Monday, June 16, 2014

A Week on the Water with the Whales (And Puffins)! June 16th-June 21st

As the weeks progressed later into the month of June and with the arrival of summer, we found that wildlife sightings started to become more consistent. During this week the whale watch encountered a number of large whales and specific individuals identified by our onboard naturalists and researchers. The boats were also very fortunate to experience a stretch in very nice weather and sea conditions.

On June 16th, the whale watch headed out to both Petit Manan Island to see the puffins and into Canadian maritimes to find whales and other wildlife. Passengers were treated to a number of puffins and other seabirds when at Petit Manan Island. Dozens of puffins, many razorbills, and black guillemots, and a murre! Common and Arctic terns were both seen and heard as well as many laughing gulls.

A pair of Atlantic Puffins Sitting in the water.

A great close-up look at a puffin. Easily identified by the large beak that is brightly colored during the breeding season.
The boat then ventured to the Grand Manan Banks in search of whales. Eventually, they came across a group of several fin whales! Passengers were amazed at the size of these animals. It is always a humbling experience to observe these incredible creatures in their natural habitat. From thundering sound of their breath as they exhale to the enormity of the long, streamlined body-it leaves people in awe and wonder.

A group or pod of three fin whales coming to the surface! (Photo: Allied Whale)
Unlike most toothed whales, fin whales don't travel in family groups. They form unstable pods, as individuals may join or leave a group while we are observing them. Fin whales can travel in pairs or in very large groups. Fin whales are considered associated in a group or pair based on their behavior such as surfacing and diving simultaneously. Seeing this many whales together typically indicates that there is lots of prey present. Many greater shearwaters were sighted in the are as well, which also provides an idea of what is going on below the surface that we can't see.

Two fin whale surfacing! (Photo: Allied Whale)

Another interesting physical characteristic that makes fin whales unique is that they are the only asymmetrically colors mammal known on the planet. In the photo above you can see the white lower jaw (which appears more greenish because of the phytoplankton in the water). The right jaw is white while the left side is more of a grayish-tan. It is believed that this may help in foraging for prey. The white side could possibly help in corralling prey into tighter schools. This allows the whale to engulf more prey into its mouth. We often observe fin whales circling in one spot at the surface, which could mean its actively pursuing prey.

Seeing this many whales shows the importance of protected areas such as the Grand Manan Banks. The more we observe, study, and learn about these animals the more effective we can be at protecting them and their habitat. It was very exciting to see all the activity in protected Canadian waters!

The trip on June 17th had some interesting sightings as well! Heading out on a clear, calm, sunny day the boat explored other territory along the Schoodic Ridges. But before heading offshore, the first visit was to Petit Manan Island to check out the seabirds! A nice ride over to the island as the boat passed Schoodic Peninsula and spotted numerous harbor porpoise along the way!

Puffins, razorbills, guillemots, Arctic terns, and common terns were seen in the air, water, or sitting on the rocky ledges. Birds flew overhead, around the boat, or back out to sea in search of prey for their newly hatched chicks. Time to time we see terns and puffins with a silvery herring or hake hanging out of its beak. Puffins can fit, on average, about ten fish in their mouth. They have the ability to carry many fish due to the barbs on the roof of their beak.

Puffins in flight! (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)
Group of razorbills in the water along the shore of Petit Manan. (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)
It was then time to head offshore! On the morning trip, the boat headed out to the Schoodic Ridges. With eyes fixed on the horizon, naturalists Zack and Hannah along with Allied Whale research assistant, Julie, scanned for signs of large whales at the surface. Excitement came over everyone when the spout of a humpback whale was spotted!

This humpback moved slowly across the surface and approached the boat several times allowing great looks for all onboard. Watching the location of the whale carefully everyone watched the whale surface and then dive below the surface. Taking a photo of the whale's fluke allowed the naturalists and research assistant to identify the whale! It was a female humpback named Isthmus!

