Saturday, 16 May 2015

St. Anthony: A Whale of a Story!

2013_NL_F18_0147This is one of those fish stories. You know, the ones where you are pretty certain that the teller is exaggerating about a "big" fish that got away. Only in this case, I don't have to exaggerate, because you will be able to see the big fish*. I took pictures of them.

You may recall from my previous post about St. Anthony, that we missed the first boat tour of the morning to see an iceberg that was just off shore. We didn't want to wait at the dock for three hours just to see an overly large ice cube, so we went to the Grenfell House for a tour. After a delightful tour and a short hike up to the Tea House lookout, we debated trying to get out on the boat tour again. Down at the dock we discovered that this time there was indeed space. Just. So we made a split-second decision to forgo lunch and go see the iceberg.

As we were standing in line waiting to board, I asked a couple of the disembarking passengers how their trip was. They said the trip to the iceberg was very nice, but they were disappointed that there were no whales to see.

Even though there was no prospect of seeing any whales, I decided to sit in the bow. I rationalized that I would still be able to get decent shots of the iceberg and the bow offers an unobstructed line of sight. As the tour was now fully booked, I had to quickly claim my spot, or be relegated to the stern.

Up in the bow area with me was a young girl from Ontario. She had her camera and seemed keen to photograph everything in sight. As we motored out to sea, I started explaining to her how to use her camera to take a photo of a whale. I was also showing her how my teleconverter was able to turn my long lens into an even longer lens, making distant objects appear very close. As she looked through it, she exclaimed that she saw a whale jump. Intrigued, I had a look myself. While we were still a couple of kilometers away, it did indeed look to me like there were a couple of whales breaching. Things were looking up, as getting a photo of a whale breaching is rare.

As we got closer, it became clear that the whales were not breaching. What we were seeing, and had not been able to tell from afar, was that the whales, about 5 humpbacks, had set up a bubble corral and were lunge feeding! If seeing a whale breach is rare, then seeing a whale lunge feed is a positively scarce event. Adding to the whale show were some 20 white-beaked dolphins and a flock of gannets. The sea was positively boiling with activity with a full cast of characters!



As we got closer, the whales disappeared. They had gone down deep. Instead, all I could see were the dolphins, swimming alongside.




A few even rode our bow-wave for a time!


After a short while, the whales reappeared.



For this sort of feeding, the whales blow bubbles while circling a small area. In this case, I estimate the area to be about 200 meters by 200 meters. This traps small fish, like the capelin they were feeding on, as the smaller fish don't want to swim through the bubbles. To feed, the whales will dive quite deep. You know a whale is going deep when you see its tail high out of the water. We saw a lot of whale tails!






The whales feed by coming up at the fish from below, with their mouths agape. This lunge fills their mouths and throats with a lot of fish and a lot of water, causing their "throat" to stretch out. They end up with an enormous amount of water in their bodies!


If you look closely at this shot, you will even see some of the capelin who managed to escape at the last minute.


The capelin try to swim away from the whale, of course, but there is not much room for them to go. Gannets know this, as it makes it easier for them to grab the little fish as they near the surface. The trick for the gannets is to dive, grab a fish, and get out of the way before they end up inside the whale along with the capelin!




Humpback whales are baleen whales. After gulping this huge amount of water along with their prey, they push the water out of their mouths using their tongue. A fine filter, the baleen, allows the water to pass out, but not the capelin.


We spent a long time watching the dolphins, the gannets, and the whales feeding, the likes of which I had never before seen. I consider myself very lucky, because we almost decided not to go out. Also, the tour boat had gone through this very area only two hours prior and there was nothing happening. It just goes to show that life is a contact sport and you have to actively engage it in order to have a special moment like this. You never know when you will have a whale of a time!

Here is a list of links to posts about my trip to St. Anthony:
St. Anthony: Grenfell House and Big Boats
St. Anthony: A Whale of a Tale!

Here is a list of links to all of the blog posts from my 2013 tour around Newfoundland:

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
Trout River and Gros Morne National Park
St. Anthony: Grenfell House and Big Boats
St. Anthony: A Whale of a Tale!
St. Anthony: Ice, Ice, Baby!
Red Bay: A World Heritage Site
Mary's Harbour

*I know whales and dolphins are not "fish", but nobody ever started a story with "Let me tell you about a big mammal that got away..."!

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