End of Talon's Story

Humpback whale jawbone
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
Talon's story did not have a happy ending. During the winter of 1987-1988 one humpback after another washed ashore, many of them on Cape Cod. By January 14 were found: Talon was one of them and Beltane another. It was a horrible two months for me it must have been a nightmare for researchers who had know these whales since they were born.

Talon's calf was seen the next summer in the Gulf of Maine so at least he survived for through the winter and following spring without her.

It was not certain what had caused so many deaths during the fall and winter. Some whales were fresh enough to autopsy and herring with high concentrations of red tide in their livers were found in the whale stomach.

Talon may have fed on those herring too in effort to regain her body fat from a summer of nursing a hungry calf. She would need it for the long migration to the Carribean and lean winter there without feeding.

This photograph is not of Talon but of a female that died only 2 years ago. Many whales were found floating at sea and a few came ashore. Their bodies were so decayed that the cause of death could not be determined, but red tide was a primary suspect.

Red tide is naturally occuring but it particularl thrives on pollution we release into the ocean from our rivers. As well as feeling enormous sadness for the loss of these whales (some of them "friends"), I also feel responsible to them. I hope by telling their story that I can encourage people to get involved in protecting and restoring our oceans.

1987 Second sighting of Talon 8/10/87 #3

87 8-10 Taloncalf02
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
Forty five minutes later Talon and her calf finally arrived and joined the gang. The calf immediately settled into to rolling and flipperslapping.

Our boat could go 10 knots easily (18 with some serious strain) while a humpback can't move much more than 4 knots. With her calf in tow, I am sure Talon could only poke along. So it wasn't surprising it had taken so long.

All the while we had been watching Beltane, Tusk and Silver, another whale breached repeatedly not far off. We wondered if that had drawn Talon to this group.

This had been a very busy trip. There was lots to watch but no close encounters since the whales were busy with their own social interactions. When Talon dove and we were sure of the locations of her calf, we left the with lots to process on the way home.
87 8-10 Talon03
It was the last time I was to see her.

1987 Second sighting of Talon 8/10/87 #2

We left Talon and her calf behind as we moved north towards the other humpbacks, but watching off our stern, I could see that they were coming along slowly behind us. When we arrived we found a fascinating congregation of four whales. First there was Tusk and Beltane who were close together breathing and diving in sync. Both whales were young adults (the same generation as Talon).

Tusk was male and had been see as a calf with his mother Equus in 1979 making him an eight year old that year. He seemed to think of himself anyway as a fully mature male, even though eight seemed young to take on the older males.
86 7-1 Tusk01

Beltane was a female who had been born in 1980, she had had a calf in 1985 (young for a whale). Twice, Tusk broke away from Beltane and dove under our boat from bow to stern. It was hard to determines what he was doing but it seemed like he was asserting territory at the very least.... we stood back at a respectable distance.

[Beltane's fluke shot coming soon]

It is not clear why Tusk and Beltane were together. North Atlantic Humpbacks are thought to mate in the Caribbean, that is where males sing their beautiful songs. Were these two engaged in some sort of foreplay?

Another very interesting association came to ligt when I got home, sorted out all the fluke shots and called Allied Whale to get background information about the whales we saw that day. A very distinctive whale (it was missing a good part of its left fluke), hanging out nearby in the company of a forth whale (who never fluked) turned out to be Silver, Beltane's mother!
1987 10/1 Silver

These pictures were taken of Silver on 10/1/87 the last trip of the season when she was most likely headed south for the winter. She was obviously full of vigor, even seemed to be enjoying the turmoluous seas.... a whole lot more than some people on the boat.
1987 10-1 Silver29a

And here she is slipping under the surface of the water where it was much calmer.
1987 10-1 Silver31

1987 Second Meeting with Talon 8/10/87 #1

The twenty miles from Kennebunkport out to Jeffrey's ledge was always a long trip, especially on a day like this when there was a big ocean swell leftover from weather the previous day. People were full of anticipation and that helped to distract them from any queasiness they may be feeling but other distractions were always welcome. It was unusual to find baleen whales when we traveled across the "basin" because they needed large clumps of krill, copepods, sandlaunce, herring... the tiny critters that were most usually found on the ledge itself. But it was the height of summer and the ocean was in "full bloom". We had been seeing patches sandlance near the surface and on the feed finding sonar all the way across the basin so it wasn't that surprising to encounter a Minke whale a couple of miles west of "the fingers" (click on the map for a larger labeled version).
Jeffrey's ledge; Gulf of Maine

Just as soon as we came on "the fingers", things got very busy and people started feeling fine, all sea-sickness forgotten! Right away we saw blows. They were the short bushy blows of a humpback, as opposed to the finback's blow which is tall and straight like smoke coming out of a chimney. When we got closer we saw this strange sight, some people were convinced it was a huge shark swimming at the surface of the water!
1987 8-10 Talon's calf30

But we soon saw Talon and figured out it was her calf, lieing on its side with one fluke sticking out and its flipper waving in the air. We hadn't seen her since the wonderful encounter on June 20th. Once again the calf was the interactive one while Talon hovered in the background.... quite some change from her calfhood when she was the clowning center of attention. She seemed to be taking her mothering role very seriously.

87 8-10 Taloncalf01
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
The calf was at the surface a lot, rolling around alone at first, then traveling with her mom slowly but methodically towards the north. When the other whale watch boat came up to join us, Talon and the calf just dove underneath, without "breaking their stride" and kept right on going.

We moved off to insure they weren't overwhelmed, heading north ourselves since we saw the blows of a finback and more humpbacks in that direction.

