1986 Second meeting with Talon 9/29/86 #3

86 9-29 Talon12

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
We seemed to get Talon's attention when we started our engines to head for home. She dove, leaving her companion and came steaming over to us. Could it be she was tired of being whacked on the side by that big flipper? Or was she just distracted by the sound of the engine? I often wondered what our boat sounded like to the whales, and if they could distinguish it from other boats.

I had noticed these same scars on her back when we met her in June and wondered what could have caused them. There are very few sharp edges on a baleen whale; no teeth or claws. Most of the injury they might cause each other was with a powerful slamming tail or flipper, which would bruise not scratch. But there is a knob on the leading edge of the lower jaw of humpbacks and sometimes barnacles attach themselves to the protrusion. Perhaps another whale scraped her with this scratchy lump.

86 9-29 Talon13

She did not make an effort to interact with us, just came breezing by quite close to us, giving us a good view of her identifying mark.

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As we moved off she raised her tail high in a deep dive. When I looked back, back I saw that she had rejoined her companion.

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Soon she would be making the long trip to the Banks north of the Dominican Republic where Humpback whales go to mate and calve. They start arriving there in late December and it takes a month or two to complete the trip from the Gulf of Maine to the Caribbean, meaning they must leave the northern waters sometime in early November. Since they do very little feeding on their way down, while they are there and on their way back they need to build up their fat stores as much as they can during September and October.

Talon certainly looked energetic and healthy, perhaps she could afford leisure time to socialize. We went out for a couple more weeks, but didn't come upon her again that year. We saw her again the next June with her first calf and so realized that during these two 1986 sighting she had been pregnant!

1986 Second Meeting with Talon 9/29/86 #2

86 9-29 Talon0305

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
Talon and her companion came over briefly to check us. We were able to determine that this one was Talon because we saw her white dorsal mark just before she dove, but we couldn't find enough distinguishing features to identify the other. The differences between the two back tails were very subtle, but Talon's left fluke tip had a heavier concentrations of barnacles on it than did the other's. It was a distinctions that couldn't be counted on over time because barnacles build up and drop off in ever changing patterns, but it was just enough in combination with her white dorsal mark to help us separate these two black tails for this one encounter. Talon's character shown through as well: she showed a bit more interest in the boat, coming closer and hanging out a bit longer. The other hung back, waiting for her to rejoin it. In this picture Talon dives right in front of the boat, just beneath the bowsprit.

86 9-29 Talon10

But Talon was obviously more interested in the other whale than she was in us and went back to flipper slapping, close and parallel to it. In this picture the mystery whale is lying on its side, its right flipper thwacking the water with a sharp report. You can see Talon's dorsal just beyond (click on the picture and you can see a larger version of this in flickr). Talon has just rejoined the mystery whale and is drifing slowly alongside while it slaps.

86-9-29 Talon11

Slowly Talon rolled onto her left side, and started to raise her right flipper in the air. I was having a hard time making sense of all these whale parts sticking out of the water, but I think both whales had their backs facing our direction so the near whale's belly was facing Talon's back. I have tried to label them in the big photos at flickr (click on this picture)

86 9-29 Talon12a

During our first meeting with Talon I got a close up photo of her flipper and it was white, so I am pretty certain this is hers raising up to thwack the water. Most of the time the two whales were hitting the water with their flipper. They would slowly raise all 15 feet of heavy muscle bone and flesh, suspend it for a moment wobbling high in the air then let it drop heavily with a smack and huge splash. Once the flipper of the mystery whale hit Talon's side. It made a dull thud and we could see her flesh jiggle. She didn't seem to mind, she didn't startle or move away, just continued to lay there slapping her flipper against the water.

They continued this behavior for 10 or 15 minutes, great, slow gestures over and over, rolling over on their bellies once in a while to breathe then rolling back again to whap the water again.

1986 Second meeting with Talon 9/29/86 #1

86 9-29 Talon+CBS02

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
It turned out Fissure and his companion were leading us towards two other whales who were breaching off in the distance, first one then the other. We wondered if Fissure was drawn by their breaching as much as we were. To us it was incredibly exciting to see these enormous beings fly out of the water and come smashing down again sending up an enormous spray. We wondered how Fissure experienced it under water, it must have made a pretty thunderous sound. Was he drawn towards them by their breaching? We totally lost track of Fissure in our excitement, there is nothing more about him in my notes.

As we got closer the breaching stopped and they began flipper slapping, lying close and parallel to each other, first one then the other. When we shut down the engines a few hundred yards away, they seemed to notice us and first one then the other rolled onto its belly and dove. Just before diving, the one on the right gave what is called a wheeze or trumpet blow, a forceful exhale that sounds a bit like someone blowing on a very big trumpet mouthpiece.

We could see they both had black tails making it very hard to tell which was which. It turns out that this one was Talon:

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And this one was maybe FiveJ or who knows?