The unique patten on the right side of Isthmus's fluke! (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)
The open blowholes of humpback whale, Isthmus.(Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)
In the photo above, the blowholes of the whale were captured as they were opening. Humpbacks will exhale between 200-300 miles per hour! Being voluntary breathers, they have to consciously think about each breath they take. Their blowholes are their nares or nostrils and are located on the top of the head to make it easier for the whale to exhale and inhale when it comes to the surface.

Eventually, it was time for the boat to head back to Bar Harbor to prepare for the afternoon trip! A great start to a day of whale watching!

The afternoon's voyage went in the direction of Grand Manan Banks. Just a few miles before reaching the Banks, a whale was spotted! It was a humpback whale! As it lifted its tail to take a deep dive the underside was photographed and the whale was identified as Bottleneck. This whale's name is based on the two curved lines on the right side of the fluke.

Fluke of Bottleneck! Notice the two curved lines on the right side. (Photo: StealthVader Photography)

Bottleneck's dorsal fin (Photo: StealthVader Photography)

Humpbacks are usual named by a specific marking or tail, dorsal fin, or noticeable scar or injury. A characteristic that stands out and makes them easy to identify. Individuals in the Gulf of Maine new to the North Atlantic Catalog, will be named the following spring including calves and adults.  Naming whales provides great information and more of a connection with the whales. The first named humpback was Salt. This female humpback has white scarring on her dorsal resembling salt. Over the last 37 years, scientists have been able to piece together her family tree and learn more about genetic connections within the North Atlantic population. Just recently Salt became both a grandmother and great grandmother! Check out the article on her extensive family tree here:

Everyone enjoyed nice looks at Bottleneck. The captain also noticed some bait on the fish finder, so Bottleneck was probably a bit busy feeding on prey. After all that is the main reason why they are here in the Gulf of Maine! Along with the whales many pelagic birds were seen as well such as greater and sooty shearwaters and gannets! Can't wait to get out on the water again!

Greater shearwater! (Photo: Stealthvader Photography)

Sub-adult northern gannet! (Photo:Stealthvader Photogrpahy)

On the afternoon of June 19th, the boat headed out from Bar Harbor toward Grand Manan Banks. After a bit of an adventurous ride, the whale watch arrived to the Banks and came across three fin whales and minke whale while also spotting a dozen or so of harbor porpoise along the way! Seabirds remained abundant as well with quite a few sooty shearwaters and northern fulmars seen on this trip.

Trips on June 20th included sightings of wildlife not frequently seen. With a bright sunny morning to enjoy the whale watch started out with a cruise to Petit Mann Island. The island remains active with nesting birds, including razorbills. These birds started nesting here in recent years even though the island has been maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service since the late 1990's. Razorbills are the largest commonly sighted Auk or alcid seen on the island. They have a long, thick, black beak with white, thin horizontal and vertical bands. Just days old, the chick and male parent leave the island under the cover of darkness for the offshore waters.

A group of razorbills. (Photo: StealthVader Photography)
 Heading offshore it was decided to check out a few areas offshore that are often productive feeding areas for whales and other marine life. Naturalist Zack and Hannah scanned the horizon pointing out seabirds, seals, and harbor porpoise that would appear as the boat traveled along.

Naturalist Zack educating passengers about the wildlife while
naturalist Hannah scans for whales. (Photos: StealthVader Photography)

Then, a great deal of activity was noticed at the surface. Lots of splashing and animals jumping out of the water. It was a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins! Though a common toothed whale species in the Gulf of Maine and North Atlantic, we don't see them often so this was treat! These dolphins range from 7-9 feet long and can travel in large pods. They estimated seeing between 100-200 individuals!

They can be quite acrobatic at times jumping several feet out of the water! A number of dolphins approached the boat and seemed to be forging for prey just feet away. Being in a pod has its benefits. It provides protection and the ability to feed on prey. Together they work to corral prey into tighter schools. Toothed whales use echolocation to communicate and frighten prey. All whales essentially see using sound. Also, porpoise and dolphins are two separate groups of toothed whales. Unlike dolphins, porpoise are smaller, have spade-shape teeth, and tend to not be as acrobatically active at the surface.

