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My Last Whale Watch (#1)

Posted by Frederick Wasti
Jul 23 2013

Cantilever

Well, no, it's not actually my "last" whale watch, as in my "final" whale watch, but my "last" whale watch, as in my "most recent" whale watch. I haven't been on a whale watch (yet) this year, but I hadn't yet reported on the whale watch I went on last year (8/7/2012), either, so I am going to tell about it right here. And - hopefully pretty soon - I will then be able to report on a whale watch from this, the 2013 season.

I will use two blog entries for my 8/7/2012 whale watch, one (this one) for information on the whales that I saw, and then another (#2) for some of the non-whale aspects of the trip. [If you're looking for my latest "boring" medical news, you may skip to the very bottom of this blog entry if you wish (but please do come back up here for the story of the whales seen in "my last whale watch, OK?).]

Now, if you're relatively new to this blog, or if you don't really know too much about me (other than my CLL story), then you might perhaps be wondering why I am "cluttering up" my CLL blog with whale watch reports. Well, first, before retiring, I had been (amongst several different occupations) a whale watch naturalist for 30 years (a longer stretch of time than for any of my other jobs), and I had been on a couple thousand whale watches during that time. So, now that I have been retired from being a whale watch naturalist, and have "some medical issues" (<grin>) as well, going on a whale watch is really a "big deal" for me, worth telling about to anyone who might be talked into listening.

Furthermore, if you don't yet know the full reason for the name "Leukos" for this blog, and merely assumed it was related only to the word "leukemia", then please do see the About page for this blog, to learn of the blog's connection to whales and to whale watching.

Well, OK then - On to the first of my two reports on my "last" whale watch trip...

Longboard

On August 7th of 2012, it was a very nice summer day - a beautiful day for a four-hour boat ride. I was a passenger on the Tails of the Sea, a whale watch boat belonging to Capt. John Boats of Plymouth Massachusetts. (That is the company I had worked for over the past few decades, and that was the particular boat that I had worked on the most over the last several years, so this was all pretty "normal", except that I did not have a microphone in my hand, and I merely had to wait for someone else to find the whales and to talk about them.) On this trip we ended up in an area just a few miles north of the tip of Cape Cod, perhaps half-way between the National Seashore Beaches there and the southern boundary of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

We were in a area of perhaps three or four square miles where there were at least a couple dozen humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae - "large-winged [whales] of New England"), arranged often in pairs, with occasional trios and with some individual whales. The humpbacks we saw were mostly feeding at the time (which is why, after spending the winter in the relatively food-less Caribbean, they come to Massachusetts to spend a few hours each day dining on large schools of small fish, primarily sand lance, every spring, summer, and fall). The fish seemed to be somewhat deep, so we were not able to see the actual feeding going on (which we are able to see, quite spectacularly, on some occasions) - what we were seeing mostly was whales diving, disappearing for a few minutes, and then surfacing for a several breaths before diving once again.

One of the whales seen was one of my favorite whales, Seal. It may seem a bit odd to name a whale "Seal". (It makes one wonder whether there might be an extra chubby seal someplace named "Whale" - <grin>.) Like most of the other named humpbacks, Seal is named for his tail fluke markings. If you look at the enlargement of Seal's right tail fluke...

..., you may be able to make out markings resembling a seal's face. Nonetheless, I most often identify Seal first from his left fluke markings...

..., which are also distinctive, especially the obvious notch on the trailing edge. Seal is a male humpback, born in 1984 to a whale named Mars.

He is both an active and a friendly whale, known for sometimes "capturing" whale watch boats. Occasionally, when not feeding, when Seal has time on his hands, er, flippers (i.e., pectoral fins), he (sometimes alone, but sometimes with a companion) will approach a whale watch boat and circle it at very close range, often going under it from one side and coming up on the other, making it difficult (and illegal) for the whale watch boat to leave (even when it's time to return to port), thereby "capturing" the boat for a period of time. Now, it is delightful, but not unusual, for humpbacks to do this sort of thing, but most often the encounter is relatively brief. However, Seal often does this long enough and so close that the boat involved may end up being "stuck" in one spot longer than the boat had planned on. (On this trip, however, since whales seemed mostly to be feeding at the time, "Close Encounters of the [Whale] Kind" were short, as the whale might briefly surface near a boat, but would then dive for some more fish.)

Another whale that was fairly easy to recognize was Infinity. The derivation of Infinity's name can be seen on the following closeup of its right tail fluke...

