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My June 8th Whale Watch, Part 2

Posted by Frederick Wasti
Jun 15 2014

Note: This is only "Part 2" of my pictures and descriptions of a whale watch I attended on June 8th, 2014.

I am documenting the trip (which may or may not be my only trip for 2014) here in this blog. However, it will appear as two entries, the previous "My June 8th Whale Watch, Part 1", and this "My June 8th Whale Watch, Part 2", due to the number of photos included.

If you happen to be reading this "Part 2" entry (posted for 6/15/14) first, please stop and instead look first at the "Part 1" entry (posted for 6/14/14), since the images and captions appear in simple chronological order (divided approximately in half), and neither entry ("Part 1" or "Part 2") stands on its own.

I have appended the latest blood test results to the end of this "Part 2" entry.

The story now continues (from where "Part 1" left off)...

A baleen whale's upper jaw is smaller than its lower jaw, and the difference is most pronounced when the whale has its mouth open while feeding:

Each baleen plate (which grows continuously during the whale's life, much like a fingernail), is frayed on the inside surface, so that, while the plates resemble the "teeth" (so to speak) of a person's hair comb when viewed from the outside of the mouth, they actually form a complex filter of hair-like bristles on the inside of the upper jaw:

The pink ridge you can see inside the upper jaw here is the "hard palate" on the roof of the mouth:

In this photo, two humpbacks have surfaced together. Such cooperative feeding is often seen among some whales on many whale watch trips, while other whales can also be seen feeding concurrently, but individually, nearby:

[I should point out that we are not quite as close to these whales as many of these photos might make it seem. We were certainly not far from these very cooperative whales, but these photos were taken with a telephoto lens (with an effective 35mm focal length of 450mm), and most of the processed images have also been cropped as well.]

Now, in this series of photos,...

...one whale of a feeding pair...

...ends up turning upside down in the process of scooping up the fish:

For feeding whales, "table manners don't count". :-)

I should point out that, while feeding takes up several hours each day for these whales, they also do have rest periods, play periods, and travel periods, and not every whale watch trip is the same as this one -- they vary so much that there may not really be such a thing as a "typical" whale watch trip:

The whales we saw on this trip were primarily feeding, but it is also gratifying to see playfully active whales at times, or "friendly" whales (purposefully "visiting" the whale watch boat, circling around the boat and/or going from side to side under the boat). Every whale watch trip is indeed different:

Furthermore, I should point out that these whales - humpback whales - are generally the most active, most friendly, and otherwise most cooperative of the larger whale species, so that Massachusetts whale watches tend to concentrate on encounters with humpbacks:

I should also point out that whale watching is regulated by the U.S. government (with mostly common-sense rules to follow), and, in general, most commercial whale watch boats are well-behaved around the whales:

However, there is a problem with a small minority of the smaller, private boats that seek to watch whales -- most private boats are very careful around the whales, but some of them, mostly (I hope) unintentionally, can sometimes act in ways that endanger humans and whales alike:

Unfortunately, most of the small private boats are not aware of the regulations (although many - but not all - still behave intelligently and appropriately), and enforcement is generally lacking (that is to say that the U.S. Coast Guard does not devote resources to watching the boats near the whales):

Commercial whale watching in Massachusetts waters has been going on since 1975, when one charter fishing boat captain from Provincetown noticed that fisherman often stopped fishing to watch whales whenever they appeared, and he realized that dedicated whale watch trips might attract people who just wanted to see whales:

One of the special aspects of watching humpback whales is that individual whales are generally quite recognizable (something that is not true in nearly all other species). For example, these are the flukes of a female humpback named "Salt":

Salt has been seen every year in Massachusetts waters since 1975. As you can see, she has been seen once again here this year, with her 13th known calf by her side. (Humpbacks - and, in fact, most baleen whales - give birth most commonly every two or three years or so):

One of these two calves is Salt's calf. While Salt and the other mother (named "Perseid") were feeding nearby, the two calves approached our boat to (seemingly) say "Hallo". [I should point out that this photo and the next three seem overly cropped, but that was only because the whales were "too close" to my camera's telephoto lens.]

