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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