Another exciting sighting was of the bird kind-a south polar skua! These gull-like birds and relative of the jaeger are a rare sighting in the Atlantic during the summer but have a very large range. They nest on snow absent places in the Antarctic. Since it is winter in the southern hemisphere they will head north to avoid the extreme weather and look for food.

South Polar skua! (Photo: StealthVader Photography)
Overall, this trip was a great way to start the day!

In the afternoon, the whale watch headed out to the same area, but went a little bit further venturing to Mount Desert Rock. Things seemed to quiet down offshore. A few seabirds were sighted, in particular a large number of northern gannets. A couple of jaegers, relative to the skua, was spotted. Jaeger, meaning hunter, is a predatory bird that will harass other birds until they regurgitate their prey, which then the jaeger takes for itself.

Though it was slow offshore for the larger whales, the visit to Mount Desert Rock was the highlight of the trip. Being the most remote lighthouse on the east coast, not many people have the opportunity to see it. Situated about 25 miles offshore, it served as a lighthouse station for over a century. It was eventually turned over to the College of the Atlantic, which is based in Bar Harbor. Since the 1970's it has been a research station for Allied Whale.  The lighthouse continues to be a functional lighthouse, with the fog horn going off at repeated intervals 24 hours a day.

Keepers house and lighthouse tower of Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse Station (Photo: StealthVader Photography)
 Another great thing about visiting the island are the seals! Hundreds of them can be hauled out on the rocks or in the water. There are two different species of pinniped or seal found on the island: the harbor and grey seal.  Seals are semiaquatic and require time out of the water for a period of time to either give birth to their young, molt, or rest. These seals are different from the sea lions of the west coast. They use their short front flippers for steering, back flippers for propulsion, and have no visible earflaps.

Harbor seals with one large female grey seal (further up on the ledge)
hauled out at low tide. (Photo: StealthVader Photography)
It seemed that the larger whales possibly moved off into different territory for the afternoon trip. But they have to ability to cover a very large area in a short period of time. The boat headed back to Bar Harbor with hopes that the next day would be a different story. Overall, the trip was still enjoyable and gave passengers the unique experience of seeing the most remote lighthouse station and  its resident seals!

The next day, June 21st, the whale watch made its way from Petit Manan back to the same area explored the previous day. With the weather shaping up to be beautiful and perfect for whale watching, everyone was eager and excited to get out on the water!

A great visit to Petit Manan this morning. Numerous puffins, razborbills, guillemots, and terns seen in the water and flying overhead. With it being so clear and the water calms, all onboard got wonderful looks at the seabirds and island. Many of the seabirds seen here are the result of of intensive management and conservation efforts of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Friends of Maine Seabird Islands. Researchers have observed greater success in restoring seabird populations on protected islands part of the refuge.
Petit Manan Island and Lighthouse! (Photo: Allied Whale/BHWW)
A group of North Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills sitting in the water off the shore of Petit Manan!
 (Photo: Allied Whale/BHWW)
After leaving Petit Manan the boat headed out to the Bumps, then to the Outer Schoodic Ridges, and then to the Ballpark. The Ballpark was named by fishermen long ago, when it was once a very lucrative fishing area where they would have "grand slam" catches or hauls. This offshore area has continued to remain a productive feeding spot for marine life and a place we often find the whales.

A fin whale was sighted as the boat traveled between the Bumps and the Ballpark. It was observed traveling fast and taking long dives. Either it was feeding in deep water or just traveling through the area. Fin whales can cover long distances in short periods of time. One study discovered a fin whale had traveled approximately 100 miles in one day. They are also excellent divers, known for reaching depths of 1,000 feet and remaining submerged for over 45 minutes!

A fin whale at the surface! The top of the head is to the right while the rest of the body stretches to the left. The greenish patch in the water is the right pectoral flipper, which is a light grey color, but green because of the phytoplankon present in the water. (Photo: Allied Whale/BHWW)

Long back and distinctive dorsal fin of the fin whale! (Photo: Allied Whale/BHWW)

After spending a time with the fin whale it was time to head back to shore! Passengers enjoyed a wonderful ride back to shore, which features scenic views of Mount Desert Island, Schoodic Peninsula, lighthouses, and Acadia National Park!