Here, one of the calves rolled on its side and put one of its long white flippers (or pectoral fins) into the air -- needless to say, this was enjoyed immensely by everyone on the boat. It seemed at that point very much as if we were "babysitting" the two calves while their mothers were busy feeding. :-)

All of a sudden, Salt, Perseid, and another adult humpback came up in unison, with their mouths wide open, right next to the boat (in fact, too close for me to get all three whales fully into the same photo). Salt is the whale in the upper right corner:

Here is Salt again, still with her mouth open (but starting to close), while one of the other two has already leveled off at the bottom of the photo:

As you can see, humpback whales can be very cooperative for whale watching. Throughout all of this encounter with humpbacks, our boat remained mostly motionless, moving very, very slowly from one group to another only occasionally:

There are other species that can also be seen here in Massachusetts. For example, after leaving the humpbacks (which were the whales located farthest from our port of Plymouth on this particular trip), we started back, and came upon a group of three finback whales, perhaps a mile or two from the beaches near the tip of Cape Cod:

The three finbacks seemed to be feeding as a group of two and as an individual. However, we also discovered that these finbacks (members of the second largest species in the world, larger than humpbacks) were accompanied by several dozen Atlantic white-sided dolphins:

It is not unusual to see such dolphins in the company of feeding whales (or sometimes in the company of traveling whales). [I do suspect that the dolphins are usually a nuisance to the whales, though.]

Atlantic white-sided dolphins are the most common dolphin species seen in Massachusetts waters north of Cape Cod. (In the warmer waters south of Cape Cod, other dolphins are often seen as frequently as is this species.)

Finbacks are faster than humpbacks, and, statistically, are less likely to come up close to a stationary boat while they are feeding. (It does happen sometimes, but not on this trip.)

The seemingly more playful dolphins did come over close to us on occasion, but they mostly seemed to continue feeding along with the finbacks:

It is quite easy here to see why these dolphins are called "white-sided", although the white stripe on their sides turns into a tan stripe closer to the tail:

All in all, I did have a successful whale watch, and I wanted to share it with you. Thanks for "watching". :-)

On the day after the whale watch, I had a treatment day at Dana-Farber in Boston. The blood tests results were "more of the same", i.e., about the same as they've been for many months now.

For example, my total white cells count continues to hover well within the normal range (of roughly 4,000 to 9,000 white cells per microliter):


In addition, my lymphocyte count remains very, very low (which is what is supposed to happen because of my treatment), while my neutrophil count is quite high (because neutrophil production in my bone marrow is not being suppressed by excessive lymphocyte production):


I know that the above two graphs have looked pretty boring for many months now, but that is what is desired. So, boring or not, what's not to like? :-)

Categories: General, Leukemia

My June 8th Whale Watch, Part 1

Posted by Frederick Wasti
Jun 14 2014

I was able to go on a whale watch on June 8th, 2014. I was aboard the "Tails of the Sea" (Capt. John Boats, of Plymouth, Massachusetts) as a "civilian" - i.e., as a passenger, and not as the trip's naturalist (since I am retired from my job of having been a whale watch naturalist for Capt. John Boats for 30 years).

I am documenting the trip (which may or may not be my only trip for 2014) here in this blog. However, it will appear as two entries, in this "My June 8th Whale Watch, Part 1" and then in the "My June 8th Whale Watch, Part 2", due to the number of photos included.

If you are reading this "Part 1" entry (posted for 6/14/14) first, please do also look at the "Part 2" entry (posted for 6/15/14), since the images and captions appear in simple chronological order (divided approximately in half), and neither entry ("Part 1" or "Part 2") stands on its own.

I have appended my latest blood test results to the end of the "Part 2" entry.

The story begins...

The first marine mammals we came across on this beautiful day offshore were not actually cetaceans (the term for whales, dolphins, and porpoises), but were pinnipeds (the term for seals, sea lions, and walruses) known as gray seals:


This group (of about a dozen) were swimming along together quite rapidly, but seemed to slow up just a bit to take a brief look at us. However, as their brief curiosity seemed to fade,...


