A mother and calf finback sighted off the shores of Provincetown



John C. Conlon

I began this report on a crisp, cloudless autumn day; browned leaves clinging to oak limbs and fluttering in the breeze. I watch them from my desk. Much of this, or any, report is deskwork: photo and data analysis. The year’s fieldwork was more than simply watching fin whales. It was a year of few minke whales while being a great year for Cory’s shearwaters and parasitic and pomarine jaegers.

In reviewing the year four general topics are considered. First, an historic perspective on Provincetown’s whaling history: a longer term perspective on the animals we see each summer. In ironic ways the constraints on that whaling were similar to our constraints on whale watching and research on local fin whales. Next, detail on more recent world-wide hunting of fin whales. That discussion leads to our 2008 data analysis considered from spatial distribution and individual identification perspectives. Finally, some anecdotes on individual life histories in our Dolphin Fleet Fin Whale Catalog.

Conversations on historical whaling came up during trips over this year. In a report titled, Humpback and Fin Whaling in the Gulf of Maine from 1800 to 1918, published in Marine Fisheries Review (64(1), pp 1-12), Reeves, Smith, Webb, Robbins and Clapham described in detail the hunting of fin whales locally. Reviewing that report reminds us of our maritime heritage. Through the 60s to 90s there was a substantial menhaden fishery and during those years menhaden oil and whale oil were considered interchangeable. Ships quickly adapted from fishing to whaling. These authors report that “in 1885 the Fanny Sprague caught 245 bbl of mackerel in one week and took a large fin whale the next week”.

During the 118 years described in that paper the majority of whaling activity would have been from late winter through to autumn (a slightly longer time period than our whale watch season). This is the time when most fin and humpback whales are found locally. During the earlier half of Reeves et al’s described time frame humpbacks and occasional right whales were preferred over fin whales. Both would have been easier to approach, were easier to secure when killed, and yielded proportionately more oil per whale than would fin whales. Humpbacks yielded twice as much oil per unit of length, while right whales were so depleted by 1800 that they were rarely taken in the 1800s.

Focusing on catches by Provincetown vessels and landings in Provincetown by any vessels there were sharp increases in the number of fin whales killed between 1846 and ‘96. Explosive harpoon and cannon technology were incorporated into the industry in the 1850s and ‘60s. Steamers became more widespread among schooner fleets in the 1880s. Exact numbers of fin whales taken were difficult to gauge. A reference to the year 1880 states, “40 mainly FW” taken. A reference to 1887 states 102 whales “Delivered to Provincetown oil works; probably FW and HB”. To compare pre vs. post technology a minimum of 5 fin whales were landed in Provincetown between 1846 and ‘72. By contrast at least 70 fin whales were landed in Provincetown between 1880 and 1896.

Reeves et al. make two additional notes worth considering. First, some catches were not directed. Whales killed but not secured by the whalers were later picked up by other vessels. Other whales became entangled in fishing gear, a serious problem persisting to this day. Still other whales became trapped in fish weirs. Occasional beached fin whales were also processed. Not directed effort yielded profits from dead animals. Second, these authors consider that records and publications became more widespread over the later time, while older records, assuming they existed, became more difficult to find as time passed. This second consideration’s ultimate concern is that any estimates of the number of animals taken would be conservative especially if we consider the vagueness of the aforementioned “102”, “probably FW and HB” and the like.


Provincetown circa 1900

In the middle of the 1800 to 1918 time frame described by Reeves et al., Herman Melville, in his epic, Moby Dick (1851), described fin whales as “belonging to the species of uncapturable whales, because of its incredible power of swimming.” This comment was inspired by Melville’s whaling experience in the south Pacific in the early 1840s. By the time of his 1891 death Melville’s comment on fin whales was no longer true due to the aforementioned technological advances in the whaling industry.

That technology took its toll in the 20 th century. A compilation of International Whaling Statistics calculated some 723,000 fin whales killed in the southern hemisphere between 1904 and 1985. Between 1935 and 1965 (excluding the World War II years of 1942 to 1945 when worldwide commercial whaling activities were curtailed) some 10,000 to 28,000 fin whales were killed per year in the Southern Ocean alone. By 1975 catches dropped to less than 1500 per year. Closer to home fin whales were commercially hunted off Western Europe until 1987 and off Nova Scotia until 1972. Illegal hunting and misreporting of catches, particularly by the Soviet Union, during the 1900s would lead Yablokov, in his article, Validity of Whaling Data, published in Nature, to state that “it has been impossible to conduct a meaningful comprehensive review of the impact of all past commercial whaling operations.”