A beautiful view of Mount Desert Island from offshore! A wonderful morning to be out! (Photo: Allied Whale/BHWW)

In the afternoon, the whale watch made its way toward the Grand Manan Banks. The waters off the southwestern portion continued to be very active. The whale watch sighted three to five humpbacks including Patchwork, Picket, and Jawa! Picket was the first whale found while Patchwork and Jawa eventually came closer to its location. Picket surprised everyone when it did a full body breach right in front of the bow!

Breaching humpback whale! (Photos: Allied Whale/BHWW)

Breaching is a behavior when the whale launches its body out of the water and is often displayed by humpback whales. However, it is not a behavior we see everyday, so it makes for a memorable experience when the whales do this. Marine scientists speculate that humpbacks breach for several reasons. It could assist in knocking of barnacles off the skin (some whales can carry up to 1,000 pounds of these tiny crustaceans on their skin), provide non-verbal communication with other whales,  stun prey, help in digestion, or be a aggressive display.

There were also one to two fin whales sighted in the area. Seabirds were abundant especially the greater shearwaters as hundreds were seen during the trip. Other species included the northern fulmar,  northern gannet, and a pomarine jaeger!

Northern Fulmar! (Photo: StealthVader Photography)

Pomarine Jaeger! (Photo: StealthVader Photography)

Overall, a great day to spend offshore! Nice weather along with successful and exciting sightings!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Whale Watching June 12th & 15th

June 12th:

On an overcast, but calm day the whale watch disembarked on another adventure offshore from Bar Harbor. Today, the boat decided to check out territory closer to home, hoping that the whales had arrived to their usual feeding areas. We typically head out to a few different offshore areas including the Bumps, Schoodic Ridges, Ballpark, and Mount Desert Rock. All are unique seafloor features that result in upwelling currents that are forced upwards toward the surface. The physical influences of the ocean topography, tides, and currents create productive "hot spots" for food to concentrate.

Different feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine. The letter I indicates the location of the Schoodic Ridges.
(Center for Coastal Studies)

Though the whale watch had a great visit to Petit Manan Island to see the puffins, things seemed quiet offshore. After venturing to a few different spots and covering many miles, large whales were scare. However, harbor porpoise were frequently sighted along with a handful of seals. Seabirds were abundant with hundreds of greater shearwaters observed at the outer Schoodic Ridges.

Not seeing the larger whales can be disheartening, but time to time it happens, especially early on in the season when plankton blooms may have occurred later in the spring. We can't predict the exact location the whales will be or how many-both of which are influenced by the location and abundance of prey. Whale watching takes time and patience, but makes us appreciate the seeing these incredible animals in their natural habitat. We always encourage passengers to try coming out at another time (vouchers given when whales are not sighted) as conditions can drastically change daily, weekly, or monthly.  

June 15th:

After a few days stuck at the dock, the sea conditions were finally safe enough to allow the whale watch to go out. A visit to Petit Manan resulted in seeing dozens of puffins, numerous razorbills, and terns. Puffins were active as they flew around the boat while the island buzzed with the calls of terns and laughing gulls!

North Atlantic Puffins in flight!
The North Atlantic puffin is the only puffin species on the east coast. We are very fortunate to have the opportunity to see these birds considering they were nearly wiped out and only nest on about four islands along the coast of Maine. We are at the most southern extent of their breeding area. When the breeding season is over, they return to the open sea not returning until the following spring! This pigeon-sized seabirds are fast flyers, as they've been clocked at reaching speeds of 50 mph!

Eventually, it was time to leave the island and start heading offshore in search of whales. A few harbor porpoise appeared here and there as the whale watch boat ventured from the Bumps to the Inner Schoodic Ridges, and eventually to Mount Desert Rock. Again, things remained slow for large whale sightings. The boat covered a great deal of area with many eyes scanning the water.

