Friday, 27 June 2014

Whale Watching!

2013_NL_F4_0369In my last two blog posts, I first wrote about getting ready to go out on a whale- and bird-watching tour on the Molly Bawn, and then I wrote about the wonderful seabirds we saw while we were out on the tour. In this third (and last) blog post on the topic, I am going to complete my write-up by talking about the whales and dolphins we saw.

The nice thing about going out on the Molly Bawn is that you can get a good view from everywhere on the boat. We bellied up to the rail and scanned the horizon for whales.


With the rest of the passengers spread all around the boat doing the same thing, we had all points of the compass covered. No near-by whale was going to escape undetected!



We were looking for the spout coming from a whale's blowhole as they exhale when they come up for air. You can see one here, next to a small boat.


Besides the spouts from their blowholes, Jeannine, the Molly Bawn tour guide, told us to also look for black objects in the water. As a whale finishes breathing in, they arch their back to dive back down, and their back and dorsal fin can often be prominent.

Jeannine: With some whales, like minke whales, you would not be able to see their spouts from afar, but only the back and dorsal fin when they surface.


It wasn't long before someone spotted something (Look, Poppy!).


The Skipper turned the boat and as we headed towards the whale, Jeannine told us to keep an eye out for white patches in the water. This is because some parts of a whale's body are white, like this humpback's flippers


The white shows up well when the whales are under water, although you still have to be fairly close to them to see them. This is a really useful tip, because they can stay underwater for a long time, and the white patches are the only guide you have as to where they are. In this case, the whale went right under the boat!



Jeannine: The record holder for the deepest dive are the Cuvier's beaked whales. Only a few months ago, one of these elusive animals was observed to stay under the water for 2 hours and 18 minutes! Another cuvier dove to a depth of almost 3000 m (10,000 feet)! Luckily, 'our' whales rarely stay under water for that long. While humpback whales are known to dive for up to 45 minutes, the water in our area is not very deep and the whales usually surface again after a few minutes.

A few of the whales even surfaced near the boat and we could see the blowholes.


Jeannine: When a  whale comes up to breathe, about 90% of the air in its lungs gets exchanged. That is a lot more effective than our own exchange rate, which is only about 10%. This is one of many adaptions that allows marine mammals to stay under the surface for so long. If you look closely, you will notice that the larger baleen whales have two openings, like we do, while dolphins and killer whales have only one. It will be the spot where the spout is coming from!



We came across one whale that seemed to be asleep. It was just gently bobbing up and down in the water and hardly seemed to be swimming at all.



Jeannine: Their sleeping behaviour is quite interesting: They normally drift at the surface, only half submerged like logs, hence this is called logging. They will only sleep with one brain hemisphere at a time, so that the other will keep them at the surface and allow them to continue breathing and they won't drown. All marine mammals sleep this way.


Most of the whales we saw were active and feeding in shallow dives. This meant we saw a lot of "backs" and dorsal fins as they came up for a quick refreshing of air before going back down.





A couple of times we even saw two whales swimming along together.



Jeannine: Two whales usually means a calf and its mom. Calves stay with their mothers for about a year. They are nursed by their mothers with milk containing about 54% fat. This milk allows them to gain about 100 lbs a day, and they grow about 1 foot per month! To grow this quickly, they drink a lot of milk, up to 400 litres a day. Producing that amount of milk, which is high in fat and protein, is quite hard on the female. She has to sustain herself and also her ever-hungry little one. To do this, the female whale stores extra fat, and it is probably why female whales are larger than the males,

Some of the whales decided to go down deep, probably after more capelin. Going deep forces the whale's tail up in the air, which gave me the opportunity to get the classic "whale tail" photograph!








Jeannine: In most cases, going deep would be for feeding; to get fish deeper down. But sometimes whales go deep in order to get enough momentum on the way back up to breach. For breaching, a whale will go down a bit faster.

If a whale goes down fast, it will leave a fairly big, and fairly long-lasting, "footprint". The drag of the whale's body is so high, that it sets up a convection cell that flattens the water even if there are waves on the surface. This flattened area of water is the footprint.


So if you see a large, long lasting footprint, keep an eye out for a whale breaching. We missed this guy on the way down, but we sure saw him on the way up (or should I say "out"?)!



Jeannine: There are many theories as to why a whale breaches: Calves seem to do it when they are in a playful mood, just for the fun of it or to explore what their bodies are capable of. This is a lot like human children playfully jumping around. Adult whales do it most often during mating season. We think it is because the impact sends a clear signal to other whales about their body size, so males probably use that to show off for the females. Some researchers believe whales breach to get rid of parasites on their skin, or to help them digest. Feeding is also a possibility, because an impact that intense would stun any fish swimming underneath. We see this "stunning" behaviour with lob-tailing. Personally, I think whales breach for all these reasons.

As luck would have it, we did see some whales lob-tailing. This is where they smack their tail on the water, then dive down and scoop up the stunned fish below.


I caught a couple of whales "waving", and I thought that they might do the same thing with their fins.


Jeannine: This is called "flippering" and used for signalling to other whales in the area.


Jeannine: They also often do the flippering after they decide to approach a boat. It seems to be playful behaviour. It could also be that they have an important message for us and we just don't get it.

Besides whales, you may also get to see some white-beaked dolphins. They love to ride the underwater bow wave that the boat creates. Riding a bow wave for them is a bit like surfing or downhill skiing is for us: it doesn't require much energy and it is a whole lot of fun!


Jeannine: Doing this also reminds them of when they were riding their mother's bow waves when they were little. They also do this with larger whales, like fin whales.

Sometimes the dolphins will come up for a swim alongside the boat.



But all good things must come to an end, and the Molly Bawn had to head back to shore to pick up people for the next tour.


Going out on a whale watching tour boat was a great way to spend time with my girls. We saw a lot of very interesting wildlife and everyone had a great story about a "fish" that was this big!


Going up the ramp, Zoey was wondering when we were going out again.


We really enjoyed our time on the water, and while no-one can guarantee that you will see the same things we saw, if you have a couple of hours to spare, I recommend heading down to Mobile for a tour out on the water on the Molly Bawn.

Here is a list of links to all of the blog posts from my 2013 tour around Newfoundland:
Trout River and Gros Morne National Park
Cuckolds Cove to Carbonear
Signal Hill
Boat Tour!
Bird Watching!
Whale Watching!
Fogo Part 1: Getting There
Fogo Part 2: Walking Around
Fogo Part 3: The Fishery
Fogo Part 4: The Fogo Island Inn
Twillingate Part 1: Getting There
Twillingate Part 2: Wine, Music, and Whine
Twillingate Part 3: An Iceberg and a Lighthouse
Twillingate Part 4: Down to the Sea in Boats

I recently selected my best photographs of Newfoundland and Labrador and hand-made them as fine art prints, which I sell from my website here.

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