Hunting fin whales continues today though on a smaller scale than in the mid 1900s. Japan, is presently allowed 50 fin whales per year through the International Whaling Commission. These animals are to be taken through scientific permits from Antarctic whaling grounds. These “scientific” permits remain a controversial IWC policy. Iceland authorized hunting of fin whales in 2006. Small scale aboriginal subsistence hunting continues off the Greenland coast. This quota is presently at 19 animals per year.

Reliable population estimates of fin whales are difficult to agree on for several reasons. Surveys are often scattered and not well coordinated between areas. In its 2008 summary of fin whales the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN), Red List of Threatened Species, Estimates the worldwide fin whale population. The field of interpretation is open here. Over simply summarized… An adjusted figure for the southern hemisphere estimate is 38,185 animals. This estimate is over ten years old. The North Pacific estimate of 17,000 animals is over thirty years old. The isolated Gulf of California population was recently estimated at 613. The isolated Mediterranean population is considered less than 10,000. The North Atlantic population is estimated at some 53,000. Combined this is less than 120,000 animals. Given the concerns over abundance accuracy it is difficult to state any increase, decrease or stability in most populations. The IUCN Red List thus considers fin whales to be overall endangered.

Here in the Gulf of Maine we observe part of the largest population, that of the North Atlantic. We work in an area where fin whales occur in regular concentrations and are easily accessible to a large human population. This makes them easier to study. That same IUCN summary cites a population estimate of 2,814 for eastern North America from the Gulf of Saint Lawrence southward. This would include the Gulf of Maine. Onboard the Dolphin Fleet we are fortunate to have access to part of this population.

With the help of Dolphin Fleet captains and field guides we collected some 881 data lines on fin whales this year. Three hundred and twenty-three usable photo ID shots came from 150 data lines with accompanying photographs. Between April 15 th and May 31 st almost all fin whale sightings were from the northeastern portion of Cape Cod Bay into southern Race Point Channel. An additional seven were from the southwest quarter of Stellwagen Bank. June sightings were from Race Point Channel and southwestern Stellwagen. July through mid-August gave similar dispersal to June though additional sightings in northeastern Cape Cod Bay and southeastern Stellwagen were reported. Then things changed dramatically. The second half of August produced only three photographed fin whales and there was not another until early October. Eighty of the 150 photo ID lines came from the Race Point Channel.

This 2008 sighting distribution through mid-August was similar to the 2007 distribution. There were a couple of Cape Cod Bay records of fin whales between mid July and Mid-August of 2007 but not in 2008. Southern Stellwagen Bank and Race Point Channel are the areas most heavily used by fin whales within our whale watch range. Between mid-August and the 2008 season’s end we tallied only four data lines with photos. During those last two months in 2007 we had 65 data lines with photos.

The total of known individuals for 2008 was 36. Named individuals from this year are: Amp, Belt, Boomerang, Braid, Breaker, Comb, Cormorant (FWC, Fluker), Cyrano, Cusp, Delta, Dali, Furrow, Hook, Ladders, Lenin, Lightning, Loon, Matrix, Mottle, Nightcap, Rila, Ruby, Sagitta, Sahara, Scorpion, Spike, Steller, Sunspot, Thorn and Thunder. Individuals with previous sighting records but not named are: 06 085 (the first two digits of the number refer to the year first photographed), 06 143, 07 045, 07 058, 07 120 and 07 164 (along with her first known calf).

We had five recorded mother / calf pairs. (DF) 07 164 from the previous list of known individuals was seen five times over the summer and we have great photos of her and her calf. Four other mother / calf pairs were recorded. None of these other four females have previous sighting records. The data for these four are all single sightings, of questionable focus, or difficult angles. Sometimes two and other times all three of these concerns are present in a single mother / calf sighting. Consequently, mother / calf pairs continue to be the most challenging photographic data to work with.

We had 12 other identified individual fin whales though none of these were tied to previous sighting records. Combined this brings our grand total to 57 individuals including the five calves. Many individuals had multiple records for the season. Other individuals had few or even only one record for the season.


This ID work is done through our ability to recognize individuals based on blaze and chevron (pigment) markings, dorsal fin shape, and scar patterns. Several anecdotes illustrate the importance. We now have a previously unphotographed set of twin outboard propeller scars running diagonally up the left side of Cusp who was first photographed in 2007. In the coming year we’d like to look more closely at the fin whales struck by boats. With regular photographs over this 2008 season we matched DF 07 017 back to DF 06 143. And DF 07 164 we now believe to be a female with her first known calf this year.

