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Aug. 05, 2011

Science Dad on Whales

by Vince Harriman

Click to enlarge images

We decided to add some science to our vacation this year, and a whale watch seemed like the perfect choice. We drove up to Provincetown, Massachusetts, the Northeastern most point of Cape Cod and the sight of some really great whale watching. We headed out mid-afternoon and were rewarded with one of the very best whale watching days of the summer according to the naturalist on board. Just to give an idea of how much whale activity we saw, take a look at these three photos:

In these photos you can actually see two different whales breaching, one close to the boat and the other about one hundred meters away. Our entire day was filled with spectacular breaches, rolls, tails, and other whale behavior.

We learned that there are two different types of whales, toothed whales and baleen whales. Toothed whales have large teeth, just like humans. These teeth can be up to 8 inches long and a sperm whale has dozens of them. They prey on large fish and giant squid. Baleen whales have a structure in their mouths of baleen plates that act as filters -- they eat very small fish and plankton.

The most common whales seen in Cape Cod are humpback and Minke. The most common activity is spouting. Since whales are mammals, they breathe oxygen out of the air like we do. They breathe using the blowhole located at the top of their head/back and when they exhale you can frequently see a plume of mist coming out of the blowhole. This is called spouting and it looks like this:

Two whales spouting -- strong on the left, faint on the right

Another common activity is called a fluking dive. This is when a whale heads straight down and starts by sticking nose down and tail up. The tail rises up out of the water and the whale dives down. This is handy for scientists and whale watchers because each whale has a unique tail pattern, much like fingerprints, that allows them to be identified. This is a picture of a whale preparing to dive:

Here is another shot of a different whale with a very different tail pattern:

These two whales are 'flippering' -- lying on their sides, they stick a flipper or flipper and tail out of the water. This photo shows both:

Here is a fin up close:

This whale is flippering, but notice the angle of the fins -- the whale is lying upside-down on its back:

Here is the same whale as in the first three shots doing a side breach:

Finally, as the boat was about to turn back to shore, Science Mom grabbed the camera and took some great shots of the harbor seals that were out playing with the whales:

You can learn more about whales by visiting the Whale Watch website-they have lots of great pages and links. You can also visit organizations like Save the Whales, Whale Net, and for Pacific whales, the Whale Museum.

We saw almost fifty different individual whales -- it was amazing! If you can get anywhere near a whale boat, you should. Seeing a whale in its natural habitat is an amazing experience. It is one thing to read in a book that a whale is longer than a school bus and another thing to see one swim slowly by and to actually see that it is longer than a school bus! If you have any whale, dolphin, or porpoise stories, please leave a comment. I'd love to hear about your experience!

About Vince Harriman

Science Dad, AKA Vince Harriman, is a freelance writer living in Annapolis. His two sons, Beckett-6 and Rowan-2 1/2 ask him 'why' approximately 6,542 times a day.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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