‘Barnacled angels’: the whales of Stellwagen Bank – a photograph essay | Environment

At the tip of Cape Cod, a sandy spit reaches out into the Atlantic, like an arm, in the direction of an unlimited underwater plateau the place humpbacks collect every summer season to feed. This is the US marine sanctuary of Stellwagen Bank, the place for the previous three weeks I’ve been a visitor on the Dolphin Fleet whalewatch boats, figuring out of Provincetown.

I’ve been coming right here for 18 years; it’s the place I realized about whales. I’m inordinately fond of those animals and like me, they come again right here too.

Observing returning migrant humpback whales as they return to feed over Stellwagen Bank in the Atlantic, from onboard a whale watching boat out of Cape Cod

Gulls join in the feeding frenzy

Every spring, the whales return from their mating grounds within the Caribbean the place they’ve spent the winter, fasting: these clear blue waters maintain no sustenance for a whale. The grey-green seas of the Cape are stuffed with meals: the cycle of upwelling vitamin feeds phytoplankton, that feed zooplankton, that feed the sand-eels, that feed the whales. They’re unconcerned by the clouds of gulls that comply with them, in the identical cycle, after the identical meals – even stealing fish out of the whales’ mouths.

The whales use rings of bubble clouds – blowing precisely calibrated streams of bubbles from their mouths, they swim round in circles, creating curtains of air around their prey

Like different rorqual whales, humpbacks’ throats broaden in rubbery pleats reaching right down to their navels. Opening their mouths extensive, they pressure their meals utilizing the strips of baleen – product of keratin, the identical substance found in human fingernails – that hold from their higher jaws. Humpbacks co-operate in probably the most spectacular sights within the pure world. Blowing exactly calibrated streams of bubbles from their mouths, they swim spherical in circles, creating curtains of air round their prey. Then they rise, open-mouthed like large crows. As they achieve this, they appear to change the form of the water itself.

This whale is thwacking its tail up and down in behaviour known as lob-tailing

This whale is thwacking its tail up and down in behaviour generally known as lob-tailing. But solely the humpbacks of Stellwagen Bank use one other approach, ‘kick-feeding’, to stun their prey. It’s realized, native tradition.

This could be the most carefully studied inhabitants of nice whales within the world. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) was based in 1976 to watch and doc these animals. At that point, whaling was nonetheless broadly practised. A veteran captain of the Dolphin Fleet instructed me that again within the 1960s, one Provincetown diner used to serve humpback steaks.

Tourist trips help to fund research on the whales

With the arrival of the Dolphin Fleet whalewatch, based in 1975 by the Avellar household (Portuguese in descent, like lots of the fishing group in Provincetown), commerce was allied with science. With naturalists on the boats, PCCS was in a position to collect an immense database, sustained by vacationer . The result’s a list of two,000 particular person whales. One of the primary to be named, Salt, has had 14 calves, and is now a great-grandmother.

Calves stick with females for his or her first 12 months, feeding on milk which is 60% fats. One intrepid researcher who sampled it stated it tasted like fishy cottage cheese. Females can bear a calf each two to 3 years, and stay fertile all their lives. They could attain 100 years in age.

A whale displaying her genital mound, which is usually impossible to see

Humpbacks have distinctive black and white patterns on the underside of their flukes, enabling the identification of particular person animals. Each receives non-gender-specific names; not as a result of Provincetown is a gender-fluid city – which it definitely is – however as a result of it’s tough to intercourse a whale.

This whale is an exception. She’s displaying her genital mound, which is normally inconceivable to see.

Some whales are truly striking. This speckled female has been called Ventisca –Spanish for ‘snowstorm’

This whale rose perpendicularly through the water to peer at us, a behaviour called ‘spy-hopping’

Some whales are actually hanging. This speckled feminine has been referred to as Ventisca –Spanish for “snowstorm”. She’s one of many first whales I ever noticed, again in 2000. She’s a preferred performer, a fan of rolling on her again. Humpbacks present no concern of the whalewatch boats. These whales can also be among the many most habituated to people. Sometimes on the boat we joke that we’re offering a ‘human watch’ for whales. As to what they actually make of us, we could by no means know.

