Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W9

March 21 ~ March 28, 2015
Week Nine of our 25th Season

Lengthening days on the Silver Bank mark the return of Spring, and coincide with a stirring inside its cetacean visitors. Whales steeped in the warm waters of the tropics begin to consider the long journey home, back to the cold, nutrient-rich waters of the North. Although five to seven thousand humpbacks pass through the Silver Bank in a given winter, most will not stay the entire duration. Some arrive early and leave early, others arrive later or remain longer. Mothers with growing calves tend to be in this latter group, allowing the vulnerable young the best opportunity to gain strength and coordination.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

Accordingly, this week’s in-water encounters are dominated by mother and calf pairs. In one instance, we enjoy multiple rounds with a sleeping mother and active calf, mama immobile below while her baby spins and splashes above. The demands of caring for an active, growing calf are extreme, and rest for humpback mothers is undoubtedly a rare and valued commodity (especially late in the season as baby gets more autonomous and therefore harder to manage). This mother appears oblivious to the humans floating quietly above, but another visitor nevertheless interrupts her nap: a large spotted eagle ray passing just over her head startles her into kicking off. Not for long though; she quickly settles again, granting us an extra hour in her presence. Another encounter with a mother, calf and escort trio also comes with a unique twist: a pod of curious dolphins materializes around the trio, weaving among and around their heads. Baby appears delighted, but escort less so: he tail slashes at the much smaller cetaceans as if their presence were a nuisance to him (it seems dolphins are like gnats to a grown whale: inconsequential and unacknowledged, except when they invade personal space). Unlike escort, we enjoy the dolphin presence for several minutes before they dart away again, high-pitched squeaks fading into the distance.

© Susan Bird

© Susan Bird

Other mother and calf encounters result in some fantastic surface activity this week. Babies grown strong on mother’s milk are showing off their skills now, and the effort is always exciting to watch. Multiple breach sequences by baby are frequent, with occasional demonstrations by mom as well. One baby breaches for nearly an hour, his growing coordination readily evident, as mom lazily fin slaps in the background.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

Other surface activity is picking up as well: rowdy groups form frequently in late season as competition heightens for a dwindling number of estrous females.  Like mothers with calves, lone males tend to linger on the Silver Bank, eager for a last chance to contribute their genes to the next generation. We are witness to several different rowdy groups in our first 24 hours this week, and another to finish off the week. The early rowdy group encounters this week exemplify grace more than violence: rows of arcing backs streaming with water, turquoise pec fins gliding just below the surface. The last group is more violent: bloody tubercles and dorsal fins testament to the heated nature of this battle. Nature has established the imperative to mate, and these males are certainly answering the call.

© Jean-Francois Chabot

© Jean-Francois Chabot

A last encounter with a singer completes a varied week. Like several before him this season, this male pauses head down in the water column, perhaps the better to project his mournful-sounding song. Seemingly unlike the others, though, this singer includes a number of extremely prolonged squeals. All humpbacks in a given population sing the same song, though it does evolve throughout the year; perhaps this individual is adding his own unique twist to the template.

Another varied week on the Silver Bank, and another week of beautiful sunny days and starry nights!

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Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W8

March 14 ~ March 21, 2015 

Humpback behaviors escape easy understanding. We can attempt to find patterns, to define categories, but for many, we may never truly grasp intent. Likely each behavior can have multiple meanings depending on when and how it’s performed, and the emotions and thoughts of the animal performing it. A fin slap might be meant to be alluring in one instance, and in another a threat. It may serve to call baby closer, or to warn competitors away. Humpbacks will also lend their own personal spin to each behavior, making each encounter with them as interesting and unique as the first. No encounter is entirely predictable, and seemingly commonplace behaviors often morph into the extraordinary.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