Do you see the "sideways figure eight" that is the symbol for infinity?

The symbol for infinity, now called the lemniscate, was first used in 1655 by English mathematician John Wallis. However, for many people of my tender, young age, their first exposure to the symbol for infinity may have been the beginning of each episode of the TV series "Ben Casey" from the early 1960s, as the voice of Sam Jaffe (who played Dr. Casey's mentor, Dr. David Zorba) intoned "Man... Woman... Birth... Death... Infinity..." as symbols for each of these were written on a blackboard.

You can view a 17-second video of this at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xjq1P5p3fso (but I digress...). In any event, methinks Infinity wears the lemniscate quite well.

Infinity (the whale, that is) is also one of a relatively small number of Massachusetts humpbacks that has been "satellite tagged". Over the last few years, a selected number of humpbacks have had satellite transmitters attached to their backs near their dorsal fins by researchers, allowing them to be followed for a period of time (sometimes hours, sometimes weeks) before the satellite "tags" fall off. Some of the "tagged: whales have been found to travel great distances (even as far from Massachusetts as Newfoundland, although that is unusual), while most others have stayed relatively "close to home". Infinity was one of 25 humpbacks tagged in July of 2012, and was shown to stay in the waters east of Chatham during the short time the tag remained attached and functioning.

Another whale identified during the trip was Pele, named for the famous Brazilian soccer star nicknamed "Pele" (his actual name was Edson Arantes do Nascimento). Now, while each whale's name is usually based upon its markings, sometimes the derivation can be a bit of a stretch...

... - can you see the (alleged) "soccer ball", flying through the air after being kicked, on Pele's left fluke? Uh-huh...

Pele has also been "lucky" enough to have been selected for satellite tagging, one of 15 whales tagged in August of 2011. Like Infinity, Pele was also found to travel not very far, staying in the area of Massachusetts Bay the entire time its tag was attached.

Now, I have been referring to these satellite tags being "attached" to the whales, but I have not as of this moment described how they have been attached. While tags sometimes have been attached by suction cups, the duration of such benign attachments is usually quite short. Instead, tags are often implanted by firing them into the surface blubber from a short distance away - such tags usually last somewhat longer, but which are certainly less benign. The good news is that the tags penetrate the skin and blubber only for a short distance (certainly too shallow for reaching muscle and much too shallow for reaching internal organs. The bad news is that they do create a wound, and, while antiseptic cream is used to prevent infection, they do leave a scar after falling off the subject whales.

I certainly have mixed feelings about such tagging. While it is quite interesting to be able to follow whales for a period of time, even while they may be otherwise out of sight of man, it is also discomforting to have "whale friends" be intentionally subjected to even minor injuries. Oh well...

In any event, Pele can be seen to have a scar left over from one of these satellite tags. This image, ...

..., from my 2012 whale watch trip shows the scar near the dorsal fin left from the 2011 satellite tag.

Amongst all the whales I saw on this trip, certainly the most gratifying sighting was that of Salt. Salt has been seen every year in Massachusetts waters since she was first seen in 1975 (the "dawn" of the Massachusetts whale watch industry).

Salt's fluke markings are distinctive enough, ...

..., but she was originally named for her dorsal fin markings (likely a scar), which look like crusted sea salt, ...

..., and which can be seen on both sides of her dorsal fin, ...

..., making her a very easy whale to identify.

Salt is a female humpback whale who has been mother to 12 known calves, and grandmother to 10 known "grandcalves".

When Salt was first named (by Capt. Aaron Avellar of the Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown Massachusetts - the Dolphin III was the first Massachusetts whale watch boat, and is the boat from which I saw my first whales back in the 1970s), she happened to be the first Massachusetts whale ever to be given a name, and there were no rules for naming at that time (as there certainly are today). Nonetheless, her name does at least reflect her markings (i.e., the appearance of having salt on her dorsal fin), unlike her fellow female that she was often in the company of during those early years, starting in 1976, who was named "Pepper" (and not for any particular markings, but because she was often seen with Salt).

In order to minimize confusion and to make names as useful for identification purposes as possible, whale watch naturalists, scientists, and captains started developing rules for naming whales in the late 1970s, but exceptions have been made since for many of Salt's calves, most of whom are named, not for their markings, but for their relationship to Salt (either to Salt the whale or to salt the condiment).

