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My Last Whale Watch (#2)

Posted by Frederick Wasti
Aug 21 2013

Just as I pointed out before, in the "My Last Whale Watch (#1)" blog entry from July 24th, this is not really about my "last ever" whale watch, but my "most recent" whale watch. And, it's not even from this year either, since I haven't yet been on a whale watch this season, but, since I didn't discuss my last year's whale watch (from 8/7/2012) during last season, I'm going to do so this year. Better late than never.

Now, if you happen to be wondering why I am including whale watch reports in my CLL blog, you're maybe not too familiar with me or this blog just yet. To start with, if you don't yet know the reason for the name "Leukos" for the blog, perhaps assuming it simply was vaguely related to the word "leukemia", then please do see the About page for this blog, to see how "Leukos" is related to whales and whale watching. Then, furthermore, of the many occupations I've had during my pre-retirement life, it was the job of whale watch naturalist that I held the longest (30 years), so you can maybe understand that whales and whale watching have been pretty important to me.

In fact, if I am to be remembered for just one of my various and sundry "careers", I would wish that I be remembered as being a whale watch naturalist. I first became a whale watch naturalist as early in my adult life as was possible (considering that whale watching has existed as a formal endeavor only since the late 1970s), and I served as a whale watch naturalist until I could no longer adequately do the job (due to "some pesky medical issues").

I've visited with whales on approximately 2,000 whale watches. I still plan on doing so, although this will happen on only relatively infrequent occasions nowadays.

But, before I begin with discussing "My Last Whale Watch (#2)", I should mention my latest medical news: It's all pretty "boring". But, sometimes "boring" is good, right? My blood test results continue to be stable - unbalanced, of course, but intentionally so. I won't "bore" you with multiple graphs here, but will include just two of them, which illustrate the dramatic changes that occurred earlier in my clinical trial, but which also show how my blood counts became and have continued to be quite stable for some time now.

The total leukocyte counts, which had been almost 60,000 per microliter at the start of Part A, have generally been within the 5,000 to 9,000 range (i.e., within the normal range) since the end of Part A:

The percentages of (good) neutrophils and (both good and leukemic) lymphocytes, while totally "out of whack" at the start of Part A, reversed their relative proportions during Part A, becoming totally "out of whack" in the opposite direction at the start of Part B, and have been kept artificially so ever since:

(For reference, neutrophils should normally make up 1/2 to 3/4 of all leukocytes, while lymphocytes should normally make up 1/10 to 1/3.)

So, Part A was a success, Part B was a success, and Part C has been and continues to be a success. What's not to like? (<smile>)

Well, OK then - Let's get back to the second of my two reports on my "last" whale watch trip...

Today I would like to discuss some of the more-or-less non-whale aspects of the trip. Of course, in a sense, everything that is seen or happens on a whale watch trip is at least indirectly related to whales, because the entire trip is devoted to traveling out to the whales, watching them, and then traveling from them back to port. (Even on those rare - perhaps 1% of the time - trips where whales could not be found, the purpose of the trip would still be focused on finding them, even if not successful, so, even then, everything would still be at least indirectly related to whales.) But, obviously, an entire trip is not directly connected to whales.

A typical whale watch trip from Plymouth lasts four hours (perhaps four-and-a-half hours if the whales were harder than usual to find, or are farther offshore than usual, etc.). The truth is that the majority of the trip is usually spent in "commuting" to and from the whales, and not in actually watching them. While almost half of an "easy trip" might be taken up with watching whales, a "not-so-easy trip" might involve only a half hour or so being spent with whales. These proportions can vary a lot, of course - it is really difficult to predict (or to arrogantly attempt to plan) just exactly how long a trip will be, and just exactly what portion of it will be spent watching such free-swimming, wide-ranging, wild animals.

Therefore, the variable amount of time spent "commuting" is, at the worst, simply a "necessary evil" (especially if one really doesn't like being on a boat on open water). But, for most people (passengers and crew), it is instead an ~opportunity~ to experience first-hand many of the myriad natural and man-made features of our coastal environment. And, even if the route to and from the whales might be approximately the same for several days in a row, those trips will not all be the same as each other -- there simply are too many interacting variables to allow any one trip to be exactly like any previous one or any succeeding one. (I really do believe that, for the 2,000 or so trips that I've been on, none was ever a "copy" of another - each and every one was unique in some ways.)