This week on the Silver Bank we are certainly witness to some extraordinary behaviors. In one instance, we join a female whale as she hovers head down in the water column, seemingly oblivious to the pair of males circling her. Over and over they cross beneath us and over and around the female, posturing towards one another and presumably hoping to impress her. The female responds by rising towards the surface, breaking the surface tail first and hovering with her fluke upright for a moment before departing. The males make a final pass beneath her and us, releasing dense streams of bubbles as they go.  In a similar instance, we slip into the water with a female, escort, and challenger trio. The female is settled at the surface, content to float serenely in the sunshine (presumably whales, like us, sometimes just enjoy the feel of sun on their skin). Occasionally she rolls to expose her belly, pecs extended and back arched, then rights herself and turns towards us. We are all nose to nose at these times, she quietly peering at the still humans bobbing just in front of her.  Not so the pair of males vying for her attentions: they circle the group restlessly. Eventually she is swept up in the action, and the trio take off together, the males relentlessly battling for proximity to the female. First one, then the other appear victorious, but in the end she sticks with her original escort. The challenger subsides, strips of skin scraped from his blowholes and spine.

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Another day we encounter a lone (likely juvenile) female at the surface. We slip into the water with her and she turns briefly towards us. There are moments of total stillness where we consider each other, and then she dives abruptly straight down underneath us. This behavior is repeated over and over, each time with her surfacing just as quickly a hundred feet away, and each time accompanied by a repetitive clicking vocalization. She certainly seems curious, even flirtatious, never straying far from us. Later, another lone female makes us her dancing partners for well over an hour, swirling and rolling just beneath us, and spy hopping just in front of us. What does it mean that she seems attracted to first one tender, then the other? She is younger, smaller, and perhaps practicing courtship behavior with the shadowy form of the tender, rather than another whale. In any case, it’s a remarkable encounter. With each close pass below us, she eyes us carefully, gracefully folding her pectoral fins towards her body then opening them again once beyond us.

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The fascinating behaviors don’t stop there: we are also granted an extended session with a mother, calf and escort trio tail lobbing in unison, and all in a row. Later on, another mother, calf and escort trio are joined by a challenger intent on making an impression of his own. He breaches over and over, more than 30 times altogether, just in front of the tender. It’s one of the most ambitious breaching displays we’ve seen on the Silver Bank, and an incredible opportunity for the photographers to capture this classic behavior. And finally, our last day begins with an extended rowdy group battle, five whales in pursuit of a female. One of the males is particularly notable: in addition to being absolutely enormous, he is also missing his dorsal fin entirely (only a knot of scar tissue remains). Obviously an experienced fighter, he repeatedly fills his broad mouth with water, the better to increase momentum as he slams into his competitors.

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In addition to the above, mother and calf encounters are also frequent this week, some lasting hours and involving very curious babies. The calves are getting bigger and braver as the season progresses (and the mothers more used to our presence), leading to relaxed and very intimate interactions with the little ones. We also have an encore performance of this year’s iconic humpback song: another singer settled head down grants us several rounds in the water with him.

All in all, an incredible week on the Silver Bank, complemented by sunny skies, calm winds, and clear starry nights. All aboard are looking forward to what the next one brings!

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Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W7

March 7 ~ March 14, 2015 

Humpback whales are known as the “acrobats of the sea” for good reason: their range of spectacular activity above water and balletic movements below are unparalleled among the large whales. For this, they owe much to their extraordinarily long pectoral fins, the longest of any appendage on any animal alive today. Measuring up to 1/3 of the whale’s body length, the pectoral fins even lend themselves to the humpback’s scientific (genus) name Megaptera, or “large-winged”. Although derived from the same bones that comprise our own arms, the fins are modified externally to perfectly align with the humpback’s watery environment and improbable dreams of flight. Indeed, they are so well suited to sliding through water and wind that they are being studied by engineers seeking to improve design for propellers, turbine blades and helicopters.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

Humpbacks create momentum for their famous spinning breaches by throwing their pec fins across their body like the arms on a platform diver. Apparently, this skill takes time to master: babies are often seen practicing breaches, informed by mom. This week on the Silver Bank we come across just such a baby, his energy seemingly inexhaustible. Over and over and over again he breaches (more than 30 times altogether), his movements imperfect but obviously enthusiastic. Later, we are treated to a pair of adult whales who demonstrate the entire suite of humpback breaches, and add in several pectoral slaps and tail lobs for good measure.

