Thanks also to our other guest naturalists including David Clapp, Jim Sweeney and Dr. John Jahoda. All of our guest naturalists worked hard to make the trip meaningful, educational and just plain old fun!

Thanks also to Kelly Slivka and Kate Blackwell from the Whale Center of New England for their wonderful assistance with the humpback whale identifications.

And a big thank you to our captain, Capt. Tommy O'Reilly, for doing such an amazing job offshore. It's not easy to be at the helm for 8 hours straight, especially when seas are a bit rough. Thanks also to our crew including Ron and Mike. And thank you to all the NECWA staff and interns including Marianne, Lauren, Val, Dominica, Bob, Nick, Michael, Tammy, Shaya and Caitlyn.

Thanks also to Captain John Whale Watching and Fishing Tours ( for their support on this trip and previous trips. The NECWA internship program would not be what it is today without their collaboration and assistance.

I hope I haven't fogetten to thank anyone, but if I have, please email me and I will include this information on the blog site.

I will post this sightings report along with lots of photos on the NECWA News blog at It will be presented as both a regular post as well as a fixed page which can be accessed on the right side bar.

Send in any photos you would like posted as well. They can be of seabirds, whales, people, activities, etc. Make sure to include information regarding the photo credit.

Thanks again to everyone for making our fall trip such a success.

PS. We are now entering the ocean sunfish stranding season, so please call my cell if you see any live or stranded sunfish on Cape beaches. Thanks!

Sincerely, Krill Carson

Marine Biologist and President
New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance
cell: 508-566-0009


Seabird and Whale Tale Autumn Trip Summary: September 12, 2010

Provided by Wayne R. Petersen and Joanne M Jarzobski

Another spectacular marine adventure....................

A propitious weather forecast on the eve of Krill Carson's annual NECWA ocean excursion was somewhat offset by the brisk wind that greeted travelers at the dock on Sunday morning. Despite cautionary advice about mal de mer, virtually everyone who showed up at the dock was eagerly ready to sail at 10 a.m. As the Tails of the Sea slowly rounded the tip of Plymouth Beach, the windswept sand flats at the end of Plymouth Beach were relatively devoid of birds other than a few Double-crested Cormorants and a scattering of Herring, Ring-billed, and Laughing gulls. Despite the date, there was scarcely a trace of the abundant Common Terns that only a few weeks earlier crowded both the sand and the air space above Plymouth Beach with their screaming presence and eloquently described by David Clapp. The departure of the terns from their breeding colony was as surely a sign of late summer as the presence of the yellow Seaside Goldenrod that decorated the dunes of Plymouth Beach. As our boat bounced its way past Saquish and Gurnet Point at the end of Duxbury Beach, there was little sign of avian activity other than a few more gulls and some distant shorebirds twinkling over the distant sand flats of Saquish. There was no sign of the clouds of pre-migratory Tree Swallows that last year hung over the seaside cottages lining the shore, underscoring the influence of wind and wind direction in affecting the movements of these itinerant aerialists.

The cool and breezy wind conditions that persisted as we crossed Cape Cod Bay were no doubt in part responsible for the near absence of seabirds during the early leg of our trip. Food, primarily in the form of bait fish such as Sand Lance and Herring, are the primary drivers influencing the presence and abundance of seabirds in the waters of Stellwagen Bank and around Cape Cod. When these normally abundant schooling fish are elsewhere, or else are too deep to be accessed by seabirds, the birds move to more favorable feeding grounds where the fish can more readily be captured. Whales, on the other hand, are not limited by the depth of their prey. Only their feeding strategy is affected.

Since spotting whales was on the minds of many, all eyes on deck were on the lookout for leviathans, especially as we reached the waters off Provincetown. Our initial cruise track saw our captain seek shelter from the wind by searching the waters on the inside of the Provincetown hook. Not surprisingly, whale activity in this area was somewhat limited, and our seabird quest in these waters was similarly disappointing. As late morning rolled into early afternoon, however, the stiff breeze and choppy seas gradually diminished, and we slowly rounded the tip of Provincetown and moved into the waters off Race Point and North Truro where our fortunes began to change. Before long, our astute whale-watchers began to spot the vaporous clouds of spouting whales. Whales frequently utilize the rips off Race Point as a feeding area, and in recent prior days, numerous whales had been sighted in this area. For several hours we spent time in this area with a number of different Humpback Whales, many of which were previously known to the marine mammal experts onboard. And before long, several of the Humpbacks lolling beside the boat seemed like old friends, since both their names and their fascinating genealogies were shared with everyone onboard by our knowledgeable team of whale spotters, most notably Joanne M Jarzobski.