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But the dorsals did help. Remember Talon had a white pattern on the right side of her dorsal? Unfortunately it didn't show very well when her left side was facing us, but her dorsal was clearly pointier than the other whales.

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The other whale's dorsal has a very rounded tip in comparison. This whale looks small to me, so maybe it was a young one that wasn't in the catalogue yet

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1986 Second Meeting with Talon 9/29/86

By the end of September we were seeing a general movement to the south. Each day we would have to travel further down Jeffrey's ledge to find whales. On September 29th we had to go all the way down to Scantum's ledge (if you click on the map it will take you to a larger version with labels in flickr).

Jeffrey's ledge; Gulf of Maine

It was overcast that day. The air temperature was 61º and the sea temperature was down to 55º but there was no wind so it wasn't really cold. I came to treasure days with no winds and calm seas even more than sunny days since visibility would be ideal without the glare off the water.

As we traveled southeast across Jeffrey's basin, we encountered a lonely harbor porpoise then a blue shark, creatures that would be obscured if there was any chop. Finally, way south of where we usually went, we came upon two humpbacks who I say in my notes were just "breezing though", showing very little interest in interacting with our boat. One of them turned out to be our "friend" FISSURE!

1986 9-29 Fissure

But he and his mystery companion were much more interested in each other than in us. In my notes I say they were "cruising" in sync rather than feeding. They would dive together remaining down for about 7 minutes and then come up to breathe for about 2 minutes, heading steadily westward. If they had been feeding we figured their movements would be more erratic and dives deeper (bringing up their flukes). You can see from this photograph why his companion remained a mystery...

A fluke matchers nightmare

For every good fluke shot I took, at least 50 would come out like this... to far away and to blurry to match in the Humpback Catalogue. "Fluke matchers" try hard to find enough in these photos to indentify a whale but it is like squeezing water from a stone and we groan when these photographs come in. I've experienced it from both ends now... as a naturalist sending in these kinds of photos and now as a volunteer fluke matcher struggling with them, must be my karma!

1986 First Meeting with Talon 7/9/86 #6

1986 7-9 Talon30

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
Talon spent the next half hour or so gliding from one position to another... spyhopping, rolling on her side and lifting one huge 15 foot flipper, holding it suspended then letting it fall with a thud like a big tree crashing to the ground. At one point she lay on her back and curled her fluke upwards bringing it down again and again with an exuberant splash. Luckily we were not on the receiving end!

It was all so flabbergasting and intimate that I finally just put down my camera and watched, recording as much as I could remember in my journal on the way home... sometimes a camera gets in my way... distancing me from the experience. But I did manage to get this picture of Talon sliding by almost close enough to touch, every texture, scar and depression so clear I can feel it. It was very hard to leave.

1986 First Meeting with Talon 7/9/86 #5

1986 7-9 Talon29

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
Talon is facing us her blowhole is closed (in a relaxed mode the nostrils are closed they must be pulled open). When she "blew" it was a pretty moist intense experience!

Meanwhile the shy whale spent most of its time below the surface and behind Talon. At one point it seemed to gain some courage and we could see it dive under

Talon and move in close to us "standing" upright about ten feet beneath the surface, it seemed to be looking up at us through the water. Then it swung itself to a horizontal position, and turned sweeping back under Talon. It did all this maneuvering in tight quarters without so much as brushing Talon. When it came to the surface to blow, Talon between us again.

1986 First meeting with Talon 7/9/86 #4

1986 7-9 talon27

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
After a while she dove and we could see her white flippers glowing a beautiful green beneath the surface of the nutrient rich water. Everybody hung over the side following her as she led them to the stern of the boat. The stern was closer to the water with lower rails and people had a more intimate view of her as she slowly rose to the surface, her blow so close that we were sprayed with the mist.

She waggled her head back and forth above the water, spy hopping, turning this way and that perhaps to get a better view of us or give us a better one of her. She was SO close to the outstretched hands but knew in some uncanny way what was JUST out of reach. I am constantly amazed at how self aware whales appear to be. Again and again I have seen how well they know where every inch of their 45 foot body and 15 foot flippers are. Brushing gently by one another, or keeping us at just the right distance!

We set up turns and a buddy system so everyone had a chance at the rail and the person behind them hung onto their belts so they wouldn't topple in.

1986 First Meeting with Talon 7/9/1986 #3

1986 7-9 Talon26

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
For the first 5 minutes or so, Talon lay under and perpendicular to the boat, "resting" quietly her blowhole visible just below the surface on the starboard side and her dorsal and flukes stretched out on the port side! The boat is probably 20' across. Her tail began to sway back and forth and we could see her flesh jiggle when we ran across to look at her big face..... was she using the boat to scratch her back? Would she lift us out of the water??? Nah ... actually we didn't feel the boat jiggle.... she was big but we were bigger and a lot heavier.

At one point she rolled slightly sideways looking straight up at us through the water. We could clearly see her eye and the protruberance that it rests in and is protected by. To be looked in the eye by a whale with curiosity, humor even... well it makes you realize how overused the word awesome is.