Tom Conlin 1

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

While breaching humpbacks certainly embody power and drama, below water they are all subtlety and grace. Here too the pectoral fins are critical, acting as rudder and stabilizer for their streamlined bodies. We are fortunate this week to observe multiple lovely slow fly-by passes from paired adults, mother-calf pairs with escorts, and even larger groups. In every case, the whales pass just below or next to us, and in many cases, they roll slowly for a better look. Despite their proximity, we feel no threat: their graceful pectoral fins allow them perfect control over their course. In one notable instance, a mother and calf pair with escort are joined by three traveling whales. The incoming whales emit a consistent “whomp, whomp, whomp” call as they approach, strong enough to feel. All six whales flow past and around each other like silk, a thrilling encounter for those of us watching. In another instance, a resting rowdy group passes just below, in formation reminiscent of birds in flight.

© Susan Bird

© Susan Bird

More interesting encounters follow. Sockeye makes another appearance this week, with a different mom and calf. Like in our previous encounter, he is gently but firmly possessive. While mom and calf settle, Sockeye again makes repeated passes under and around the boat, as well as rising up directly below those in the water. The trio eventually leave together, but several hours later, we come by Sockeye again without mother and calf. Did the pair tire of his possessiveness? Did he lose them to a stronger challenger? In any case, he has begun to sing in earnest, settled head down in the water column. To our ears, the song sounds like yearning, but it may also be a challenge to whomever has claimed his lady.

Tom Conlin 2

In a last highlight for the week, we come across a rowdy group of four whales. The group is moving slowly, but the pace picks up as one, then two, then three whales sweep in. We position ourselves among the whales, in the midst of the swirling action.  It’s a fittingly exciting end to a week that has brought plenty of surface activity, some unique underwater encounters, and an additional round with a celebrity whale.

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Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W6

February 28 ~ March 7, 2015

Within every group of organisms, from the tiniest to the largest, there is variation. In our own species, we find variation is obvious: we quickly discern blue eyes from brown, or an outgoing personality from a more shy one (though other variation, such as susceptibility to disease, is less obvious, even in those closest to us). Although we are less adept at recognizing variation in other species, subtle or otherwise, it is there.  Humpbacks have visible variation in color patterning, shape, size, and behavior, among other things. A week on the Silver Bank provides a great deal of intimate interaction with these fascinating creatures, making it clear that each is as unique in appearance and personality as we are.

©Kai Matthes

©Kai Matthes

For this reason, one encounter this week particularly stands out: a mother and calf pair escorted by a male with a very unusual facial feature. Like a sockeye salmon (from whence he was given the name “Sockeye”), this whale has a shortened face, a pronounced underbite and a protruding hooked lower lip. Nature is generally unkind to individuals with extreme anomalies, but Sockeye has managed to compensate well for his awkward facial structure and deformed baleen. Seen intermittently since 1984, Sockeye has appeared this year fit, fat, and feisty, and apparently well in command of the female he is seen defending. While his dorsal fin and tubercles are bloody from battle with challengers, he is gentle but firm with us. During several “fly-bys” with the trio, mother and calf roll by coquettishly, while Sockeye rises up towards and just underneath us. A subtle warning, but one that is clearly acknowledged. He also makes several passes directly next to the tender, his forceful trumpet-like exhalations another signal that this mother and calf are his and his alone. We are happy to give him his space, and happy too to see he is doing so well.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

Other encounters this week nicely demonstrates variation in color patterning that we see on North Atlantic humpbacks: lots of exceptional surface activity gives us ample opportunity to see flukes, fins, and bellies. Some humpbacks have a great deal of white on the underside of their fluke fin (tail), others have black. Indeed, every imaginable fluke pattern from all-white to all-black is seen in humpbacks, and these variations are the “fingerprint” used by scientists to identify individuals. One active whale breached, lobtailed and rolled over and over for us, clearly showing his interesting fluke patterning, with a white patch reminiscent of a bird in flight at center.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

Variation in behavior was also evident this week: in contrast to Sockeye’s defensiveness, other female and escort pairs (and female, calf and escort trios) were happy to relax with us. Escorts sometimes get a reputation for acting possessive, but many are just as interested in us as the females they accompany. In one such encounter, a pair even begins “dancing” with us for a few moments, rolling, turning, and winding around us and each other. They glide away, then circle back, spyhopping just next to us. In a second encounter, a mom brings her tiny calf in for a close look, circling us several times before eventually heading off.