Every whale watch starts and ends at a harbor, and harbors are full of interesting features, whether the passenger is a native of the harbor's town, or is a visitor from another town, another state, or another country (and international passengers on whale watch trips are actually quite common, in my experience). While I am not featuring the port of Plymouth in this entry (I'm restricting the words and images below mostly to the time spent in the general vicinity of the whales), Plymouth Harbor and Plymouth Bay are certainly interesting places, but so are the other whale watch ports. But it is the time spent ~offshore~ that is most special on any whale watch trip - perhaps because what might be seen is less predictable, and less under the control of humans.

[Please note that all of the following photos, except those of the Tails of the Sea, which was the whale watch boat I was on for this trip, were taken in the general area of the whales we saw that day.]

Among the more notable items to be seen, of course, are boats (and, sometimes, ships). Not surprisingly, these might include other whale watch boats, such as the Dolphin IX that we passed as we were getting closer to the whales, and as it was heading back from the whales to its port, in Provincetown:

The land in the distance (perhaps a mile or two away in the telephoto lens) is the National Seashore area on the ocean side of Provincetown - the harbor and the rest of the town of Provincetown are actually quite a few miles away by boat, all the way around the tip of the Cape on the Cape Cod Bay side of that land. [On this trip we were fairly close to the land -- however, on many trips we would have to go further north (to Stellwagen Bank), or further east (southeast of Stellwagen Bank), or (if we were lucky) further to the west (closer to Plymouth).]

Shortly after passing the Dolphin IX, we passed the Dolphin VIII, which was stopped watching some whales close to a mile or so away from us.

The land at the shore visible behind the Dolphin VIII is also on the outside of Provincetown, but since we are sort of looking straight "down" from a spot to the north of Provincetown, looking over and beyond its dunes, we are also seeing the higher dunes of North Truro in the distance. For example, the towers shown (outlined by red boxes) in the blowup below are actually near the high dune cliffs on the Atlantic side of North Truro, even as the closer land at the shoreline is still part of Provincetown, curving around the "bent wrist" on the "bent arm" that is Cape Cod:

As we were heading towards "our" whales for the afternoon's trip, we were traveling along with another Dolphin Fleet boat, the Dolphin X:

There were quite a few whales around that afternoon (as shown in the "My Last Whale Watch (#1)" entry from July 24th). So, while the Dolphin VIII was still paying attention to a group of whales further to the south of us, the Dolphin X and our boat, the Tales of the Sea (belonging to the Capt John Boats of Plymouth),...

...started watching a couple groups of whales in the general area we ended up at. [Obviously, I did not take the above photo of the Tails of the Sea (nor the one of this boat at the top of this entry) during this trip since I was aboard it during this trip - <grin> - these two images were taken while I was aboard the Capt John & Son IV on other occasions.]

It is typical for a Capt John Boat to spend time in the vicinity of other "south end" whale watch boats. Generally, the southern end of Massachusetts Bay (and the southern end of Stellwagen Bank in particular) are the "hunting grounds" for the whale watch boats from Plymouth, Provincetown, and Barnstable, while the "north end" whale watch boats, from Boston, Gloucester, and Newburyport, are more likely to be found at the northern end of Massachusetts Bay (and the northern end of Stellwagen Bank). Once in a while, if the whales get a bit scarce on one of the bay or the other, there may be a temporary exception to the above, when we get to see a few "north end" boats down "our way", or when the "south end" boats might have to sail further up the bank, say. Generally, though, Plymouth, Provincetown, and Plymouth boats see a lot of each other, and only seldom see the "north end" boats.

There is a lot of radio contact between the captains of each of the boats in an area, in order to coordinate the motions of the boats, so that the boats can "trade whales" once in a while, and so that there is not undue crowding of boats around any one group of whales.

In order to encourage such behavior on the part of whale watch boats, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (SBNMS), and the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society (WDCS) jointly run a Whale SENSE program, where all the captains and all the naturalists of a participating whale watch company have to undergo annual training sessions, and the company, and its captains and naturalists, have to pledge to follow specific specific guidelines that are "above and beyond" what Federal law requires. I am pleased to note that all of the "south end" whale watch companies participate in the Whale SENSE program, even though most of the "north end" companies do not (e.g., only one Boston company does so). If you'd like to learn more about the Whale SENSE program, please visit its web site.

You may have noticed that all of the whale watch boats I've shown above appear to be quite similar in appearance. This is not simply a coincidence, as a great number of Massachusetts whale watch boats have been designed to similar specifications, constructed entirely out of aluminum, and built by the same company, Gulfcraft of Franklin Louisiana.

