Surfacing Finback



John C. Conlon

2006 was a very exciting year of whalewatching. While there were very few sightings of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, the remainder of the season was quite spectacular. Harbor porpoise dotted the early season and humpback and minke whales were abundant later in the summer. Gray seals along the Race Point area were consistent as were harbor seals on the breakwater and offshore on Stellwagen Bank. It was arguably one of the best years for pelagic birding over the past 25 years. I found the steady sightings of jaegers through the summer and fulmars in the later autumn to be particularly high birding points. The year closed with a sighting of a pod of Risso’s dolphins; an offshore dolphin species that rarely makes it into whale watching range.

This year Captains and naturalists of the Dolphin Fleet made a considerable and steady effort to observe finback whales. The respective skills at both boat handling and camera handling were invaluable.

Finbacks are easily overlooked by both field researchers and educators. The reasons for overlooking them are simple: they are fast and seemingly aloof. Even with excellent sightings, individuals are difficult to distinguish from one another. The technique of identifying individual finbacks is simple; recognize differences in pigment markings, dorsal fin size and shape and scar patterns. The difficulty is that the pigment markings are not highly contrasting black and white but rather many different shades of grey.
Dorsal fin and scar patterns are more obvious. But ultimately observers must come to grips with the finbacks speed. Finback whales can cruise up to 10 to 15 miles per hour. On occasion, they hit even higher bursts of speed.   One day I watched with amazement and from a distance as Captain George Milliken tried unsuccessfully to get a look at a finback that was cruising at 16 knots (or 18 miles per hour). Not bad speed for a 60 foot long, 60 ton animal moving through water.

Research on finback whales requires a lot of time, patience and skill on boats as well as at the computer. After all the time at sea and hours of photo analysis, we recorded a minimum of 35 individuals.  

The rewards, however, were worth the effort. An unnamed mother was sighted with a calf in mid-July and made occasional appearances over the remainder of the summer. This was particularly exciting as we rarely see mother / calf pairs of fin whales off Cape Cod. We are looking forward to the calf’s return next summer.

Many of the summer’s fin whales were sighted repeatedly over the season. Some of these individuals were long time visitors to local waters.

Loon or Lune was photographed on 7 occasions between April and August this year. The crescent scar on its left side resembles an arching loon. However, some researchers say the scar resembles a crescent moon- hence Lune. Lune always made more sense to me. In either case the scar was difficult to see until the animal arched high for a deep dive. A couple of summers ago, however, Lune or Loon was hit by a high speed ferry in the Race Point area. The ferry tore a broad gash across the animal’s back, just forward of the dorsal fin as well as a substantial portion of the dorsal fin’s trailing edge. Now, we recognize Loon or Lune from a more dramatic scar reminding us of the potential hazard of high-speed vessels to whales.
Scorpion, one of the first whales that I recognized as an individual, was photographed several times as well. Her thin and double nicked dorsal fin makes her easy to identify. She had her only recorded calf in 1985 and has been photographed off Jeffery’s Ledge, miles North of Provincetown. Scorpion is one of the most consistently sighted finback whales in the Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank area, having been recorded here in at least 12 of the 25 years between 1981 and 2006.
Braid, an adult male, seen here regularly since 1980 shows the healed over wounds of two sets of outboard propeller encounters. He was recorded on 8 days between April and August. On another occasion a very emaciated fin whale was recorded. Possible reasons for the whale’s condition include difficulty in feeding, serious illness or injury or even the loss of fitness in the stages of advancing age. All speculation and from our vantage point we would never be able to know for sure what was the reason for the animals condition. Given the difficulty of observing finbacks these individuals are often seen more often than they are recorded.

Captain John Vaques and I spent several trips working with 7 or 8 finback whales (singles, pairs and sometimes triplets) as they fed among schools of bluefin tuna and tuna fishing boats just outside the Peaked Hill Bars north of Provincetown and Truro. Finbacks and bluefins are here for the same reason; the dense schools of sand lance that are their major food source. One day, naturalist Kate Longley shot a beautiful series of photos of a finback as it arched and pulled its tail high out of the water. This is something that finbacks very rarely do as they generally dive at shallow angles against the water’s surface.

Ultimately this year’s collected data will be cross referenced with my own data from previous years as well as the database of Allied Whale at College of the Atlantic (COA) in Bar Harbor, Maine. COA houses one of the largest data bases on finback whales and their behavior anywhere in the world. The development of an individual fin whale identification catalogue for use by field researchers and naturalists will facilitate the identification of finback whales in the field. And the Dolphin Fleet’s affiliation with the College of the Atlantic will certainly strengthen our understanding of finback whales in the western North Atlantic Ocean.

 Easier and more effective communication between field researchers translates into a better understanding of finback whales for whale watch passengers. Facilitating the recognition of individuals in the field will rapidly increase our understanding of the finback’s role in our local, marine environment and broaden the experience of whale watch passengers that visit this area. More importantly, I hope it inspires a sense of wonder into the beauty of finbacks, a beauty that is shrouded by enigmatic behavior and aloofness in an aquatic world that is connected, yet seems so foreign to us boat-bound human beings.  

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