A Roundup of Naturalist Sightings on Labor Day

scenes from a whale watch
Fluke from humpback nicknamed UFO

This morning, we boarded the Cetacea and made our way out to Stellwagen Bank. We searched high and wide on the northwest corner as well as midbank, and we were unfortunately unsuccessful on our quest to find whales. All passengers were issued rainchecks as an invitation to come join us for a future whale watch.

This afternoon, we traveled down to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. We spent our time with one humpback whale, who turned out to be one of our regular juveniles named UFO! UFO alternated between taking short and long dives, which gave us ample opportunity to observe it at the surface. While UFO was down, we also enjoyed our chance to observe several other cool species. Our non-cetacean sightings included several diving northern gannets and a large Mola mola! It was certainly a fun day to see several different marine species that Stellwagen is home to.

— Kelsey

scenes from a whale watch
The grand dame of Stellwagen Bank — Salt

The first act of our 11am excursion began with the grand dame Salt, identified from the Aurora for her dorsal fin of white pigmentation. With prolonged and calculated fluking dives she traversed the depths of southwest Stellwagen Bank, just north of Little Stellwagen Basin. Three visitations of brevity persuaded us to investigate a second Humpback whale dubbed UFO to the north, 40 miles from our port of call.

A theme of other-worldly visitation is evident on different parts of UFO’s body; the fluke pattern bears what appears to be a crude rendition of a spaceship rocketing across a black sky, while the crown of red scarring behind the blowholes resembles the circular markings of crop circles produced on farmlands. Many Humpback whales bear rostrum abrasions from excavating benthic sediment during “bottom side-rolling”, documented by cameras attached with suction cups to the animals. UFO lacks scars along the jaws whilst adorning abrasions first noted last season, and to see this injuries reoccur suggests the whale may possibly feed in positioning unexplored by its peers. While we remained transfixed on his cosmetic anomalies, UFO concluded our second act with a flipper slap of great strength!

Our 330pm return to the southwest was made in the company of, yet again, UFO. This wanderer had traveled 2.5 miles to the northeast of our previous encounter, but halfway through the adventure the behemoth turned towards the south. The dives were lengthy but each resurfacing ignited our jubilation! As the whale ignited water into vapor, so were the fires of our hearts. Please observe the following images, keeping in mind one has been embellished to symbolize our enthusiasm cultivated by today’s giants.

— Rich Dolan

scenes from a whale watch
Hello, whale! A humpback flipper slaps in front of passengers

Today aboard the Asteria we traveled to the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank, eager to get out after a day of stormy weather. We arrived to find many northern gannets flying about, and also a few shearwaters. We first found humpback whale UFO, a younger whale born in 2014 to the first known observed kick feeding whale Rune (aka Molson). UFO was taking consistent dives, where we observed a newer scar on the dorsal side of its fluke (see photo). We also noticed that its scar on top of its head has been reopen – a possible guess might be because of its style of bottom feeding (sometimes they feed upside-down down below!). After spending time with UFO, we moved on to the Grand Dame herself, Salt! Salt was rather restful today, but it didn’t stop her from taking her huge flamboyant high-fluking dives! (see photo).

On our afternoon trip, the wind had picked up but luckily, we found UFO once again, continuing its same feeding pattern, and staying in a similar area each surfacing. We guessed the prey source was deep in the water column, based on its long dives. We then spotted a few more distant humpbacks to wrap up our trip – with one last high fluking dive of Salt to say goodbye.

Lastly – today marks the end of our peak season of whale watching, but we still have almost three months of whale watching left, and our new interns Emma, Bruna, and Emily have joined us for the fall. However, reaching the end of our peak season is no easy task – and I wanted to share a thank you to all our hardworking naturalists and interns that put in all the extra effort to share sightings, collect data, and educate our many guests each day throughout the season! Their energy and enthusiasm makes my job possible! Attached is a summer group photo of just about all our Summer 2017 naturalists and interns (it grows every year!)

— Laura

scenes from a whale watch

It was a holiday beautiful afternoon as we did a bit of searching around the southern end of the bank before stopping in the vicinity of UFO who was taking 6-8 minute dives. Traveling in a random pattern, we didn’t know quite where to look for the whale to resurface after each dive. We had a few distant looks before, to our complete surprise, the youngster emerged in slow motion just feet away from the port pulpit, allowing an unearthly peek at this creature. The whale then spyhopped and rolled slightly, aweing us as we realize we were whale watchers being watched by a whale! UFO stayed in place for a few minutes before shifting to the front of the boat and rolling on its side, bringing that long pectoral flipper into the air and giving us a glimpse of the eye. What an unforgettable experience. 

Now, a lot of words can be used to describe whale watching but boring is not one of them. With the summer sun fading we searched far and wide on the 5:00 trip but only caught a glimpse of two humpbacks as they took long, long dives. A brief appearance of a mola mola was a nice bonus, however all passengers were issue rain checks. 

— Laura L. and Emma