1986 First Meeting with Talon 7/9/86 #2

1986 7-9 Talon 22

Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
As soon as we got close the one with the white mark on its dorsal came right over to us and rolled over onto its back leisurely flapping its flippers in the air and letting it fall with a splap!

I still did not know anything about Talon so my notes describe her as large, comfortable with the boat and having some weird white marks on her dorsal. I described her companion as smaller, perhaps a teenager, with a rounded stumpy dorsal and who was less willing to come close to the boat.

Talon immediately started using us for entertainment... I don't know how else to describe it. Like Fissure, Talon seemed eager to engage us, staying very close to us for over an hour (when WE finally had to leave). The second whale was equally interested but would usually keep its distance, and made sure Talon was always between us.

1986 First Meeting with Talon 7/9/16 #1

1986 7-9 Talon16
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
The day before had been a bust, it had been choppy and windy, the chop making it hard to see the whales bodies at the surface and the wind dispersing the "blows" that helped us find them. We had only been able to find one big finback and a minke but both species are very fast and neither of these whales were interested in spending time with us. So we were pretty discouraged when we went out the next day and saw only minkes and finbacks again.

But the wind was still and the seas calm so we were suddenly able to see two humpback blows way off to the east, and started working our way towards them. By the time we got to there, we were east of Jeffrey's ledge in deep water (600 feet, as opposed to 70-100 feet on the ledge). Most of the time whales would be on top of the ledge or "inside" in the deep water on the west side of the ledge.

A ledge plays an important role in enriching the whole food chain because the nutrients on the bottom, dragged along by tides and currents, hit the ledge and are brought up to the surface where phytoplankton can use them. Phytoplankton need sunlight so the nutrients are only useful to them if they are near enough to the surface for sunlight to penetrate. When this happens the zooplankton eats the phytoplankton, the copepods eat the zooplankton, the baleenwhales and fish eat the copepods and on up it goes... like the song about "the hip bones connected to the etc." It is truely a great web.

It took us 15 minutes or so to get to the two humpbacks who were diving and surfacing in sync the whole time we watched. They were staying underwater for 7-10 minutes then lying at the surface breathing for 4 or 5 minutes (a pretty typical feeding pattern). One never really fluked so we couldn't identify it with certainty and the other .... well there was that white zipper pattern on her dorsal barely visible in the glare ... Talon! It was the first time I had seen her so I did not know until I got home that this was a well known favorite amongst whale watch boats.

TALON #0305 born 1981

86 9-29 Talon0305
Talon... #0305 in the Humpback whale catalogue. She was first sighted with her mother in 1981 so they know the year of her birth (she was 6 when we first encountered her in 1986). Her mother was Sinestra #0102 in the catalogue and she was first seen in 1976.

When she was a calf, Talon was a favorite of a many whale watch boats. She was known to come close to the boats and interact... breaching, flipper slapping, spy hopping. It would seem that her mother was comfortable with the boats as well, not trying to draw Talon away from them. Some boat captains and naturalists have a theory that certain mothers even recognize their boat, most likely by the sound of their engines, and intentional bring their calves over. The mother then goes off to feed and the calf is entertained by the exuberant passengers! The mother can find her calf again by honing in on the engine sound. Who knows.... it is a wonderful thought that maybe whale watching serves some purpose for the whales too?

I was told by people who saw Talon as a calf that she was small (around 12'). Her mother was often seen breaching and landing on her belly when she was pregnant with Talon. Maybe Talon's size was not enhanced by being a shock absorber? She looked normal when we saw her, so she made up for lost time through her childhood. I was also told that she was known for her sociability with other whales, often seen with other well known individuals and for some quirky behavior. In 1984 she formed an attachment to a large buoy and was found there day after day by the whale watch boats.

Talon's flukes were a pretty generic black, making it difficult to distinguish her from the hundreds of other humpbacks with plain black flukes, but she had a very very useful secondary marking:
86 9-29 Talon14

It was totally unique, the source of her name (reminding the naming party of a talon zipper) and a part of her body that was almost always visible when she was at the surface. Usually you would have to wait for a humpback to do a deep dive before you could see their flippers and identify them. The easy visibility of this mark had further implications... when humpbacks migrate to banks north of the Dominican Republic, the banks are so shallow that they rarely bring up their flukes and so often they can't be identified. Because the mark on her dorsal was visible whenever she surfaced, Talon's presence on the banks was recorded often: in January of 1982 (probably returning with her mother), in March of 1984, and in January of 1985 in a rowdy group. I wonder if she was just flirting, perhaps "practicing" the mating ritual, since female humpbacks don't reach sexual maturity until their around their sixth year.

I am continuing to use this blog as a first draft..... once I have finished my chapter on Talon I will turn it around into book form and post it in my second draft whaleblog.

Fissure's story is already there. I hope you will check it out and let me know what you think.