Happy 2013 everyone!!! I wanted to apologize to everyone for the lack of updates to this blog this past year. I hope that you all had a fantastic 2012; I know that all of us at Bar Harbor Whale Watch sure did! It was a pretty great season, and I figured that I should share a quick summary of our summer. We saw a total of eight different species of cetaceans (Cetacea is the order that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises). In addition, we saw both gray and harbor seals on just about every trip, plus dozens of species of seabirds.
The season started off a little slow. The weather and seas were beautiful, but for the first part of June we had trouble finding many whales. We did, however, come across Atlantic white-sided dolphins on numerous occasions. Usually this is a species that we see later in the summer and fall on only about 10% of the trips, but this year we had them fairly often throughout the entire season. They put on some great shows, and were always a crowd (and crew!) favorite. One day we were absolutely surrounded by hundreds of white-sided dolphins, leaping into the air and riding the bow waves created by our boat, literally just feet away from passengers looking over the side.
Typically, during the early part of the season we see a lot of fin, or finback, whales. As the second largest animal to ever roam this planet, a 70 foot fin whale is always an impressive sight. Fin whales this year were sometimes hard to find, but boy did we get some great looks when we came across them! One of my absolute favorite memories from this season was on a day that we were watching a fin whale that we had seen for several days in a row nicknamed ‘Tiger Stripes’ for the series of vertical scars running down his right side under and behind his dorsal fin.
Tiger Stripes had been down on a dive for just over ten minutes, and everyone was starting to get anxious looking for where he was going to pop up. Suddenly a bunch of passengers began to point off the port (left) side of the boat and exclaim excitedly. Just about fifteen feet off the side of our boat, a green shape was rising towards the surface. It quickly became apparent that this white shape was the jaw of a fin whale. For those of you who haven’t been lucky enough to get a good look at the right side of a fin whale, it is an absolutely beautiful sight. Fin whales are one of the only asymmetrically colored mammals, and have an exquisite white, swirling pattern known as the chevron on the right side of their head. This chevron is one of the things that researchers use to identify individual fin whales. The white in the chevron appears light green in the super productive waters of the Gulf of Maine, and that was what we were seeing rapidly rising from the depths. The whale exploded at the surface, so close to us that we could see the entire whale stretched out next to the boat. We could even see the massive flukes beating near the top of the water. Everyone was captivated by the whale; I was near tears with excitement! Then, out of nowhere, a second whale let out a 20 foot high blow directly behind the first. Everyone had been so focused on the first whale that no one had seen the second. We had no idea where the other whale had come from; we had been watching Tiger Stripes traveling alone for several dive sequences before this happened. But still, it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.
And then the humpbacks came. We saw over thirty individual humpback whales this season, several on multiple days. This included five different Allied Whale Adopt-A-Whales. The adoptable whales that we saw this year were Breakers, Canine, Gemini (one of the first ever named whales, first identified back in 1976), Sonogram and Triton. Humpbacks are probably the best known of the species of whales that we typically see. Described by Herman Melville (the author of Moby Dick) as “the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales”, the humpbacks we saw this season did not disappoint. We saw just about every behavior imaginable, from tail lobbing to close approaches to breaching (jumping clear out of the water).
This year we also saw a bought of jaw-dropping feeding behavior that is very rarely witnessed. Humpbacks are famous for their cooperative feeding methods, including a tactic known as bubble-net or bubble-cloud feeding. Whales using this method work cooperatively to herd fish into a concentrated bait ball. One whale emits a loud feeding call designed to scare prey towards the surface, and another whale expels a ring of bubbles around the mass of fish. Then, all of the whales rush through the fish with their mouths wide open, exploding to the surface in a mass of fish, whale, and baleen. For several days at the end of July the humpbacks in the area delighted us by surface feeding, including several amazing displays of bubble-net feeding. In these instances, we would see the light green ring of bubbles rise to the surface, and then herring would begin to jump, and were closely followed by whales with their mouths wide open.