So, Salt's calves include: Crystal 1980 (a "crystal" of Salt), Halos 1983 (Greek for salt), Thalassa 1985 (the Greek goddess of the salty sea), Brine 1987 (a salt and water mixture), Bittern 1989, Salsa 1991 (for the Spanish tomato-based hot sauce), Tabasco 1998 (from the Tabasco pepper-based hot sauce), Mostaza 2000 (Spanish for mustard), Wasabi 2003 (from the Japanese hot sauce), Soya 2006 (from the originally Chinese soy-based sauce), Sanchal 2008 (from Indian "black salt"), and Zelle 2010.

Some of Salt's calves are likely to be males, but some of them certainly have been females, and Salt is known to be the grandmother of 10 calves, all but one of which were born to Salt's grown-up 1985 calf, Thalassa, and one of which was born to Salt's 2000 daughter, Mostaza. (Unlike Salt's son's and daughters, often named for their relationship to their mother Salt or to salt the condiment, Salt's "grandcalves" follow the usual whale naming rules, with names generally based on markings, usually on the tail flukes.)

I should point out that there is one additional exception made for the naming of Salt's calves. Unlike nearly all Massachusetts whales, who have names suggested and voted on by the naturalists, scientists, and captains involved in whale watching, Salt's calves have been named individually be a member of the Avellar family of Provincetown, in honor of the family's contribution to the founding of the whale watch industry. As I mentioned, Salt was named by Aaron Avellar, but I should also mention that Aaron's father Al was the original Massachusetts whale watch captain, and that the tradition of the naming of Salt's offspring by the Avellar family still continues, with the last few names having been provided by Aaron's son Chad (a more recent captain on the Dolphin Fleet).

In any event, Salt is considered to be the Grand Dame of Massachusetts whales, whose appearance every spring since 1975 is considered to be the "official opening" of the whale watch season for that year (despite the fact that she is generally not the first whale sighted each spring). Furthermore, it has been my experience that Salt is often asked about by whale watch passengers (many of whom persist in calling here "Salty") - Salt has probably been the most frequently sighted whale by whale watch naturalists, scientists, captains, and passengers over the many seasons of whale watching from 1975 to 2013.

Therefore, of all of the whales I saw on my 8/7/2012 whale watch, I would have to say that Salt's sighting was the most special. But, there were other identifiable whale friends seen on the trip, too:

I mentioned Pepper above as another female often seen in Massachusetts in the company of Salt. Well, I did not see Pepper on this trip, but I did see Habanero, who is Pepper's 2000 daughter, along with her own 2012 calf (who, of course, would be one of Pepper's "grandcalves").

Here's Habanero's fluke markings -

..., and here are her calf's -

Another identified whale was Stonewall, ...

..., named for the markings near the left fluke tip, ...

It is not always remembered exactly why a whale was given a particular name, and an example of this is that of another whale seen on the trip, Tear, whose name is sometimes pronounced as sounding like "tare" (as in a tear in a piece of fabric) and sometimes like "teer" (as in a droplet from the eye).

Therefore, while Tear's markings are certainly distinctive enough, it is not clear (to me, anyway) as to whether it was named for the tear-like (pronounced "tare"-like) curved marking near the left fluke tip (which, fortunately, is not really an actual tear in its fluke), or whether it was for the tear-like (pronounced "teer"-like) marking in the middle, between the two flukes).

Still, the important thing is that Tear is always recorded as "Tear", regardless of how the name is pronounced.

Another whale seen on the trip with an obvious set of markings was Elephant, ...

... - I think it is pretty obvious how Elephant got its name - ...

... (can you see the elephant's head in left side profile on the right tail fluke?).

Also seen were five more identifiable humpbacks, Spirit, ...

Pleats, ...

..., Windrose, ...

..., Cantilever, and Longboard (flukeshots of Cantilever and Longboard are at the top).

So, although I did attend only one whale watch during 2012 (and it still seems very strange to think that whale watching in Massachusetts ~somehow~ continues along without ~my~ presence out there <Har !!!>), it certainly was a successful trip, on a beautiful 2012 day full of beautiful humpback whales.

[I will discuss some of the more interesting but-not-so-whale-related sights from the trip as part of an upcoming blog entry.]

Finally, I will mention that yesterday, 7/22/2012 was a "just a regular Campath day" for me at Dana-Farber, and that all my blood count numbers remain essentially unchanged. Good, good, good...

Categories: General, Leukemia