In our quest for turtles, we have traveled far and wide in the past 13 days. From Nova Scotia to New Jersey, we have kept almost constant watch during daylight hours in order to spot turtles basking in the sun, and in the process, we have seen many different marine creatures.
On July 8th, we awoke to pilot whales curious about the ship and they accompanied us for the entire morning. A couple of days later, we crossed the Hague Line on the shelf of George’s Bank. Very soon after, we started seeing sperm whales, some of them breaching – a behavior where they launch themselves entirely out of the water landing in a large splash that we can see miles away! Sperm whales can dive to very deep depths and tend to inhabit waters around canyons. This habitat also attracts beaked whales, including Cuvier’s beaked whales which we also spotted. We saw more pilot whales and small groups of bottlenose dolphins, many of them jumping out of the water as well. Meanwhile, above the surface, we have encountered many pelagic seabirds that are expected in this area, including the shearwater, storm petrel, and gull species. This day we also had south polar skuas flying around the ship.
We turned south on July 12th toward the mid-Atlantic and started to encounter larger numbers of common dolphins characterized by the hourglass pattern on the sides of their bodies. We have seen pods numbering in the hundreds out here so far, and they have given us great looks when they come in close to the ship.
Of course, the focus of this cruise is to find loggerhead turtles and we did encounter quite a few on July 13th. We spent a few days in the warmer waters off New Jersey working these animals where we also spotted a few leatherback turtles.
On July 16th, we turned to work our way north again and started our day with flat calm waters, the best sighting conditions so far. We saw many common dolphins, including a group of around 500, bottlenose dolphins, and many groups of Risso’s dolphins. The Risso’s are darker when they are younger, and lighten up (and gain some impressive scars) as they age.
In addition to the reptiles, mammals, and seabirds that we tend to see at the surface, there are of course, many fish species in the ocean. We have seen a lot of ocean sunfish along our entire track, a glance at a couple of rays, and also a few shark species including hammerheads, basking sharks, and three whale sharks on July 16th! This was a new species for almost everyone on board, and it took us a second to understand what we were seeing! Whale sharks are the largest fish, reaching lengths of over 40 feet, and feed on zooplankton by filter-feeding. They are characterized by their size, but also by the spots on their dorsal body which helped us identify the species.
Only a few days left out here, but many chances yet to spot additional animals.
Leah Crowe and Lisa Conger
NEFSC Protected Species Branch, aboard the NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow