Grace Bailey Returns with Minke Escort
Passengers on a recent five-day sail aboard the Grace Bailey were treated to a special escort as they returned to Camden Harbor. A minke whale was sighted several times as it cruised the Gulf of Maine in its endless quest for extra helpings.
One of the smallest whales in the North Atlantic, minkes have a tremendous appetite for small fish and krill, and the friendly fellow that entertained passengers and crew alike on the Grace Bailey was no exception. Minkes are most often spotted as they break the surface chasing small schools of fish.
Throughout the North Atlantic, streamlined minke whales are patrolling the coastline, wrapping up their final weeks in their summer feeding grounds. Born in the warmer waters of the lower latitudes, minkes make an annual pilgrimage to the North Atlantic to gorge on small fish and krill.
Employing an expansive repertoire of herding and hunting techniques, minkes specialize in sending schools of fish into an often-fatal state of confusion. Hapless herring and other small fish are driven into tight groups by the fast-swimming whales, glomming into panicked, roiling balls of fins and scales near the surface. Minkes may even slap their heads against the surface to further the overall confusion of their prey, adding acrobatic rolls and lightning-fast lunges.
Once the school is sufficiently frantic, the minke attacks, plowing through the group with its massive mouth open wide. The hungry whale can capture and swallow hundreds of fish at a time, scooping them up with its expandable throat that works like a cross between a trawler net and a vacuum cleaner bag. The whale's grooved throat expands considerably to accommodate the doomed fish and churning seawater, while hundreds of baleen plates in its mouth act as a kind of filter that allows the whale to expel the excess water without losing its hard-earned meal.
|A friendly beluga whale posed for this photo during a sail last summer. (Photo by Capt. Ray Williamson)|
Minkes are one of the smallest baleen whales, with adults typically ranging from 25 to 35 feet in length and weighing in somewhere between five and ten tons. I have spotted minkes more than once in the gulf as they broke the surface with their sickle-shaped dorsal fin or long, pointed nose. Several minke subspecies can be found around the globe, with an estimated global population in the area of one million animals. Curious and quick, they often speed past boats to get a closer look -- one even cruised underneath the research vessel I was riding on, showing off the bright white stripes on its flippers that set the species apart from other small whales.
Also known as pike heads, summer whales, bay whales and little finners, the minke's most popular moniker comes from the Norwegian whaler Meincke, which was known for confusing the little whales with the much larger blue whale during whale hunts. As an obvious dig against the ship's captain and crew, other whalers and sailors began calling the species "Meincke" whales, and the name just stuck.
Whatever you want to call it, the little whale was a thrill for all aboard the Grace Bailey.
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