1987 First meeting with Talon 6/20/87 #4

87 6-20 Taloncalf04
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
The calf found us fascinating, and in close company with its mother, Talon, it circled us many times. The encounter lasted two hours. There was so much going on that I just put down my camera and watched. I did manage to get some sketchy notes:

"1434 (2:34 p.m.) both whales come up close together near our bow. The calf "wags" its fluke, slashing back and forth just below the surface of the water. Then they do a deep dive side by side. Talon "flukes up" but the calf didn't fluke enough to get a good picture. Is it still too young, bouyant and weak to dive deeply?
1438 the calf pops up again and blows, then lies just below the surface of the water for 7 minutes. Everybody is totally silent and fascinated as they watch.
1445 the calf comes up to blow and sinks back down again.
1450 both Talon and the calf are up briefly, blow a couple of times and dive again this time both bring up their flukes. (I just watched, my camera on the other side of the boat, rats).
1450-1458 the two are down for eight minutes then come up very close to the port side of the boat.
1500-1550 The calf stays just below the surface where we can easily see it or it comes up and circles us. It tailwags repeatedly and each time the passengers cheer. Then it lies perpendicular to us, almost touching the boat with its nose (rostrum). It drifts slowly around the boat rolling on its side showing a fluke, thus giving us a "mug shot" that can be used in the Humpback whale catalog to identify it in the future. We clearly see its eye as it looks up at us. (It is always breathtaking and moving to be caught in a whale's gaze.)
87 6-20 Taloncalf02

All the while, Talon's dark shape, like a huge shadow drifts along just beneath the calf. The two dive under the boat and come up on the other side three times, causing us to stampede across following them. People become self conscious, laughing at themselves and wondering both what we sound like to the two whales under the water, and if they are diving back and forth to repeat the effect."

Finally they seemed they get bored, dove deep off our stern and headed away. The captain never followed a whale when it chose to leave us.... he valued their privacy very highly and did everything possible to protect it. This is one sign of a good captain, another is that he or she will not approach whales any closer than the prescribed distance, rather, they will stop outside that distance and wait for the whales to approach them.

1987 First meeting with Talon 6/20/87 #3

1987 6-20 talon+calf 32
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.
As she slid alongside the boat she showed us her distinctive dorsal... it was Talon!! It was very exciting to see her with her first calf, for many reasons. First, Talon's lineage and life history were so well known since she had been seen as a calf in 1981 with her mother Sinestra. This helped comfirm that Humpback females are mature at around 7 years old, we also knew that Sinestra was a grandmother to this little one. On a more personal level many whale watch boats had been befriended by Talon when she was a calf and were very curious to see how her behavior would change with the responsibilities of motherhood.

We wondered if Talon would allow her calf to interact with whale watch boats. She had been quite a "cut up" as a "kid" and her mother Sinestra had been pretty tolerant. It was interesting to see that she, in turn, seemed to tolerate the antics of her calf.

1987 First meeting with Talon 6/20/87 #2

We watched the activities of this little whale for a least 15 minutes and still there was no sign of a second animal. We were pretty convinced by its size and wobbly movements that is was a calf and it was worrisome that it was on its own so early in its first year. Calves are born in January or February and leave the warm Caribbean water to migrate north with their mothers in March and April. Some go to the eastern North Atlantic but most will arrive in the western North Atlantic by May or June. This calf was, at most, 6 months old... just a "toddler" with lots to learn still before it was weaned (some stay with their moms for a year, sometimes two years)!

1987 6-20 Talon
Originally uploaded by yeimaya.

Suddenly a large whale popped up and blew right beside the boat, welcomed by shrieks from the startled passengers. "I'm here!" A man with polarized sunglasses said later he had noticed a dark shape underneath the calf through most of the those 15 minutes when we thought it was alone. It seemed the mother was giving her youngster plenty of opportunity to explore and learn, with as little interruption as possible but she was standing by to make sure it was safe. As a former nursery school teacher I had great respect for what I interpreted as her parenting technique: "learning by doing".

1987 First Meeting with Talon 6/20/87 #1

Early summer weather in the Gulf of Maine can be very unpredictable. Even though the boat started operating in late May, by June 20th we had only managed to get out 5 times. On three of those days (June 16th , 18th and 19th), we saw three well known females feeding and traveling together in different configurations. They were interested in each other and so didn't interact with us. That was fine with me, I love to hang back and watch interactions amongst the whales themselves, but many passengers were restless, wanting a "close encounter" of the Disney kind.

Well on the 20th of June a "close encounter" was exactly what we had! The day got off to a slow start... for the first hour and a half we watched a mature whale busily feeding. We stayed with it through 5 diving cycles: it would be down for 7 or 8 minutes, come up for 2 minutes and blow 6 to 9 times before diving again. The captain could see clumps of feed on the "feed finder" at about 310 feet below the surface.

After a while we were distracted by a finback who blew once and disappeared (they swim so fast, they can cover great distances under water) but it drew us further south and there we saw a whale breach twice!
87 6-20 Talon's calf03
In between breaches, it would come to the surface and blow, then roll over on its back and "tail wag", flailing its fluke vigorously back and forth.
1987 6-20 Talon's calf 14
It looked "tiny" if you can call a 15' animal that. We were guessing it was a calf, but where was its mother?! We worried after seeing it alone for over ten minutes. To make matters worse, a fishing boat came steaming right across the little whale's path and we were frantic until we saw the it pop up again in boats wake and wheeze blow (a loud wheezing exhalation which is thought express alarm or annoyance). The whale went back to waving its flukes in the air as if nothing had happened and the people on the boat cheered in relief.