Each of the current Dolphin boats, the two larger Capt John Boats (the Capt John & Son IV and the Tales of the Sea), and the Barnstable boat (aptly named the Whale Watcher) are similar Gulfcraft boats. The Tales of the Sea is a bit longer than are the Dolphin boats and the Capt John & Son IV, and the Whale Watcher is even longer (and wider, and taller) still. [The older Capt John boats are also aluminum boats built by Gulfcraft (in fact, the Capt John & Son was the first all-aluminum whale watch boat ever built by Gulfcraft), but they are somewhat smaller.]

Besides our fellow whale watch boats, there are other power boats and sailboats to be seen as well, such as fishing boats. These could be commercial fishing boats, most of which fish by setting nets, such as this boat:

Or, they could be private boats, catching fish by hook and line, or, in the case of the boat in the following image, by harpoon:

I have blown up the bow pulpit of this boat to show (with arrows) the handle and the head of the harpoon, ready for use in the pulpit:

The quarry for the above boat would almost certainly have been bluefin tuna, one of which would be worth literally thousands of dollars if caught, which can sometimes be done with hook and line (and that'd be a large hook and very strong line), or sometimes with a harpoon.

Sailboats are generally quite common out in Massachusetts Bay, even on rougher days (sailboats do need the wind, right?) (it was not a rough day for this trip, though.) Many sailboats are not all that large (from a whale watch boat's perspective) or particularly colorful (white and off-white color schemes are quite common with many sailboats, especially for their sails, even if the hulls are sometimes colored), but sometimes there are exceptions that might catch ones eye (or camera lens):

Now, when it comes to the (non-human) living creatures to be seen on a whale watch, there are many. For whale species, the most frequently sighted are humpback, finback, and minke (pronounced "min-key" or "ming-key") whales, although rare North Atlantic right whales can sometimes be observed, especially in the early spring. For dolphins, the most frequently spotted are Atlantic white-sided dolphins. It is not unusual, especially on calmer days, to see either harbor seals or gray seals. Fish (which, unlike the preceding mammal species, do not need to surface for air) are less frequently seen, but they are sometimes visible, at least briefly -- blue sharks, basking sharks, bluefin tuna, striped bass, or even schools of the main whale food in Massachusetts waters, sand lance, might occasionally be spotted (although we did not see any fish on this particular trip).

More frequently seen on a whale watch than any of the above are birds. While inshore as well as when offshore, it is very common to see gulls of several species (herring, great black-backed, ring-billed, and hooded are most common). Similarly, there are several species of terns (smaller relatives of the gulls) that may sometimes be spotted, and common, roseate, least, and arctic terns can all be seen in Massachusetts during the warmer months. Cormorants (mostly double-crested) can often be seen, especially closer to shore.

However, all of the above are strictly coastal birds while in "our" waters -- not only can they easily be seen from land, they themselves are strictly "day-trippers" over open water -- that is to say that they return to shore frequently (at least every night), and never stay over open water for any length of time. In contrast, a whale watch can provide passengers with a very good chance of seeing ~pelagic~ birds, which are seen from shore only infrequently or only at certain locations, and which do not fly to land for most months of the year at all -- pelagic birds spend the majority of every year entirely over open water, generally going to shore only for a comparatively brief breeding and nesting season.

Here in Massachusetts, the most frequently spotted pelagic birds are several species of shearwaters (great, sooty, Cory's, Manx, and Audubon can be seen here, but, during most years, great and sooty shearwaters are most frequently seen). Other pelagics include a couple species of storm-petrels, as well as kittiwakes, northern gannets, fulmars, and jaegers, but I'm going to concentrate on shearwaters in today' blog post.

Great shearwater "shearing the water"

In my experience, great shearwaters are the most frequently spotted pelagic birds to be seen on a Massachusetts whale watch. (Wilson's storm-petrels are actually much more common - in fact, they may be the most numerous bird on earth, despite the fact that land-lubbers never get to see them at all -- however, since they are quite a bit smaller than the gull-sized shearwaters, and since they almost never rise into the air more than two or three feet above the water, they are easily overlooked - or ignored - by most whale watchers.) Shearwaters are well-named, in that their typical motion generally involves a few quick flaps followed by a long, fast glide, with one wingtip or the other often skimming just above the water, sometimes even touching it, ~shearing~ the water as they glide rapidly just above it.