Unfortunately, searching time ran out before finding any whales and the boat had to head back to Bar Harbor. However, hopes and spirits remain high, as the it is still early in the season and our next trip could hold a completely different scenario. We shall see!

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Whale Watching Trips: June 10th & 11th

June 10th:

Though the day started out rainy and overcast, the weather certainly did not put a damper on today's trip. The seas were calm making the ride out to see puffins and whales enjoyable. Wildlife sightings were fantastic as the seabird nesting island and offshore waters were teaming with life! We feel so fortunate to have the chance to see such breathtaking scenery and explore an incredible ecosystem home to numerous marine species!

Stopping first at Petit Manan Island passengers were treated to more than one alcid species including: North Atlantic puffins, black guillmots, and razorbills. The term alcid refers to the group of birds that  puffins, razorbills, guillemots, and murres belong.  These birds have the ability to fly and swim, diving below the surface to capture prey such as hake and herring. The only species of alcids that currently nest on Petit Manan are North Atlantic puffins, black guillemots, and razorbills. However, common murres are seen early on in the season.

North Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills sitting on the rocky ledges of Petit Manan Island!

Three North Atlantic Puffins sitting in the waters off the shore of Petit Manan Island (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)

Razorbill in flight! (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)

After visiting the Petit Manan Island, the whale watch headed to the southwest portion of the Grand Manan Basin. This offshore area is located in Canadian waters between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia in the Bay of Fundy. It is one of two conservation areas designated by the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans. This area was established to help mariners avoid accidental collisions with whales including the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale.  The underwater topography and massive tides create a highly productive feeding grounds for whales and other marine life.

Bathymetry (depth) map of Bay of Fundy and outlined area of the Grand Manan Banks (right
Just about six miles shy of Grand Manan Banks, Captain Brian noticed bait on the fish finder while senior naturalist, Zack, and Allied Whale research assistant, Julie, started noticing a large number of pelagic or offshore birds such as Greater shearwaters and Northern gannets. Numerous pods of Harbor porpoise started to appear as well. All signs that large whales could possibly be in the area. 

Greater Shearwater (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)

Then once they reached the Banks, a spout was spotted! It was a humpback whale! This humpback looked similar to the first individual sighted the previous day. Everyone got a couple of great looks before the whale went down for a deep dive. This whale was eventually identified as Jigger. The name of this humpback refers to the marking on the left side of the tail. 

Humpback whale identified as Jigger! (Photo credit: Andy Wraithmell)

Soon another humpback whale surfaced! When the whale lifted its tail, exposing the underside, it had quite an interesting black and white pattern. This humpback was identified as Patches! You can see how the whale was named considering it had numerous randomly placed "patches" of black pigmentation on the tail-especially the large spot on the right side. This whale also has a noticeable part of its tailing edge missing. This might have been a result of a killer whale attack when the whale was younger. Passengers enjoyed great looks at Patchwork. 

Humpback whale named Patches! (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)
A third humpback was sighted and the whale watch went to investigate. Checking out different whales allows Allied Whale's researches onboard to document the individual by photographing its natural features (tail and dorsal fin) as well as recording its location and behavioral data. All of this information is crucial in helping to protect this endangered species. After snapping the photo and referring to the North Atlantic humpback whale catalog the whale was identified as Chablis! For you wine enthusiasts out there you would know that this is a type of white wine. Most likely named based on her tail being mostly white! 

A female humpback named Chablis! (Photo credit: Andy Wraithmell)

And last, but not least, the fourth humpback whale sighted on the trip was a whale we have seen before in previous seasons (but a little bit closer to home)-Churn! Wow! Why so many whales in one area? Well, probably a result of lots of herring seen on the fish finder and sighted at the surface! Where there is an abundance of food, you most likely will find a number of different species of megafauna (whales, birds, seals, sharks, or tuna) hanging out! 

