Humpback Whale Fluking
Saturday was yet another adventure on the Island Bound, this time to see whales feeding in the Bay of Fundy. With the addition of benches and railings, Russell’s boat was transformed from the lobster boat of a few weeks before. In the lobstering off-season, Russell runs a charter tour business, making excellent use of his knowledge of the Bay of Fundy and its wildlife. It was a luxury to be able to follow the whales with only our group and a guide knowledgeable about both marine and bird life.
As we departed from Kent Island in the afternoon, we passed the dead Humpback, named Harmonic, which had washed up on Sheep Island in November and had frozen over the winter and spring. As fascinating as seeing Harmonic had been, I was excited to add live humpback whales to my list. Our trip also became a birding tour, like all of our boat rides in the Bay of Fundy, as we spotted sea-birds foraging on the water. Especially exciting were the shearwaters, of which we saw three species, including my favorite, the Sooty Shearwater, named for its soot-colored plumage. They, like Petrels, are procellariiforms, an order of pelagic birds that breed on islands and spend the rest of their lives on the sea. Procellariiforms all have a distinctive tube-nose above their beaks that allows them to excrete excess salt from the sea water that they drink. The shearwaters’ long, thin wings allow them to coast on air currents, including the updraft created by waves. Russell threw bits of chum (chunks of dead fish) at them so that they would come close to the boat, but Herring Gulls came out of nowhere, as they always do when food appears, following the boat’s wake and diving down in mobs to squabble over the fish. The Shearwaters, unafraid, dove right in with the gulls, squeaking loudly and running on the water on spindly legs to take off once that they had eaten their fill.
Greater Shearwater landing on the water to forage for herring (photo by Jackson Bloch)
We also spotted Wilson’s Storm Petrels, tiny procellariiforms that skim the waves, cousins of the Leach’s Storm Petrels that Sarah and Liam study on Kent Island. The oddest bird we saw was a Northern Fulmar, a white bird that looked like a cross between a petrel and a gull, with a strange, blunt head. It was beautiful to watch in flight, as it beat its wings rapidly before gliding down over the waves in a graceful arc. Also on our list of sightings were the Northern Gannet, the Red-necked Phalarope, and the Jaeger, all of which gather in the Bay of Fundy in the summer to dive for fish or to feed on the marine invertebrates on the surface of the water.
This area is also the summertime feeding ground of Right Whales, Minke Whales, and Humpbacks. I had never been on a whale-watch before, but thankfully Janet and Damon Gannon are whale experts, and several of the other students were also experienced at spotting them. Every dark wave crest was a phantom whale until I finally saw the slick dorsal fin of a Minke Whale and knew what to look for. Minke Whales are the smallest of the baleen whales; small being a relative term because the one we saw was almost thirty feet long. They are extremely streamlined, and have distinctive white streaks on their flippers. We saw the Humpbacks, which I was most looking forward to, when we reached the middle of the Bay of Fundy, with Grand Manan on one end of the horizon and Nova Scotia on the other. I saw a puff of what looked like steam on the horizon, just as I heard Janet yell, “whale, 9 o’clock!” The whale’s dorsal fin, with the slight hump that gives the species its name, emerged out of the water and then sank back down. We observed this pattern two more times, and then the whale fluked, its huge tail unfolding and then slowly sinking as it dove into the depths in the quintessential camera moment. Damon explained that Humpbacks usually take three large breaths before diving down to feed. They eat a ton of small fish and krill a day, and usually dive for five minutes, though their maximum dive time is around forty minutes. Janet, who had recently been whale watching in New England, had been lucky enough to see a group of Humpbacks bubble-net feeding, an innovative cooperative hunting technique. The whales form a circle and blow a wall of bubbles that surrounds their prey as they spiral up to the surface, and then feed on the mass of trapped krill and fish.
The Humpback near our boat was especially impressive when it slapped its huge tail on the water, known as “lobtailing.” The exact reason for this behavior is unknown, but the slapping may remove parasites such as barnacles from the whales’ bodies, and it may be a defensive measure that mothers use to protect their calves from attacking orcas. Humpbacks are migratory, traveling vast distances up to 16,000 miles, and move to tropical waters in the winter to have their calves. They fast during the winter, relying on the thick layer of blubber that they build up during the summer. We were building up our own layer of blubber on the Island Bound, because Russell barbequed a feast of bacon, hamburgers, and rashers for our dinner.
After the whale had disappeared from view for a while, we saw another puff of water, and then one right next to it, two whales! Humpbacks travel in loose groups, and individuals have unique black and white patterns on their flukes that make them identifiable. These long-lived creatures are both exhilarating and calming to witness, because they move slowly but with so much grace. We heard them exhale water in huge breaths, and we stood spellbound as their tails slowly unfolded as they descended. Humpbacks rest on top of the water, never sleeping, because half their brain must be conscious for them to breathe. Their life-span is unknown, but one of the best studied whales, a female named Salt who was first recorded in 1976, had her thirteenth calf this year, which indicates that Humpbacks are still of reproductive age at over 40 years old.
Though they have a long life span, whales are at risk of entanglement in fishing gear and collisions with ships. I couldn’t imagine why a whale in a vast sea wouldn’t be able to escape a ship, until Damon pointed out that freight boats going thirty knots could hit a whale with little warning, especially because whales can only sprint over short distances, averaging a three mile perhour swimming pace. In Canada, the North Pacific population of humpbacks is protected under the Species at Risk Act (SARA), modeled on the American Endangered Species Act, and has a “threatened” status, while the North Atlantic population in the Bay of Fundy is not considered at risk. Humpbacks were nearly fished to extinction by the mid 20th century, when whaling had reduced the global population by over 90%. The International Whaling Commission banned commercial Humpback whaling in 1966, a moratorium that is still in force. Humpbacks were on the Endangered Species List as recently as 1988, but now their global population has stabilized to 80,000 whales, with over 18,000 in the North Atlantic, up from an estimated 6,000 before the ban was instituted. This success story is not the case of the North Atlantic Right Whale, which feeds on zooplankton on the waters near Grand Manan. Right Whales are particularly susceptible to ship strike and entanglement, because they are surface-feeders that stay close to the coastline. They are endangered under SARA and the ESA, with a declining population that is estimated at 322 individuals. Though we saw several Humpbacks, we could not add Right Whales to Kent Island’s annual record of marine mammals seen in the Bay of Fundy.
On our way back to Kent Island, having eaten our fill of bacon and basked in the glorious summer sunshine (while still shivering in the wind), we spotted a raft of gulls feeding on the water, and with them, a group of harbor porpoises. A school of herring had attracted these very different species to the same spot. Harbor porpoises, some of the smallest marine mammals, have rounded heads and triangular dorsal fins, and usually travel in groups of two to five. The northwest Atlantic harbor porpoise is currently under consideration for addition to SARA, because it frequently gets caught in gill nets and herring weirs. Sound devices that commercial fish farmers use to deter natural predators from their stocks also warn porpoises away from their habitat. Sound is simultaneously a method for their conservation, however; “pingers” attached to fishing nets serve as a warning device that has reduced porpoise entanglement, though their use is not universal. It was wonderful to see the porpoises up-close, to witness the agile beauty of a marine mammal that weighs less thanthe majority of the people on board the Island Bound.
As we approached Kent Island once more, I realized that there was nowhere I would rather be than on a boat in the Bay of Fundy with birders, marine scientists, and artists who were as appreciative of the experience as I was. One of my favorite things about Kent Island is being surrounded by people who are genuinely fascinated by the ecology of this place, where tiny zooplankton are as important as the whales that circle in the deep.
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