© Kai Matthes

© Kai Matthes

A last encounter is also special: a stationary singer. In contrast to several “one-man traveling band” singers we’ve encountered this season, this eager male allows us to position ourselves directly above him for 10-15 minutes at a time. The unique patterns of this year’s song are clearly evident, with a “three squeaks and one moan” phrase apparently quite popular (while humpbacks may sing continuously for more than 24 hours, the basic song consists of patterns that repeat every 8-12 minutes or so). Cetaceans have no vocal cords, so whales generate their songs by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities, and the force of these reverberations are felt in our chests. It’s an impressive performance as part of another great (and varied!) week on the Silver Bank.


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Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures 

Aquatic Adventures Whale Tales S25:W5

February 21 ~ February 28, 2015

We revere them for their grace and intelligence, but what do humpback whales think of us? Do they see us merely as oddly shaped creatures from another realm, or do they have a deeper understanding? With their ever-changing and complex communications, do they keep an oral record of our shared history? We may never have answers to these kinds of questions, but there is little doubt whales are interested in us: they graciously accommodate, and often seem to welcome, our presence in their world. This week on the Silver Bank we have multiple encounters that blur the boundaries between our respective worlds and leave us wondering just who is more curious about who.

Tom Conlin2

© Tom Conlin

In one such example, we come across a pair of dancers among the corals. Despite their involved courtship, they immediately are intrigued by the tender, circling it and spy hopping. We slip into the water and they circle us as well, while also spinning and rolling with slow motion grace. Is the tender seen as a competitor? Another suitor? One whale approaches the tender closely, orienting vertically to seemingly peer at us above the surface. In two other encounters, the whales circle us several times, rolling each time for a closer look. They repeatedly approach closely enough for us to look into their expressive eyes, then fade away ghost-like into the blue.

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© Jo Swannell

Other encounters this week are equally impressive. In one, a mother and calf pair lobtail over and over in sync, first on their backs, then head down. Both have all-white flukes, and gleaming all-white bellies, but baby departs from mom’s stylings with his all-black pectoral fins. Black pectoral fins (dorsal side) are a rarity in the North Atlantic, so this little calf stands out. Handsome and enthusiastic, he keeps perfect time with mom’s display. Could the display be meant for us? We are close enough to hear the impressive acoustics, nearly close enough to feel the splash. In another encounter, a mom and calf pair also take an obvious interest in us, but escort is less enthused by our presence. While humpbacks are never dangerously aggressive towards us, some escorts don’t appreciate us being near a potential mate. This massive, heavily-scarred male slashes his tail towards us under water and above, making his feelings about our proximity clearly known. We back off, and he settles down, content in his dominance.

Tom Conlin2 (1)

Another very special encounter this week – this time with mother and calf – leaves little doubt that humpbacks acknowledge and accept our presence. This mom spends nearly two hours at the surface, rarely submerging, while baby rolls about next to her and on top of her. On several occasions, mom nose pushes her baby directly towards us, as if offering up the little one for inspection and praise. It’s an unbelievably generous and touching encounter, and no one is left unmoved.

Laura Granata (1)

© Laura Granata

A last notable encounter this week is also quite touching. In this one, a mother and calf pair make a deliberate turn towards the tender, giving us a close look at mom’s damaged dorsal fin. The fin is torn halfway from the body, with obvious scarring from embedded line snaking down her flanks. Entanglement in fishing gear and other marine debris is one of the greatest human-caused threats facing humpbacks, and this whale is lucky to have escaped. Perhaps it is going too far to think she understands and forgives the human threat, but we nonetheless feel happy that she approaches us without fear.

Another great week of unique encounters!

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Written by: Lisa LaPointe, Aquatic Adventures
Designed by: Heather Reser, Aquatic Adventures