Cape Cod Whale Watching

whale spoutWe saw the spouts from far away: distant puffs of water, an array of fountains spurting out messages to anyone who ventured near. We crept closer.

Springtime is feeding time for whales off Cape Cod. They spend the winter in the Caribbean, where they don’t eat, so when they arrive in the spring they’re hungry. The whale watching boat wandered into a feeding frenzy of humpbacks, finbacks, and dolphins. We could see their slick bodies arch above the surface as they dove through the waves. whale surfacingFinback whales are the second largest animals to ever live on Earth. The only animal larger than a finback is a blue whale, which can grow to about 100 feet long. Finbacks are a close second, reaching up to 80 feet.

Humpbacks work together to capture food. One humpback will create underwater bubbles in a donut shape to disorient krill and fish. The prey ends up in the middle, surrounded by bubbles. Then another humpback will surface with an open mouth for a feast. A few daring seagulls might dip in for a fish before the mouth closes. The humpbacks take turns creating bubbles and eating. DSC04012_3Whales can be recognized by their unique patterns. Naturalists onboard keep track of the whales while recording their activities and health conditions. They name the whales and know their habits and companions, so it’s a continuing saga to see what each one is up to.

whale watching boatOn a cold day in May, we saw a humpback teaching her calf how to feed, repeating the steps while the calf mimicked them. A young adult whale showed fresh cuts on his skin from a recent fishing line entanglement.

A hunting moratorium went into effect for humpbacks in 1966 whales archingwhen the population fell by 90 percent. Since then, the population has recovered to around 80,000 worldwide. In April, fisheries managers proposed that they be removed from the endangered species list.

whale tailNorth Atlantic right whales haven’t been so lucky. Today, only about 400 remain in the world, according to the nonprofit organization Defenders of Wildlife.

A hushed quiet and a sense of peace came over us as we watched the whales glide through the water. We could hear their muffled sighs as they came up for air and feel their struggles for survival.

Back in the 1800s when a whale beached, people would run out with knives and buckets for the oil. Now we run to the beach to save the whale. Maybe things have progressed at least a little.

Hyannis Whale Watcher boats cruise by Sandy Neck while going out to Stellwagen Bank where the whales feed. It’s much easier to take pictures of the houses and lighthouse than the constantly moving, appearing and disappearing whales.Sandy Neck, Cape CodSandy Neck, Cape Cod

Humpback whales have been known to sing continuously for up to 24 hours. Whales in the same region all sing the same song and that song gradually changes from year to year. I wonder what their songs will be into the future.

Have you ever been on a whale watch? What do you think of whales?

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Swimming through an Underwater World

Sun, sand, and surf lure us back to the beach each summer. Whether we decide to stretch out and luxuriate or build castles, we might not notice that the threshold to another world beckons right at our feet.

The waves, while hypnotizing us with sun sparkle, occasionally offer gifts: an abandoned home, an ancient creature. We examine these gifts or plunk them into our buckets and walk on without thinking too much about that underwater world or what’s lurking in its depths.

The ocean covers 71 percent of the Earth’s surface, yet 95 percent of it remains unexplored. In this otherworldly place that covers most of the planet, stars crawl on the ground. Fish fly through the watery skies. Lives more ancient and mysterious than ours climb its mountain ranges.

Even the commonplace can be extraordinary. Horseshoe crabs are living fossils that have remained virtually unchanged for 350 to 400 million years. For comparison, humans have been roaming the Earth for about 200,000 years.

Crabs communicate by drumming and waving their pincers. Scallops can swim by opening and closing their shells. Barnacles spend their lives standing on their heads and eating with their feet.

Snorkelers are surprised to see visitors from the tropics adding their bright colors to the grayer New England ones. In one tropical tank at a local aquarium, northern red and frilled anemone grow like trees from a rocky terrain. Their pink and orange stump-like bodies billow out into delicate tentacles. A flying gunard flaps its fins as a bird would, appearing to fly over these trees and through the water.

Striped searobins use their lower pectoral fins to walk along the seafloor while probing the bottom for food. With warty skin and a humped profile, lumpfish may be difficult to find since they often blend in with the rocky bottom area. Their pelvic fins form a suction disk, allowing them to cling to rocks and other seafloor objects.

Cold-water, eel-like fish called “ocean pout” are sluggish and often hide in holes with only their heads protruding to watch for intruders. Their wide mouths and fleshy lips form a permanent pout and may remind visitors of some people they know.

At fishing docks, harbor seals poke their heads up through the waves. They look like they’re examining us as much as we’re examining them.

Endangered North Atlantic right whales and humpback whales feed at nearby Stellwagen Bank. Defenders of Wildlife estimates that there are about 350 North Atlantic right whales left in the world.

Earlier this year, an unusually large mass stranding occurred on Cape Cod between mid-January and mid-February with 179 dolphins stranded, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW). It was the largest single-species stranding event on record in the Northeast. Of the 179 stranded dolphins, 71 were found alive and 53 were successfully released by IFAW volunteers. By early March, the number of stranded dolphins for the year reached up to 190.

These days, marine animals are struggling to survive, whether it’s because of overfishing, accidentally getting caught in fishing nets, boat traffic or pollution. To them, the ocean isn’t a vacation place. It’s their only home.

Related:
International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
Oceana – Protecting the World’s Oceans
Defenders of Wildlife