...they resumed their journey. [There are two species of seals typically seen in Massachusetts waters, the larger gray seals, shown here, and the smaller harbor seals.]


We next saw a couple of minke whales (the smallest species of the baleen whales), but we didn't spend time trying to stay with them, instead choosing to continue on in order to find some of their larger relatives. Here is one of the first humpback whales that we found:


As you can see, humpback whales are often very approachable (and, in fact, they sometimes even approach boats). The "tail fins" of a whale are known as their "flukes":


What we then spent a while watching was a group of a couple dozen humpback whales, most of whom were involved in feeding on schools of small fish at the time. (Humpbacks typically spend a few hours feeding each day.)


Generally, feeding humpbacks tend to ignore nearby boats (although sometimes, on rare occasions, they can be observed seemingly driving their prey toward the physical barrier of a boat's hull):


Notice the bird here resting briefly while standing on the upper jaw of this whale. :-)


Although some baleen whales, such as the right whale and the bowhead whale, feed on swarms of tiny plankton, most baleen whales (such as this humpback) feed on highly mobile prey, and feeding must thus be a very active behavior:


While feeding, whales often attract large numbers of fish-eating birds (such as these juvenile and adult herring gulls), that benefit from the large number of small fish that are driven towards the surface barrier by the whales. (Notice another bird "resting" briefly on the tip of this whale's upper jaw.)


Here you can get a good view of the whale's "blowholes" (nostrils) and its upper jaw. Those rows of bumps that you see on the jaw are likely functional,...


...since each bump has a single hair extending from it, much like a "whisker", and these hairs may help the whale detect water movements of fleeing prey animals in the vicinity of the mouth:


The "feeding frenzy" of active birds that gather around and above feeding whales is even used by whale watch boats trying t find whales on a foggy day,...


...since the birds will show up more readily - and more constantly - than a whale on a boat's radar, helping to lead a whale watch boat towards a whale that cannot be seen (until close) in heavy fog by eyes alone:


I have used the term "baleen whale" previously, and so it's about time that I explained what baleen is. Note in this photo the comb-like structure hanging down from the upper jaw of this whale - that is its baleen:


There are two major groups of whales, baleen whales and toothed whales. All of the larger whale species except for one - the sperm whale - have no teeth at all, and instead have baleen plates in their upper jaws:


Baleen is not bony, as teeth (sort of) seem to be, but instead consists of a series of flexible plates made of keratin, a structural protein found most commonly in a mammal's skin, hair/fur, and nails/claws:


It should not be too surprising, then, that baleen is also made of keratin, because baleen plates grow down from the skin tissue of a baleen whale's gums inside the outer edges of its upper jaw:


While the plankton-feeding right whales and bowhead whales have very long baleen plates located in two groups, just on either side of the mouth (with no baleen in front), most baleen whales have baleen that grows from both the front and the two sides of the mouth,...

...although the baleen plates are always shorter in front and longer toward the sides:


The "toothed whales", by the way, include the sperm whale, nearly all of the smaller whales, and all the dolphins and porpoises. However, this humpback whale is one of the larger baleen whales:


On a whale watch trip it is possible to see pelagic (open ocean) birds, in addition to coastal birds (such as all the gulls seen in many of the feeding pictures here). As an example, this is a sooty shearwater, a species which breeds on certain islands deep in the South Atlantic Ocean, but which "winters" during the warmer northern hemisphere months over the North Atlantic Ocean:


Unlike gulls (which return to land every day to rest), pelagic birds spend most of each year entirely over water, returning to land only once a year for breeding. (Note in this picture where the name "shearwater" comes from -- this bird's right wing tip is "shearing" the water as it flies along, something that happens fairly often.)


In this series of photos,...


...you can see a humpback...


...feeding with a technique...


...known as "kick-feeding",...


...where the percussive (and perhaps concussive) effects of slapping the water with its flukes apparently could either stun or at least confuse its prey:


There are a number of different feeding techniques that can be employed (and observed), apparently depending on the nature of the prey, and with individual differences in "style" between different individual whales. In any case, it should be noted that humpbacks do not feed by a mere passive straining of the water for fish.


To be continued (in "Part 2")...

Categories: General, Leukemia