29.01.2020 – White cheeks
Our team had the pleasure of driving out onto an almost placid Atlantic Ocean this afternoon and , once again, our blue office had quite a few surprises in store for us today. After enjoying a lovely sighting with a handful of Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) bow-riding the waves of our zodiac within one of their hotspots around Madeira, Madalena do Mar, our spotter lead us to a dispersed group of Short-finned pilot whales (Globicephala macrorhynchus). The large delphinids gently swam alongside our boat before exhaling powerfully and lunging into the depths to forage for squid. At some point during the sighting one of our guests asked about how frequent sightings of baleen whales are around Madeira. I explained that they occur rather sporadically and as solitary animals or small groups since the island is not a designated feeding or mating area for any baleen whale species.
It was as if the Atlantic heard our conversation. As we discussed the ecology of baleen whales, our spotter suddenly spotted a large spout 7 nautical miles off Calheta. Our captain, Daniel, immediately sped to the location and, soon, we were in the company of a large Fin whale (Balenoptera physalus) and her young calf. Apart from their size and tall spout, Fin whales are best identified at sea through the asymmetric colouring on their heads. The right lower jaw has a lighter or even white colour which sometimes extends upwards as a lighter blaze along the upper jaw towards an area at the rear of their blowholes. These markings may also be exhibited on the left side but are much fainter. This characteristic colouring is thought to give the whale feeding advantages since the species is often observed swimming on it’s right side during lunge-feeding but this hypothesis has not been accepted entirely in the scientific community since feeding habits often vary.
It is often difficult to approach large baleen whales around Madeira since the animals are often alone or in the presence of their calves, making them more cautious and timid towards boats. These two, however, curiously circled our boat allowing us glimpse at their distinctive white cheeks. Having a close encounter with these beautiful giants of the animal kingdom is truly a humbling experience, one I’m certain our guests today will never forget.
By Paula Thake
Sightings of the day
15:00 Bottlenose dolphins, Fin whales, Short-finned pilot whales