The New England Aquarium’s aerial survey team has been conducting systematic aerial surveys in southern New England since 2011. Our surveys collect valuable data on many marine species like whales, dolphins, sharks, and sea turtles. This long-term data set contributes to developing wind energy sustainably by helping to monitor changes in populations, animal health, and trends in occurrence and habitat usage. We’d like to share some of our more interesting sightings this summer through these blogs and photos! These surveys are currently sponsored by MassCEC and BOEM. 

All in the family: Humpback siblings spotted in the same feeding area

Updated August 8
Mostaza (right) rolling upside down while cooperatively bubble-feeding with another whale.
Mostaza (right) rolling upside down while cooperatively bubble-feeding with another whale.

All large whale species have certain physical characteristics that allow us to identify them individually. Right whales have unique callosity patterns on the top of their heads, which makes them perfect subjects for identifying from a survey plane. Humpback whales are mostly identified by the pattern on the underside of their fluke, or tail, which means that most of the humpbacks we see on our surveys, we can’t identify as an individual. However, sometimes we get lucky if a whale rolls over while feeding or socializing.  

When we are able to photograph the underside of the fluke on our aerial surveys, we send photos to the Humpback Whale Studies Program at the Center for Coastal Studies to identify the individuals based on their unique features. In late June we photographed a bubble-feeding aggregation that had two well-known Gulf of Maine humpbacks that are actually sisters: Thalassa and Mostaza!  

These whales are the daughters of Salt, one of the most famous humpbacks and among the first humpbacks to be recognized by researchers in Cape Cod Bay in the 1970s, due to the white scarring along her dorsal fin that looks like salt was sprinkled on it. Thalassa (born in 1985) and Mostaza (born in 2000) are both adult females who have each had several calves.  

On our survey, Thalassa was flipper-slapping at the surface, which allowed us to get some good photos of the underside of her fluke. Mostaza was bubble-feeding and would often roll upside down when she surfaced–giving her own unique “spin” on the feeding technique. We had previously documented Mostaza feeding in May, so it was great to see her still in the area! While it is tempting to think that Thalassa and Mostaza stick close to each other because of their family ties, we know that humpbacks don’t exhibit long-term associations with family members. It’s more likely that they were both drawn to the area by the large schools of prey fish! We are grateful for the opportunity to collaborate with the Center for Coastal Studies and contribute sightings to their humpback whale catalog.  

Bubble-feeding!

Updated July 20
bubble feeding humpback whales

In New England, especially during the summertime, humpback whales are well-known for bubble-feeding   a technique in which they exhale a circular net of bubbles to corral their prey (small fish) inside. This allows the humpbacks to then swim up to the surface with their mouths open through the bubble net and consume the concentrated prey caught within the circle of bubbles. Over the last few years, we have seen bubble-feeding in our survey area mostly during late spring and summer.  

This year, we first documented an aggregation of humpbacks bubble feeding in late May that was 46 miles south of Martha’s Vineyard near the New York shipping lanes. This aggregation continuously shifted northwards in June and also grew in size to over 20 individuals including several mother and calf pairs! Bubble-feeding continued during our July surveys, and we were constantly left guessing where the whales would be as they shifted location. Stay tuned for more aerial survey updates!  

Shifting location of humpback bubble-feeding aggregation seen this summer.