Whales, Dolphins, and Basking Sharks

June 8th, 2014 was quite a lovely day. On a sunny June day with flat seas and gentle breezes what better thing is there to do that spend about eight and a half hours at sea looking for those migratory giants our marine mammals and the feathered assemblage of creatures that also migrate here to join the whales at the great smorgasbord of forage fish that the Gulf of Maine offers each year. I can tell you there are few things that can compare to looking over a sea with twenty or thirty feeding whales bedecked with garlands of shearwaters and gulls. Let alone the 200 or so dolphins we had and the three basking sharks. Whew, what a day.

The opportunity for this trip was provided by NECWA (New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance) under the tireless leadership of Krill Carson (Carol). Her crew (Tammy, Lea, Michael working with data) and the kitchen crew (making sandwiches and serving chili and chowder) was again hard working, interested, and fun. The boat held about 100 travelers with a few bird guide types and the NECWA mammal people. We do this twice a year so check out the NECWA website for information on future trips.

The reason birds, dolphins, fish, and marine mammals come north each year is that we have a forage fish called Sand Lance that occurs by the billions some years. This is a big year for these finger-sized fishes. A close look at the image above will show about thirty small fishes at the front end of the whales’s maw. They are trying to escape from the cavernous lower jaw and swollen rorquals of the whale. The whale will then strain of the water and swallow the fish that remain in the mouth. 
These whales have just broken the surface of the water with the baleen-draped upper jaw open and the bowl-shaped lower jaw distended with water and fish. The will close their mouths and swim slowly forward forcing the water out through the baleen and back into the sea. The fish remain. The whale is (of course) a mammal and the few remaining hairs are in the bumps that you can see on the upper surface of the top jaw.

We had a Minke Whale and a few Fin Whales as well as 50+ Humpback Whales. (The NECWA crew identified thirty by tail pattern. The Fin Whales were lunge-feeding and the Grand Dame of the Atlantic (Salt) was among them. This time she was accompanied by her eleventh calf named Epsom.)

All these mammals were feeding on the swarms of Sand Lance. The Fin Whales were accompanied by more than 100 Atlantic White-sided Dolphins.

The abundance of phytoplankton and their predators, the copepods, allow for huge numbers of small fish. These fish feed the birds, mammals, and many of the migratory fish that arrive in the western North Atlantic each summer. The White-sided Dolphin is 6.5 to 9.5 feet along and weights range from 150 to 225 pounds. They are active and seem exuberant. Most of the European names relate to their obvious and repetitive jumping as they travel. In the above image the front animal is smaller and probably a youngster. We saw many calves in this group. Calving is a springtime thing so the young we saw may be only a couple months old.

The first sign of a Mola Mola or large ray or shark is often the dorsal fin. This fin belonged to one of the three Basking Sharks we saw.
The Basking Shark is a placid monster. A slow-moving plankton eater it is one of three plankton feeding sharks; Megamouth and Whale Sharks are the other two. They are found worldwide and can grow to be twenty-five feet long. Most Basking Sharks are found in the shallower warmer waters of the continental shelves as these waters are the most likely to be rich in plankton. They will weigh up to 6 tons. A rather floppy dorsal fin and occasional point of the tail fin help locate the shark, especially in flat water. They are slow moving but will drop deeper as a boat approaches. We saw three of them on Sunday the 8th of June. A polarizing filter might have helped with the photo – but this is the best I got.
The birds of the ocean are all well adapted for long distance flight, feeding in rough water, and maintaining bodily salt levels. At this time of year most of the adults (gulls, terns, gannets, loons, auks, and sea ducks) are on nesting grounds. A few gulls and many terns nest in Massachusetts but most of the sea birds we saw all winter are long gone. The bird above is a Northern Gannet; a non-breeding young bird. It takes about four years for a Northern Gannet to reach adult plumage and maybe longer to become a capable breeder. They start off dark like this youngster and eventually end up almost pure white as adults. So, this is probably last years baby; an elven month old bird that is returning from the Caribbean perhaps. In June we rarely see full adults in Massachusetts waters.

However, the bird below nests in the Southern Hemisphere and is on a great winter circle of the Atlantic Ocean. The Sooty Shearwater nests on islands down near the Southern Ocean and various parts of the population fly a loop around the the Pacific and others circle the Atlantic, covering thousands and thousands of miles before returning south to breed during our winter and the austral summer.

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