A Lloyd Center Whale Watch for the Ages

by Jamie Bogart, Lloyd Center Research Associate

Seabirds on a Humpback Whale -Courtesy Pamela Lowell

Seabirds on a Humpback Whale – Courtesy Pamela Lowell
(Click to Enlarge)

Protecting endangered habitats and species, conducting inventories on populations, and educating the public are cornerstones of the Lloyd Center missions of education and research.  One of our long-standing traditions that embody our mission is our birding and whale watching trips to Stellwagon Bank National Marine Sanctuary.  Like our Buzzards Bay region, the Outer Cape contains ecologically sensitive habitats, endangered species, and marine life, including some bird and marine mammal species that may reach our waters, but on the Cape exist in a unique network of protected lands and waters.

Our first stop on September 9th was Beech Forest, the only remnant hardwood forest on the Cape and a known warbler hotspot. The birding was relatively quiet other than some Cedar Waxwings at this early stage of migration, but on the “Pond Loop”, we saw the shallow dune pond, dense with freshwater vegetation, that is fed mostly by the water table, and the pitch pine forest on drier high ground in the dunes.

Our two beach stops included Race Point and Herring Cove, which have subtle ecological differences. Race Point beach reaches the northernmost point of the Cape, extends into the open ocean, and has deep, colder nearshore waters, while Herring Cove is within Cape Cod Bay and has warmer, calmer, shallower waters. At Race Point, we immediately saw Grey Seals close to shore, some familiar shorebirds, and shearwaters swimming further offshore, along with the vast rolling landscape that is the Outer Cape dune system. Biting flies were abundant, so we quickly headed next to Herring Cove where a wave of Common Terns was flying, a large flock of cormorants and gulls was gathered at the inlet to Hatches Harbor, and eiders in summer molt were swimming. Whale watch vessels seen far offshore reminded us of the main event, and the need to head into town.

Photos courtesy of Pamela Lowell

The walk from the van to Provincetown Harbor allowed close looks at the Pilgrim Monument and a sense of the town layout and its allure as a summer destination. Upon arrival at Macmillan Wharf, in addition to a few more eiders, a series of vendors of arts and crafts were busy on this balmy late summer day, and a long line of people were waiting to board the whale watch vessel. The ride out offered a final glimpse of the tip of the Cape and its lighthouse and Race Point, where we were before we headed out to sea.

It wasn’t long before we reached dense activity of Humpback Whales, the most common species seen during summer and very active in Stellwagon Bank’s shallow waters. The educator providing the whale talk informed us of “bubbling” at the surface, when the shearwaters, pelagic birds numbering in the hundreds, would swarm the area, and the whales would surface to feed on krill and small fish. As much as 15 whales were seen in one pod, in what was one of the top trips run this season for sightings. Whales swam close to the boat, the trademark bumps on the head that are diagnostic for humpbacks visible, as was the baleen in their mouths used for filtering, and large tongues used to expel water when they surface. Whale sounds were audible, and breaches were seen close to the boat, a whale almost fully emerging from the water. The pelagic shearwaters numbered in the hundreds, and Roseate Terns, a federally endangered seabird nesting on Buzzards Bay and Elizabeth Islands, were swirling around the activity.

Don’t miss this and other similar excursions which are sure to be hits in 2024!