Dennis Minsky, veteran naturalist on the Dolphin Fleet, has a wild idea. “Every day I announce a whale’s name over the tannoy system,” he says. “If my dog Dory recognises her name, what’s to say these whales don’t?”

This whale rose perpendicularly by means of the water to see at us. It’s referred to as “spy-hopping”; to me it appears to be like like curiosity. Fascinated by whale-human tradition, Minksy has compiled a “whalewatch glossary” of phrases utilized by the captains. A breaching whale is a “Hail Mary”. Irritating leisure craft are generically “plastic”. It’s a kind of replace on Moby-Dick. With extra swear phrases.

This whale has had a serious encounter with a propeller, leaving it with a serrated ridge of scars

Other interactions on Stellwagen Bank are extra harmful. Some 55% of its humpbacks get entangled in fishing gear or are struck by ships. This whale has had a severe encounter with a propeller, leaving it with a serrated ridge of scars. The North Atlantic proper whale, which additionally shares these waters, suffers severely from anthropogenic threats. In the previous 12 months, 19 proper whales have died on this means. With solely 450 of the species left, Dr Charles “Stormy” Mayo, one of many founders of PCCS, has began utilizing the E phrase: “Extinction – possibly by 2050.”

Fin whales and North Atlantic right whales also share these waters

Whales are at risk of getting entangled in fishing nets or struck by ships

Fin whales – the following largest animals on Earth after blue whales – additionally scythe by means of these waters. Vast and enigmatic, nicknamed the greyhounds of the ocean, they will attain 24 knots, as quick as our boat. They have uniquely asymmetrical markings – pale on one aspect of their our bodies, darkish on the opposite. They use the white aspect to scare fish with a sudden flash – then gulp down their prey. A pair of lunge-feeding fin whales as soon as lurched so near our prow that our captain, Todd Motta, shouted, “Whoa!”, But removed from colliding with us, they gave the impression to be utilizing our boat as a fish-stop.

A white-sided dolphin surfs into view below the water

On calm days, this ocean turns into hypnotic. Below its silvery floor – which Herman Melville referred to as “the ocean’s skin” – white-sided dolphin surfed into view, leaping and foraging across the whales. They’re fantastically marked, with gray and mustard stripes that appear to streamline their our bodies. One got here near the boat, seen by means of that watery pores and skin like a super-realist artwork work by Gerhard Richter.

Of all great whales, humpbacks are most prone to breaching

It is not known why the whales breach, but it certainly looks like fun

Of all nice whales, humpbacks are most susceptible to breaching. No one is aware of why. Are they attempting to dislodge troublesome parasites or speaking with different whales? Anyone who sees a 15-metre whale launch itself out of the ocean is bound of 1 factor: it appears to be like like enjoyable. Melville noticed of the humpback: “He is the most gamesome and light-hearted of all the whales, making more gay foam and white water generally than any other of them.” As this calf leapt, it seemed near touchdown on a dolphin. Hanging there within the air, a humpback demonstrates its kinship with us. No whale so properly deserves its binomial: Megaptera novaeangliae – “big-winged New Englander”, a barnacled angel.

A humpback breaches with a dolphin nearby

John Berger wrote of the ‘”slender abyss of non-comprehension” between ourselves and different animals. That abyss is implicit out right here, within the open ocean. Given what we have inflicted on these animals, and given the long run threats they face, this protected zone looks as if a contemporary Eden. Surrounded by leaping, feeding humpbacks, circled by minke and fin whales, with white-sided dolphins weaving in between, it appeared to me that merely bearing witness to this marvel was sufficient. They had been of their second, and so had been we.

• With grateful due to the Dolphin Fleet, its crew and its naturalists.

Philip Hoare’s RisingTideFallingStar (4th Estate) is printed this month in paperback.

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