Shearwaters do not fly just above the water's surface -- sometimes they turn into the wind, rise a bit, and then wheel around in a different direction, before swooping down close to the water to glide some more. For example, the next two photos were taken of the same bird two seconds apart - note how the bird has totally changed position in that short period of time (but also notice how the bird in the first photo, even as its body is tipped vertically, still has its head in a horizontal position):

Now, one question you might have at this point is, "OK, I can understand that pelagic birds spend most of their life over the water, but do they fly and glide the entire time, or do they sit on the water to rest at all?". Well, some pelagics do seem to spend at least most of the time in the air (most famous are the albatrosses of the southern oceans and the North Pacific, who seem to glide constantly in windy air, and who land on the water only when the air becomes calm). However, while shearwaters (which are smaller relatives of the albatrosses) do spend much of the time flying/gliding, looking for food (primarily small surface fish or squid), they do also spend time sitting on the surface of the water. (While flying, they are usually solitary, but they tend to be quite gregarious when resting, collecting together to form "rafts" of birds on the water surface.)

One of the factors that make shearwaters such good gliders is their long, thin wings (as compared to the wider wings of gulls). However, one disadvantage of long, thin wings is that taking off, especially without a headwind, requires quite a bit of "running over the water's surface" before the bird can become free of the water. Take a look at the following sequence from this whale watch, which shows a great shearwater taking off from a standstill (or, I should say, from a "sit-still") -- notice how the legs are needed to help take off,...

...but that, once moving fast enough, the bird is once again able to swiftly glide and "shear the water".

It is interesting that the migration routes of such pelagic birds are much greater in length than those of whales. Where whales of some species might stay on one "side" of an ocean (the "western side" or the "eastern side"), and might rarely cross the equator, some pelagic birds travel "both sides" of often more than one ocean.

More specifically, the humpback whales we saw on this whale watch typically spend the winter in the Caribbean, and then spend most of the spring, the summer, and most of fall in the Gulf of Maine (the waters between Cape Cod and Nova Scotia). That is to say that "our" humpbacks do not, as a rule, ever travel to the "eastern side" of the North Atlantic Ocean, nor do they ever cross the equator to enter the South Atlantic.

In contrast, "our" great shearwaters travel much greater distances each year, breeding on a handful of islands in the southern South Atlantic Ocean, then "wintering" in the northern North Atlantic Ocean during our summer, passing over both the "western side" and the "eastern side" of both Atlantic oceans, all during a single year's travel. Let's take a look at a distribution map for the great shearwaters (to which I've added some circles and arrows):


The darker blue areas represent regions in the North Atlantic and the South Atlantic where great shearwaters can be found. (Note that great shearwaters are not found in either the North or South Pacific Oceans or in the Indian Ocean.) Nearly all great shearwaters breed on the Tristan da Cunha Islands in the southern South Atlantic, shown as the oversize yellow dots in the larger red circle. (A very small number instead breed on a couple of the Falkland Islands, shown in the smaller red circle.)

After the breeding season (the southern summer) is over, all of the great shearwaters spread out and start traveling northward throughout the western South Atlantic into the western North Atlantic, some of them to spend some of their "winter" months during the northern summer in our area (and I have circled the Gulf of Maine in green). As they continue their North Atlantic migration, they cross from the western North Atlantic over to the eastern North Atlantic, and then start heading south through the eastern North Atlantic, into the eastern South Atlantic, heading towards their annual breeding location at the Tristan da Cunha Islands (or the Falklands).

Please note that my red arrows are unfortunately overly specific in appearance -- that is to say that they are supposed to represent the overall annual clockwise migration movement, but that great shearwaters do not simply follow these routes except in a general way, so that the millions of great shearwaters are found traveling throughout parts of the North Atlantic during the northern summer, and throughout parts of the South Atlantic during the southern summer. (For some reason I am not aware of, there is a large area off western Africa that is bypassed by great shearwaters -- perhaps it does not provide the food that great shearwaters are looking for.)

The result of the above is that the total distance traveled during one year's migration by any single great shearwater is estimated to be between 12,000 miles and 20,000 (or more) miles during any one year (depending on how direct or how meandering each bird's travels actually are). These are phenomenal distances to travel every year -- each great shearwater travels an annual distance equal to approximately half-way around the earth as a minimum, and could travel an annual distance nearly equal to the circumference of the earth as a maximum. In contrast, North Atlantic humpback whales travel about 3,500 miles north each early spring and about 3,500 miles south each late fall, making for a total migration of approximately 7,000 miles each year, and, even if we were to add in all the miles of local traveling they might do on each end of the migratory route, the total distance traveled by "our" humpbacks is significantly less than traveled by "our" great shearwaters.

