Saturday, 11 September 2004

Restaurant for Whales

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off Massachusetts is a magnet for hungry whales. The Bank is an underwater plateau that forces nutrient-rich waters from the depths towards the ocean surface and, when these combine with late summer sunlight to cause plankton blooms, there's an explosion of life with whales at the top of the food web.

In September 2004 I travelled all the way to Massachusetts for a whale-packed long weekend. We went out on three whale-watches to Cape Cod Bay and Stellwagen Bank and saw over 100 whales and dolphins.

On our first whale-watch the fin whales were much more numerous than the humpbacks. Being less blubbery and buoyant, fin whales don't need to lift their tail flukes when they dive and also 'sit low' in the water, so they're more difficult to photograph than the humpbacks.

The 'star attractions' in late summer and early autumn are the humpback whales which lunge-feed on the shoals of small fish. They often dive, showing their tail flukes, to the delight of the whale-watchers.

Many individual animals are known to the researchers on board the whale-watch boats, who recognise the distinctive markings on the underside of the whales' tail flukes. We saw one animal - 'Buzzard' - on every trip, and also 'Eden', 'Circuit' and 'Polevault' plus some unknown individuals, although I confess I don't know who's who in these photos.


We weren't really expecting to see pilot whales, in fact I'd just been to get a mug of hot chocolate from the galley when they appeared. There were around 50 animals including a calf which was so recently born that it still had its foetal folds - the marks made when a calf is scrunched up in its mother's womb. It was quite an experience standing in the bow of the whale-watch boat drinking hot chocolate and watching so many whales in a calm, blue sea!

Thursday, 9 September 2004

Formby's red squirrels

Flying from Manchester to Massachusetts tomorrow for a long weekend of whale-watching, so diverted to Lancashire's Formby Point to see the red squirrels. After sitting quietly in the woods with my monkey nut bait, I was rewarded with close encounters.

Saturday, 4 September 2004

Hungry barn swallow chicks

Barn swallows busy raising their chicks in my pony's stable.

Saturday, 31 January 2004

Gentle Giants in Mexico

The sheltered lagoons of Mexico's Baja Peninsular provide a perfect place for grey whales to breed. This fact was once exploited by commercial whalers, who relentlessly slaughtered the animals there until only a few hundred remained. In 1946 the species was protected and the eastern Pacific population made a remarkable recovery to over 20,000 individuals, although the western Pacific population is still Critically Endangered.

The grey whale was once known as the 'devil fish', because mothers were known to attack the whalers' boats in defence of their calves. Now these gentle giants are renown instead for their friendliness and curiosity.

From December to April, small wooden fishing boats called pangas - just half the size of an adult grey whale - take tourists out on the lagoons.
The animals approach the boats and appear to seek human contact.

These are some photos from a short trip to Laguna Ojo de Liebre - the most northerly of the breeding lagoons - in January 2004.

To reach the lagoon we made a long journey by road which took us through some extremely arid landscape. The cacti along the route were amazing in terms of both their size and shape.

At the lagoon, the baby grey whales are around 4.5 metres (14.5 feet) long at birth, but this one (just visible on the left of the first picture below) looked tiny next to its mother who was probably about 14 metres (46 feet) long.

As well as close encounters with mothers and their babies, there was lots of other activity to observe, including breaching, flipper-slapping (right) and spyhopping, fluking and mating (below).

The mating groups typically comprise one female and two to five males. This one involved three whales and was fairly chaotic! 

The bones of a whale that had been washed up dead on the shore of a lagoon had been reconstructed into a full skeleton. This gave visitors a rare chance to 'see inside' a whale and appreciate the similarities and differences between cetacean skeletons and our own. The upper part of a grey whale skull had also been washed up on another shore.

Baja's lagoons are home to the usual compliment of fish-eating birds, including brown pelicans and ospreys. Nesting platforms had been built for the ospreys, which they seemed to have taken to.