Whale greets SSA passengers

Humpback makes several leaps out of water.

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Video courtesy Nick Kent.

Passengers on the Island Home last week got quite the show when a humpback whale made several leaps out of the water.

Social media buzzed with videos and photos of the animal last Friday during the 2:30 pm Vineyard Haven to Woods Hole ferry crossing.

Nick Kent, who was taking the ferry, told The Times his video captured the whale’s third breach from the water. He was watching television when the whale first breached about 15 feet from the ferry.

Kent joined other passengers in taking their phones out. It wasn’t until the whale’s third breach that Kent captured it. Kent, who was heading off-Island after spending Thanksgiving on the Vineyard, sent the video to his family. He also posted the video on the Islanders Talk Facebook page, getting more than 200 comments.

“I kind of played the odds game in an area near his second breach, and it just happened to pop up dead center of the camera,” Kent said. “First time I’ve ever seen a whale like that, living my whole life on the Island.”

Times editor George Brennan was also on the boat, and said there was a lot of excitement among passengers as everyone had their phones out trying to capture the moment.

Brennan overheard the purser say that in 25 years making the ferry crossing, he had never seen anything like it.

Brennan tweeted out a video taken by Julie Taylor, a passenger on the ferry, which garnered dozens of likes and retweets, and the video received nearly 2,000 views. Taylor, who also tweeted her video, wrote to her followers, “Nice little escort on the way back to the mainland from Martha’s Vineyard.”

Humpback whales get their common name from the distinctive hump on their backs. Their scientific name, Megaptera, “big winged,” and novaeangliae, “New England,” is inspired by their long pectoral fins and the location where European whalers first encountered them in New England, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) website.

In an email to The Times, NOAA marine mammal specialist Jennifer Goebel identified the whale in the video as a humpback whale, and said that the species is commonly seen on whale watches in New England.

NOAA communications and internal affairs team supervisor Allison Ferreira told The Times in an email there are a couple of reasons why humpback whales breach the water. “Generally it is thought to be a form of communication. But it may also be used to remove parasites from their skin,” Ferreira wrote.

While New England–area humpback whales are not endangered or threatened like other humpback population segments, they have been experiencing an unusual mortality event since 2016.

Unusual mortality events are defined as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response.”

Massachusetts has had 31 humpback whale strandings since 2016 — behind only New York’s 32 strandings for most among states along the Atlantic Coast, according to NOAA. Of the 154 total strandings since 2016, about 50 percent had evidence of human interaction, such as ship strike or entanglement. Some causes of the unusual mortality event are attributed to premortem vessel strikes, but that finding is not consistent across all whales examined, and more research is needed, according to NOAA’s website.

Despite recent issues with humpback populations, they are not in the same dire straits as the North Atlantic right whale. The right whale population is one of the most endangered large whale species in the world, with fewer than 350 remaining.

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