[By the way, I still have a habit of referring to great shearwaters as "greater shearwaters", which was a name (in English) they were referred to by many people for many, many years. However, in July of 2010, the American Ornithologists' Union, in its 51st Supplement to its Check-list of North American Birds, changed the "official" English common name from "Greater Shearwater" to "Great Shearwater". The reason given for the change was "to conform to general worldwide usage" -- this species was already known as the "great shearwater" in most other parts of the English-speaking world, and so the North American (US and Canada) usage of "greater shearwater" was "corrected" in order to bring North American English-speaking birders and biologists into line. (Not all politics takes place among government officials.) So, for me. after having referred to these beautiful birds as "greater shearwaters" for decades, I now find myself still using that name until I (usually) manage to correct myself -- I guess "it's tough to teach an old naturalist new tricks".]

I would like to discuss just one more critter before I bring this blog entry to a close. In the following image of two shearwaters,...


...there is a greater - oops, a ~great~ - shearwater gliding by in the foreground, and also what might at first look like another one, although photographically underexposed, sitting on the water in the background. However, that other bird is actually a ~sooty~ shearwater, which can often be seen along with great shearwaters (although it is my experience that great shearwaters are more numerous in the Stellwagen Bank area).


Sooty shearwaters are appropriately named. Unlike the great shearwaters, sooties are mostly a fairly dark, smoky grayish-brown (or is it a brownish-gray) color,...


...although there are some indistinct lighter areas underneath, as shown below (and note the left wing tip cutting through the water):


[By the way, despite the use of "great" in the name "great shearwater", sooty shearwaters are actually slightly larger than are great shearwaters, and Cory's shearwaters are larger still, so, while great shearwaters are distinctly larger than are some of the smaller shearwaters (e.g., Audubon's shearwaters or Manx shearwaters), they maybe should really be called something other than "great shearwaters" anyway (although "sort of great shearwaters" doesn't sound particularly appealing - <grin>).]

Much of what I've related previously in regards to the great shearwater's migration pattern is also true for the sooty shearwater. Here in the Gulf of Maine, we see sooty shearwaters during our warmer months near the northern end of their clockwise Atlantic migration route. "Our" sooty shearwaters - at least most of them - breed in the Falkland Islands and on coastal Tierra del Fuego in the far southwest South Atlantic Ocean (the more obvious circle below). However, sooty shearwaters also breed on islands off the coast of southeastern Australia, and on New Zealand and on islands near it (the other circle). So, sooty shearwaters are found in both Atlantic Oceans, in both pacific Oceans, and in the Antarctic Ocean (where they are often found during the southern summer months, although I don't know how much mixing, if any, might occur there between the Atlantic and Pacific sooty shearwaters).


Within the Atlantic Oceans, the migration path appears to be quite a bit like that of the great shearwater, and Atlantic sooties probably travel similar distances as great shearwaters do each year. However, the Pacific sooties, breeding in the southeastern Australia and New Zealand area, do not follow a similar clockwise circular path -- it seems as if Pacific sooty shearwaters make a huge figure-8 in the Pacific, crossing the equator in mid-Pacific waters, and reaching eastern Asian, and western North and South American waters, before returning to their breeding grounds each year, in a migration that covers an astounding 40,000 or so miles each year. Amazing, eh?

Thus, it's not just the whales that are seen on a whale watch that are capable of great migrations. And so, when one thinks about it, a four-hour whale watch that might cover a few dozen miles doesn't seem all that long, either in time or in distance, in comparison.

So, in conclusion, I do hope, in my two posts about my "last" whale watch trip, I have shown that there is much to see and much to learn about while participating in a whale watch trip. And, to be truthful, I have really just "scratched the surface"...

[By the way, I did write an article a few years ago for the New England Bird Observer magazine, where I tried to provide suggestions for birders heading out on a whale watch trip to try to maximize their chances of seeing "good" birds on a trip that is aimed at looking for whales. The title of the article, "Hey, Captain, the Birds are over There", comes from actually hearing birders on whale watch trips somewhat sarcastically saying that or something similar out loud, bemoaning the fact that - for some "unknown" (to a birder) reason - the boat's mission did not seem to be focusing entirely on finding the "best" birds possible - <grin>.]

Categories: General, Leukemia