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This ain’t Sea World, it’s as real as it gets

May 25, 2010
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I mentioned in my last post that the calm ocean made birding difficult.  This is a little counter-intuitive because you’d think you’d be able to see a lot farther and therefore pick up birds easier, and that’s true for the birds that are up, but a big part of what makes them so amazing is how obviously and intimately tied to their ecosystem they are. When your world is limited to water and wind a huge part of that relationship is manifested in the effortless way they float over the waves, after all, these birds have to travel huge distances to look for food.  They’d better be good fliers.

But when the wind isn’t blowing, the bird don’t always feel the need to range.  So they’ll sit on the water surface which makes it practically impossible to find them.  The ocean is very very large, and these birds are imperceptibly small when they’re not flying.  But even though the pelagic trip is ostensibly for feathers, most people on board are pretty amenable to any other cool stuff you some across, and the calm seas make it much easier to spot the tell-tale spouts of surfacing whales.  They aren’t life birds, but they’re pretty darn cool regardless.

So we saw lots of cetaceans on our trip, starting with Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and the big offshore varieties of Bottlenose Dolphins.  But Dolphins are really nothing special for pelagics, and you tend to see many groups of them as they investigate the boat.  But the bigger whales are always cause for excitement, so I was totally stoked when we came across a couple different pods of Short-finned Pilot Whales, short nosed species about intermediate in size between a Dolphin and an Orca.

The pods of Pilot Whales consisted of a 10 to 20 individuals who would cruise around on the surface, and occasionally spy-hop, a behavior in which they poke their heads straight out of the water to have a look around.  For the record, photographing whales from the surface is much more difficult that photographing birds.  For all the issues birds pose, you can nearly always follow the individual as it moves around.  Whales, however, pop up completely without warning and just as quickly disappear below the waves.  You can’t follow them, you never know when or where the next one is surfacing so it’s a complete crap shoot. I don’t care to tell you how many photos of water where a whale was seconds before that I had to delete.

In addition to the Pilot Whales, we also came across two groups of Risso’s Dolphin, a large, blunt-nosed dolphin species characterized by their high dorsal fin and the distinctive mottled, scarred skin especially apparent on the males.

No one knows exactly why they appear so scarred, but the suspicion is that it has to do with fighting between males and interspecies incidents with their preferred prey, deepwater squid.  Many Risso’s Dolphins show circular scars of approximate size to squid suckers in addition to the longer ones.  I guess Risso’s Dolphin chicks dig scars.

The smaller toothed whales were cool, but when you’re a midwestern kid, hundreds of miles from any ocean, you dream about the big ones.  So I was totally as excited as a ten year old when we spotted a mid-sized Sperm Whale lolling around near the surface of the water.  Sperm Whale!  That’s like Moby Dick, man!

The whale was about 45 feet long, and didn’t seem to concerned as we edged to within about 100 meters of it, close enough that we could hear the rush of air when it spouted at that odd 45 degree angle that’s so distinctive.  Every time we tried to get any closer it would sink below the waves, only to reappear a few hundred meters away.  Even at a distance it’s an intimidating creature, and I can imagine the folks who used to hunt them, having to row a tiny boat up and basically make whalefall before jamming a harpoon in there.  It’s clear that this is not an animal to be trifled with, and for the sake of the whalers, not to mention the Sperm Whales, it’s probably better all around that we don’t do that anymore.  Just watching it was enough, there was no need to recreate the fate of the Essex.

Those whales would have been enough for a fantastic trip, but within sight of land Brian, the captain of the boat, spotted a Humpback Whale half-breaching in the distance.  We soon caught up and the entire boat was treated to the spectacle of a 30 ton creature repeatedly throwing itself out of the water and splashing down.  It was truly an incredible sight, and I regret I did not have my camera ready (I’d put it away for the return back to dock), but I was transfixed and wouldn’t have given up my spot at the rail for anything.  Sorry then, no pics.

So no bird lifers on the trip out, but the cetacean show more than made up for it.  It was certainly a sea change, as in my four previous trips I’d not seen anything but dolphins. To get a grand total of six marine mammals was out of this world.  I do have to say, however, I’d better get a  Long-tailed Jaeger next time, these whales can’t fill the bill every time.

Ah, who am I kidding?  Of course they can.  But I wouldn’t turn down a jaeger either.

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5 Comments
  1. May 25, 2010 11:52 am

    Wow, sweet cetaceans! I’ve seen pics of previous pelagics where they’ve managed to see some beaked whales, some of the most enigmatic animals on Earth. What I wouldn’t give to see one of them! That said, Sperm Whales and dolphins are cool too.

  2. May 25, 2010 1:40 pm

    Totally awesome! I hear you on the frustration of trying to photograph them from the surface (without equipment to track them), but you did a great job of capturing them. What a treat that must have been to see so much when the birds weren’t exactly in a performing mood.

  3. May 25, 2010 3:37 pm

    We’re we just talking about Alaska? Whales abound! You’ve inspired me to go back and see what images I caught during our Alaskan trip – watching a pod of Orca for quite a while is permanently etched into my memory. Oh, and did I mention the jaegers?
    -Mike

  4. May 25, 2010 3:39 pm

    It was derelict of me to forget this, which I do mean sincerely: “Wow, very cool shots, and wonderful post!”

    Apologies for neglecting that!
    -Mike

  5. Nate permalink*
    May 26, 2010 8:55 am

    @Robert- The boat had a Gervais Beaked Whale but it dove and never resurfaced. Apparently Carolina is one of the best places in the world to see them

    @Jason- They were really cool. It definitely erased the sting of failing to get a life bird.

    @Mike- Apology accepted. 🙂

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