Most birders are into more than just birds. Some like butterflies or dragonflies, some go nuts over the occasional herp. These other interests rarely manifest themselves fully when we’re out in the field, for most of us birds are and will remain number one in our affections, but I’ve never known a birder to turn down the opportunity to appreciate other organisms given the chance to enjoy a particularly flashy one. Pelagic birding offers the opportunity to see some pretty amazing seabirds, but an even better opportunity to enjoy some of the most charismatic mammals on earth, those that live at sea and never ever come to shore. Dolphins, porpoises, dare I suggest whales, even? The same combination of winds, water, and undersea topography that make the waters off the Outer Banks in North Carolina such a fantastic place for seabirds attract cetaceans too. And any trip offshore is likely to come across some fantastic experiences with these mammals in their element.
When I was offshore this past weekend we had cetaceans on both days, but different species each time out, as the diversity is incredible. Saturday, we came upon a small pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales, large dolphins with blunt heads and sleek black skin. Their natural curiosity makes for some exciting photos as the whales cruised around and beneath the boat. Often times they were actually too close for photos of anything but close up shots of that rubbery hide. They stayed with us for 15 minutes or so before heading off, a great experience for everyone on board.
Rarer, but seen both days, were the enigmatic Cuvier’s Beaked Whales, one of the most widely distributed meoplodont whales, but still a mystery in many ways. Just over 20 feet long and capable of diving 4000 feet or more for deep sea squid, the Cuvier’s lay low on the water and can be extremely difficult to spot as they loaf near the surface. We found a few small pods, but only one group was seen well. The whales have short beaks, like a stunted dolphin, which they very rarely stick above the surface. In the photo below, you can just see the face of one Cuvier’s Beaked Whale on the left.
That’s pretty unusual, though. What you’d see most of the time was the long back and the tiny dorsal fine which, in many individuals, is adorned with a unique pattern of scarring, probably from sparring males. Some of the bigger adult whales were heavily scarred, and those that track Cuvier’s Beaked Whales off the coast of North Carolina and beyond (and yes, these people apparently exist), can identify individual whales over a period of years by their back and fin scarring. Cool stuff.
The Beaked Whales were hardly the most decorated. On Sunday we came across a large pod of Risso’s Dolphin, a big, blunt-nosed dolphin species also called the Gray Grampus, whose entire body is spackled with some seriously rough-looking scratches. So much so that it makes you wonder what’s going on down there. Something to do with the females I imagine. Nothing but trouble.
We traveled with this pod for nearly half an hour, getting up close and personal with these odd cetaceans that don’t generally follow boats or show well for pelagic groups. We got to know some of the individuals in the group, particularly a very scratched up male who was missing half a dorsal fin. “Stumpy” was recognizable wherever he showed up.
Like the beaked whales, Risso’s Dolphins feed almost exclusively on squid, and the heavy scarring may be as much a result of epic undersea battles as sparring males. Though while both the males and females were scarred, the males were significantly moreso. In fact, the fact that the big males were practically white made following them underwater much easier than picking a spot and waiting, mostly unsuccessfully, for a whale to leap into frame. It ended up being a piece of cake. Plus, the relatively calm sea wase probably less good for seabirds than we would have liked, but it made finding and following whales much more predictable.
Other cetacean species seen over the weekend include the ever-present Bottlenose Dolphins and the fun little Spotted Dolphins. No photos there, but who needs them? The ones we got were fantastic enough.
“But what about the birds?”, I can hear you say. They’re coming, but need just a little more time. Patience, friends. Soon enough.