One day we saw a group of eight humpbacks cooperatively surface feeding for the entire day. On each trip that we went on, we saw the whales come up feeding time after time after time. We got absolutely fantastic views. When I showed the pictures to friends and family, no one believed that they were taken off the coast of Maine! It was phenomenal.
The 2012 season featured some more unusual sightings of whales as well. We saw several different North Atlantic right whale individuals. North Atlantic right whales are one of the most endangered large whales in the world, with only about 450 individuals left. Therefore, any sighting of a right whale is very exciting, and we counted ourselves very lucky this year. Our first sighting was of a mom and calf pair.
2012 was a rough year for right whale calves. Females give birth in the waters off of Georgia and Florida, and teams of researchers do aerial surveys looking to document every right whale calf born. On average, about twenty calves are seen each year. In 2012, only six were seen (luckily, over a dozen right whale calves have been seen in the 2012-2013 calving season so far – check out pictures here). Only one of those mom-calf pairs was seen on the feeding grounds in the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy. Some lucky passengers and crew members on our boat had a special treat of seeing that mom-calf pair! We also saw a large male right whale known as Houdini, so named because he has escaped multiple entanglements in fishing gear. Unfortunately, right whales often fall victim to human activities, usually either by becoming entangled in fishing gear or being hit by vessels. These events are a big part of the reason as to why right whale populations are not recovering at a fast pace.
This season we were also lucky enough to see a sei whale. Sei whales are the third largest whale species by length, and are very poorly understood. They are usually seen in deeper waters farther offshore, so it was a real treat to get to see one this year.
We also got to see pilot whales on two trips this season, including the last trip of the season!! These large members of the dolphin family are always awesome to see, and are the favorite species of many of our crew members. On the last trip of the season we saw a large group of over fifty pilot whales, with many closely approaching the boat and putting on quite a show for us!!
We spent a lot of time this year out by Mount Desert Rock (MDR), the island research station of marine mammal research group Allied Whale. MDR also happens to be the most remote lighthouse on the eastern seaboard. These trips by MDR gave passengers a unique look at an aspect of marine mammal research, as we often got to see Allied Whale scientists hard at work! In addition, MDR is home to large colonies of both gray and harbor seals, so we often got to get really good looks at these marine mammals!
It was a good year for the birds as well!! We saw puffins and other seabirds like razorbills, common murres, black guillemots, Northern gannets, and terns on just about every trip! During our morning puffin watches, we got some excellent looks at these unique seabirds, and also got to talk with researchers who were living on Petit Manan Island and doing research on the seabirds that nested there. In addition, this year we implemented a brand new Puffin Cam! Researchers on Petit Manan placed cameras near locations where puffins were commonly seen, and antennas on our boat picked up the signal and broadcasted the video on the TVs in our cabins. It worked really great this year, and we look forward to the continued use of the Puffin Cam!
One thing that I would like to mention is the record water temperatures in the Gulf of Maine this summer. While this might be seen as a good thing for swimmers on Sand Beach, unfortunately it is not-so-good for many of the organisms that inhabit our waters. This summer there were reports of both a bowhead whale and a beluga whale in the Gulf of Maine. These whales are both most often seen in cold Arctic waters. Bowheads are an ice-dependent whale, and this was the first ever report of one in the Gulf of Maine. Most likely the animal was a young individual that got lost with the decreasing ice in the Arctic. The effects of climate change were definitely seen throughout the Gulf of Maine. For some further reading featuring Bar Harbor’s very own Diver Ed, check out this article.
I’d like to end this post with a promise to do a better job updating this blog in 2013!! Also, I've included some of the pictures that our crew took this past season, but if you would like to see all of the pictures, check out our Flickr page! Everyone here at Bar Harbor Whale Watch hopes that you all have a FANTASTIC year, and we hope to see you sometime this summer!