Our first encounter was with a pair of Humpback Whales traveling together in association: Music,and Vibe's 2008 calf that were traveling side by side, raising their flukes out of the water and providing us with an opportunity to see the pigmentation on their underside. Music was named for a series of rake marks (i.e. Orca or killer whale teeth marks) on its fluke that resembled a sheet of music. Vibe's calf will be named during the next round of whale naming this fall, and because of some distinctive marks on its tail, it will be an easy whale to name. As a matter of interest, over 2500 whales have already been named in the Gulf of Maine whale catalog to date, with new animals being added every year.

Not far from this pair, we fortuitously came across what is literally one of the most famous whales in the world-SALT! Salt is known as the "Grande Dame" of Stellwagen Bank since she has been seen every summer but one since 1976. Traveling with Salt this year was her 12th known calf, a whale named Zelle. The name Zelle is an old word for a strong salt produced from peat and was given to Zelle by the Avellar family, an old Provincetown family that has long maintained the tradition of whale watching and accordingly always is given the honor of naming Salt's offspring. Salt was first named by Aaron Avellar for the white marks on her dorsal fin that look as if someone had sprinkled salt on it. Salt is one of 57 cow/calf pairs documented in the Gulf of Maine this year.

Salt gave us the rare opportunity to see her actively flipper slapping. She was lying on her side and smacking her long white flipper (or pectoral fin) against the surface of the water. This flipper is 15 feet long on an adult Humpback Whale like Salt, and it is comprised of all the same bones that are in our hands and arms. Zelle even imitated Salt by was flipper slapping, too. Why whales do this is not precisely known, but it is incredible to see in any event. As if this wasn't enough, Salt jumped nearly clear out of the water and BREACHED! When a whale throws part of its body out of the water, the behavior is called breaching. Sometimes only the head or tail are involved, and sometimes the entire body. Aerial displays such as this seem are rarely observed from Salt, and they almost always seem to occur in years when she has a calf by her side. Following her breach we were treated to a curious boat approach, with both Salt and Zelle swimming under, around, and close to our boat. It proved to be one of the highlights of the trip!

After covering portions of Stellwagen Bank, an underwater plateau lying between Provincetown and Gloucester, we headed to an adjacent area nicknamed "The Triangle" lying off the southeastern edge of Stellwagen Bank. The Triangle was giving its name because it is 50 degrees from Race Point to the 50/50 lines defined by the ship's Loran. These three points form a triangle. The Triangle has been a 'hotspot' for Humpback Whales for much of the season and our cruise was no exception; we found a minimum of a few dozen Humpback Whales there, including singles, pairs, multiple larger groups, and several cow calf pairs.

One of the whales we came across was a Humpback named Springboard. Springboard is a mature female of unknown age, since she wasn't a calf when she was first sighted. She was not far from a mother and calf pair - Whisk and her unnamed calf. Whisk's calf also breached for us, while Whisk quietly lay on her side flipper slapping. She did this for some minutes while her calf swam next to her, and at one point, it almost looked like her flipper was hitting the calf.

The "Triangle" area also hosted numerous other whales, and eventually we began to see surface feeding activity. Whales were observed blowing bubbles in bursts, as clouds, and in spirals or nets, and it was in these situations where we had a chance to observe whales surfacing through the bubble clouds with their mouths agape, thus offering spectacular views of their baleen and the pink roof of their mouths. Since it was the first surface feeding observed in this area for several weeks, everyone was quite excited. Interestingly, Humpback Whales sometimes tend to be quite social, often forming loose feeding associations with different groups, the groups coming together and separating almost as quickly once food patches are either devoured or dispersed. Most often these feeding associations tend to be quite ephemeral.

Associated with the abundant surface schools of baitfish were several hundred terns, some feeding and others obviously traveling or migrating south. Common Terns were most prevalent, although no doubt there were a few Roseate Terns mixed in as well. Both of these species gather off outer Cape Cod in great numbers in late summer prior to migrating to the waters off Brazil for the winter. Among the terns were several Parasitic Jaegers aggressively chasing them in an effort to steal their hard-earned fish. Infamous as kleptoparasites when at sea, Parasitic Jaegers actually nest in tundra regions of Canada and Alaska prior to heading to sea for their non-breeding season. They will not return to the Arctic until it is time to nest again next year. Along with the terns and jaegers we periodically also observed a few Northern Gannets, a spectacular plunge-diving species and the largest seabird in the North Atlantic. Though most of the population is still in regions like the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, and the coast of Labrador in early September, modest numbers always spend the summer off of Cape Cod during their adolescent years.