This year’s biggest surprise appears to be Cormorant. She is recognizable by the arc with a low and tiny nick on her dorsal fin’s trailing edge. We photographed her with a calf last year. With three sets of good photos this year we were able to tentatively match her as a female named Fluker from the Allied Whale catalog. (Her name is now changed to Fluker in our Dolphin Fleet fin whale catalog.) If this match holds she also has photo records from Mount Desert Rock in 1988, ‘90 and ’92, as well as the Bay of Fundy in ’88. In 1990 she had a calf so last year’s calf would be the second calf known to us. The photographic record of Fluker actually begins on Jeffrey’s Ledge back in 1983.

If hunting of fin whales occurred locally today those earlier-discussed Provincetown whalers might have done well in the Race Point Channel during July. They would likely not have taken any fin whales locally from late August through mid-September of this year. Their experience would have been similar to our own through this time as our sightings were rare. Each new year we find what researchers and whale watchers have found every year since whale watching began here in the late 1970’s. It’s also what whalers knew through the 1800s. Fin whale numbers can vary greatly in any given area and over time. Much of that variability is in response to food distribution in general and sand lance distribution in particular. In the 1800s the fin whales would more likely have been responding to herring–like fish rather than sand lance.

Motor powered boats, digital cameras, and computers have helped us to overcome the limitations of Melville’s “unnearable brute” the fin whale. We’ve now come through a third year of data analysis: spatial and temporal information on 56 individuals (inc. calves) for the year. Our data is sent to Allied Whale in Bar Harbor, Maine. Ultimately data analysis allows us to present passengers with a more complete view of local fin whales including a growing body of information on individual life histories. For those interested in more information we have also posted more regular reviews of the season’s fin whales in our Naturalist’s Notebook here on our website.

On a larger scale, and with our help, Allied Whale coordinates scattered surveys from many parts of the North Atlantic. Fluker (Cormorant) is an example. At least in principle this coordination begins to address the earlier stated concern of Yablokov and other researchers interested in the welfare of the world’s fin whales. Research is becoming more coordinated and more reliable partly because of whale watching.

Hope for the future comes in this year’s best photograph shot on the southwest corner of Stellwagen Bank. At 11:24 AM on the 8 th of August, Beth Swineford had the camera in hand. Female, DF 07 164, cruised rapidly through the water with her calf, DF 08 039, alongside. In the first and second frames their heads are up. Mom has swung out her flippers in preparation to dive. The third frame (heading this report) shows the striking blaze and chevron patterns of the two whales. The fourth and fifth frames show their diving arch. Not only is this series simply beautiful, but, if you will recall from every year’s end report I write, there are the problems associated with gathering information on mother / calf pairs. Beth’s shots are one of five sets of data we have for DF 07 164 and her calf this year. Indeed, they are the only mother / calf pair with more than one sighting for the year. The season’s first shots were on May 14 th while the last shots were on August 14 th. By this latter time the calf had grown noticeably larger.

As I look out my window the oak leaves fall one by one; the breeze angleing them past my window. Thanksgiving is upon us. My deepest gratitude is due to those who have contributed to this year’s research. First to Dr. Carole Carlson and her entire team of field guides (Irene, Nancy, Kate, Sarah, Beth, Therese, Gwen, Mark, Mike, Dennis, Peter), interns from local school systems, and volunteers from the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History. The team collected vast amounts of data on fin whales this year. None of this data collection would be possible without the Dolphin Fleet captains: Dennis, John, Todd, Pete, Scott, Brian and Chad, and Steve whose skill and patience made data collection possible. Thank you to Kate Longley for editing the season’s fin whale reports into our Naturalist’s Notebook and to Anna Jankowicz-Conlon for photographic editing. Thank you again to Dr. Carole Carlson, our Director of Education and Research, for overseeing all the written and photographic data entry and processing that data into usable form. Thank you to Steve Milliken and the Dolphin Fleet for the steady encouragement and support to make this research, indeed, our entire research and education program, a reality. It is truly an honor to work with and for people who are genuinely concerned. And finally, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU to all of you, our Dolphin Fleet passengers. Your willingness to share time with us on our trips along with your encouragement, enthusiasm and support is a significant reason we are able to accomplish so much. Join us again in 2009!

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