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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 08/13/2009

Whale Watching for Hungry Humpbacks

By Ann Posegate

* Showers? Full Forecast | Skins-Ravens Forecast | Cape Town Clouds *

A humpback whale emerges with its mouth open to feed (image captures the top of the head; a view from the other side would look like this). Note its two closed blowholes, the knobs on its skin and the hair-like baleen plates on the side of its mouth.

A few weeks ago, while the Washington area's summer temperatures finally began to rise, I had the chance to go on a whale watch in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, a federally protected marine area between Cape Cod and Cape Ann, Mass., in the southern Gulf of Maine (map). An hour after getting underway, a thick fog rolled in, a damp chill filled the air and a raw wind that only the ocean can carry blew upon us.

But the visitors, including myself, did not pay much attention to the weather that day, despite our shivering legs and windswept hair. Our minds were focused on five to six huge mouths emerging from the vague line that separated the fog and ocean: a handful of enormous humpback whales coming up to the surface to feed around our vessel.

Keep reading more info on humpback whales, including a video and more photos...

In the video above, a pod of adult humpback whales is feeding. The whales on the left and right surface with their mouths open; the whale in the middle has already closed its mouth. As you can see, the top of the mouth is narrow and fits within the bottom part. Also watch for the middle whale's exhale from the two blowholes on the top of its head. The whales close their mouths as they dive back underwater, after which their humped backs, dorsal fins and tail flukes can be seen.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae), an endangered species, are found throughout all of the world's oceans. They feed in cold waters, such as the North Atlantic, during spring, summer and fall. They eat heavily in order to develop a healthy layer of blubber, or fat reserve, before migrating south for the winter. Late in the year, they swim over 15,000 miles to warmer tropical waters to breed and raise their young. The Gulf of Maine population overwinters in the Caribbean.

Spring and summer are productive seasons for the Gulf of Maine ecosystem, and the whales know it. Winds and ocean currents cause coastal upwelling -- the process of cold, deep, nutrient-rich water replacing warm, nutrient-deficient water at the surface. This surge of nutrients coupled with increased sunlight causes plankton (microscopic plants and animals that form the base of the ocean food chain) to bloom, which in turn leads to feeding frenzies from fish and a whole host of other marine life -- including baleen whales.

Bubble net feeding is a common behavior of humpback whales feeding in groups. One whale has already surfaced. But the bubbles and blue-green water around it indicate that more whales are on their way.

This species displays a unique behavior when feeding in small groups -- it blows bubbles. This technique, called "bubble cloud" or "bubble net" feeding, was being used by five or six adult humpbacks on the morning of my tour (at one point, the marine scientist on board exclaimed, "Look! A perfect ring of bubbles, and it's right there!" and I realized that our boat was in the ring of bubbles). As the whales approach the water's surface from below, they blow a cloud or circle of bubbles that traps schools of small fish. Then, they swim up to the surface with their mouths fully open, catching plankton, fish, water and anything else that happens to be in the way, and affording us visitors an unparalleled view of some of the largest mouths on Earth.

Instead of teeth, they have baleen plates that act as a sort of strainer. As the whales dive back down underwater, they force the water out of their mouths while the keeping their food in. The North Atlantic population's favorite foods are sand lance, herring and pollock. Here is what bubble cloud feeding sounds like underwater (more sounds).

A humpback whale exhales out of two blowholes on top of its head; baleen whales have two blowholes, while toothed whales have one. In the Gulf of Maine, humpbacks dive for about 5 minutes at a time (although they are able to hold their breath for about 45 minutes) before coming up to the surface to breathe again.

Although the long flippers of humpback whales are white in color, they appear light green through the surface because of the chlorophyll-producing phytoplankton in the water.

A humpback whale diving under the surface and displaying the small dorsal fin on its back.

Dolphin Fleet Whale Watches (the company offering the tour) appeals to both tourists and scientists. Trained naturalists and other scientists working on board research the endangered humpback whale, in addition to the endangered right whale and other marine life that live in the sanctuary. During it's 2008 season, Dolphin Fleet staff observed around 300 individual humpback whales, which are identified by scars on their backs and markings on their tail flukes. There are an estimated 550 humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine.

A humpback providing a whale of a tail for the tourists to tell.

All photos and video by Ann Posegate

By Ann Posegate  | August 13, 2009; 10:30 AM ET
Categories:  Nature, Photography, Posegate  
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Cool photos!

That is very interesting about the whales using bubbles to trap their prey. And your ship being caught in a bubble ring! How exciting!

Have you seen the video of the dolphins playing with bubble rings? I find it mesmerizing.

Mr. Q.

Posted by: Mr_Q | August 13, 2009 11:52 AM | Report abuse

Mr. Q, thanks! It was quite an exhilarating and educational experience. I hadn't seen the dolphin video before ... amazing.

Posted by: Ann-CapitalWeatherGang | August 13, 2009 2:36 PM | Report abuse

Ann, fascinating story and great pix!

Posted by: SteveT-CapitalWeatherGang | August 13, 2009 8:43 PM | Report abuse

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