Between dives by the voracious Humpbacks, the birders on board had a chance to watch a variety of other seabirds as they circled the boat or shadowed the feeding whales. Although the diversity of seabirds and the numbers of individuals was modest this year, travelers nonetheless got to see several species to good advantage and were able to learn how to recognize the species present. Folks new to pelagic birding were amazed to learn that some seabird species visit Massachusetts waters from as far away as Antarctica and are thus sending their winter here in the Northwest Atlantic during our summer. Species like the Great Shearwater and Wilson's Storm-Petrel nest in the southern hemisphere during the austral summer, which is our winter. The Wilson's Storm-Petrel literally breeds as far south as Antarctica, not arriving in our offshore waters until late spring. The "Frequent Flyer Miles" accrued by these abundant little seabirds should be the envy of anyone who covets air travel! Other species, like the small black-and-white Manx Shearwater, breed in the Northern Hemisphere in areas such as Iceland and islands around the coast of Great Britain, then go to sea after nesting.

Humpback Whales like many seabirds exhibit strong site fidelity, generally returning to their mom's feeding grounds year after year. Stellwagen Bank is well known as a feeding area as well as a nursery ground for Humpback Whales. Through the years many generations of the same family of whales have returned to these waters. For example on this trip, we saw Salt and Zelle, as well as one Salt's daughters, Mostaza, that was born in 2000.

Another of the trip's highlights was the repeated breaching and flipper slapping by a whale named Canopy. Canopy did aerial displays for nearly 40 minutes, alternating between flipper-slapping, lob tailing, and a combination of the two. It was amazing to watch, since breaching is one of the rarer behaviors observed and usually seen on average only one out of fifteen whale watching trips.

While breaching still remains something of a mystery, there are some theories about why whales do it, including a possible form of communication, or even play. Males, females, adults, juveniles, and calves all occasionally exhibit this behavior. Breaching has also been observed on both the summer feeding grounds and the more sub-tropical breeding grounds. There seems to be a slightly larger number of juvenile males displaying this behavior than in other age or gender groups, but this number is not statistically significant. It is unequivocal, however, that breaching is something that tends to occur most often on windy days with rough seas, and this year's trip was no exception.

In addition to Humpback Whale sightings, we also saw Minke Whales, a giant Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola), and a Blue Shark. The large and peculiar Ocean Sunfish is actually quite common in our waters in late summer; however, being a more southern species than many of our local fish species, it often becomes cold- shocked with the advent of fall weather and frequently ends up beached on the shore, a plight unfortunately shared by various sea turtle species. The collective presence of these marine megafauna is reflective of the fact that Stellwagen Bank is a multi-use area with many species coming here because of the abundant food resources available in the area.

Today's trip, along with every similar offshore trip, helps to increase our understanding of the behavior and overall biology of seabirds and cetaceans, not only on Stellwagen Bank, but throughout the North Atlantic and the world. Behavior and other sighting data gathered by NECWA's helps researchers better understand these animals, which will hopefully lead to better protection for them in the future. By carefully recording whale sightings, NECWA is able to contribute to the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale catalog, including information on reproductive rates, ages and birth intervals, sighting history, long and short term associations between whales, and special distribution. In addition, photographs of entanglement scars and ship strikes can help to better understand the anthropomorphic threats that these whales face throughout their range.

As always, thanks again to Krill Carson, David Clapp, John Jahoda, Jim Sweeney, the crew, and all the other staff that continuously help to organize these marvelous trips. And, don't forget, there will be both a spring and a fall Seabird & Whales Tales excursions next season!

Humpback Whales:

Salt and Zelle

Perseid and calf

Whisk and calf

Echo and calf

Vibes 08 calf

Mostaza (Salt's daughter)














The Bird Checklist (including several species in Plymouth Harbor):

Black Duck - 11

Common Loon - 3

Great Shearwater - 6

Manx Shearwater - 3

Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 4

Northern Gannet - 30

Double-crested Cormorant - X

Great Cormorant - 1

Semipalmated Plover - 2

Ruddy Turnstone - 1

Laughing Gull - X

Herring Gull - X

Great Black-backed Gull - X

Parasitic Jaeger - 3

Common Tern - 200