Herring is a keystone species, meaning that it is a major food source for a variety of animals. High in lipids or calories, it allows the whales to bulk up their layer of fat or blubber which is relied upon during the winter months when humpbacks are in the Caribbean Sea. It also has enough nutrients to sustain  their metabolism and size. Humpback whales can consume up to 1,000 pounds of herring a day!  

School of North Atlantic herring (

Another successful day out on the water for the whale watch! Though the boat had to travel a bit farther than usual it was certainly worth it! 

June 11th:

Nothing like having two consecutive days of good weather and whale sightings! Barely a breath of wind, sunny, and calm seas making for a great day to be on the water! Today, naturalists Tanya and Angie were onboard along with Captain Larry and Allied Whale research assistant, Anastasia!

Passing by Egg Rock Island and Lighthouse leaving Frenchman Bay! (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)

Petit Manan Island was the first stop and got the trip on a great start! Puffins on the rocks, water, and in the air along with black guillemots, and razorbills! Petit Manan Island is a 16 acre island off the coast of Steuben. It is part of a larger refuge- the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which consists of 59 islands along the Maine coast. Egg Rock (featured above) is also part of the Refuge. Islands such as Petit Manan provide protected nesting habitat for alcid species such as puffins, razorbills, black guillemots, as well as Arctic, common, and rosette terns, leaches storm petrels, and eider ducks.  Not only is the island important to the birds that nest here form April to August, the island also provides a stop for migrating songbirds, raptors, bats, and shorebirds. No one is allowed on the island at this time, with exception of a handful researchers that collect data on the birds that utilize the islands. 

A group of N.Atlantic Puffins flying along the shore of Petit Manan Island. (Photo credit: StealthVader Photography)
After an enjoyable visit to Petit Manan Island, Captain Larry pointed the boat toward the offshore waters of Grand Manan Basin. The glass calm seas made it a smooth ride and easy to spot pods of Harbor porpoise. As the boat approached the Basin, there where hundreds of greater shearwaters, which typically hang out where whales feed.

Soon the whale watch started spotting whales. Sightings included two of one of the largest whales on the planet-the fin whale! Second to the blue whale they can reach lengths of 60-70 feet and weigh between 40 and 80 tons! This endangered species spends its time in the Gulf of Maine feeding on herring, sandlance, mackerel, and krill. They can consume up to 3 tons of prey or approximately one million calories a day!

Above: Fn whale going for a dive. Below: Fin whale exhaling at the surface.
Fin whales have a distinctive dorsal fin that is about 2/3 way down its back. Research assistant Anastasia had her camera ready to photograph the dorsal fin, which is different for each individual. Another feature that is photographed is the chevron, which is a swirl-like patter that extends from the eye to the back. The fin whale featured in the photos has a noticeable growth on its caudal peduncle or tail stock. This also helps in re-identifiying the whale.

The other large whale species sighted was the humpback whale! A total of five humpbacks seen during the trip including our first mother and calf pair of the season! The mother is a female named Flamingo and she had quite an active calf! It rolled and flipper slapped a number of times. Flamingo and her calf recently made an incredible journey from the Caribbean, where her calf was born after a twelve month gestation period.

Female Humpback named Flamingo

Flamingo's calf with one of its flippers out of the water. This is a behavior called pec or flipper slapping.

The other humpbacks were adults and identified as Milkyway and Pendiente!
Milkyway (Photo credit: StealhVader Photography)

Pendiente (Photo credit: StealhVader Photography)

Looking at these whales' tails you can see how drastically different they can be. In the North Atlantic Humpback Whale Catalog are categorized by the percentage of white and black pigment on the tail, ranging from Type 1 (mostly white) and Type 5 (mostly black). Milkyway would be considered a Type 5 while Pendiente would be a Type 1 or 2 in the catalog. This type of research has provided scientists with a great deal of information about the life history of humpback whales as well as indicate the health of the ocean. 

With all of the activity surrounding the boat and in the distance it was hard to have to turn the boat back toward Bar Harbor. Overall, a great day considering the boat sighted eight different whales of four different species (counting those Harbor porpoise)! Look forward to what Mother Nature will have in store for the next trip!