After last weekend’s football game, it might be hard to argue that Nantucketers have all of the fun, since their football team, known as the Whalers, lost the coveted Island Cup.

While watching whalers may be a pastime for some Islanders, I prefer to watch whales. And on that field, Nantucketers have a bit of an advantage over us Vineyarders. Since their island is situated a bit further out to sea, residents and mariners of Nantucket have a better opportunity to observe whales in their natural habitat. 

Through the work of a few groups, one variety, the humpback whale, is being well documented. Humpbacks are one of the key species that the organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) studies. Their monitoring has yielded some interesting information on these giants in our midst.

Humpback whales have knobs, or tubercles, on their heads that provide sensory acumen. — Whale and Dolphin Conservation

A population of approximately 800 whales lives in the Gulf of Maine, just north and east of Cape Cod and the Islands. These whales are a migratory population, boasting one of the longest seasonal journeys of any mammal. Humpback whales feed in Antarctic waters and travel to Costa Rica, Colombia and Panama to breed.

Last summer, from June through August, WDC partnered with Nantucket’s Shearwater Excursions to document the region’s whales and educate the public though whale-watching expeditions. During seven trips, the crew and participants observed 37 humpback whales, aged one year to 36 years, just over 40 nautical miles from the Vineyard.

Each humpback has its own “signature,” in the form of markings on its tail, called a fluke. The distinctly different pattern on each whale’s fluke is comparable to a human’s fingerprint, and allows researchers to positively identify and follow individual animals through their lives. 

Of those humpback whales recognized, 33 of them were part of the Gulf of Maine population. Observations were made about their identity and condition. Some threats to these massive marine mammals include boat strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. At least six humpbacks appeared to have been entangled at some point and they bear the scars that confirmed their fate.

It can be difficult to imagine the damage these strikes can do when you consider that an adult humpback whale can be 52 feet long and weigh 50 tons. A humpback heart weighs as much as three average-sized adult humans. Even a baby humpback is sizable, weighing 2,000 pounds and reaching almost 15 feet at birth. No matter their mass, however, injuries can and do occur.

Humpback whales cannot be mistaken for any other creature. Besides their large size, they have unique features that make identification easy. Look for a hefty whale with a sizeable head with knobs, called tubercles. These tubercles can have a single hair that provides sensory acumen, much like whiskers on a cat. A humpback’s flippers cover one-third of their body length, and they feed using baleen plates that act to strain plankton, krill and other food sources from the ocean.

While we may not see these wondrous whales as often as we like, it is heartening to know that they are out there and are being watched by the WDC and other conservation groups. Let’s hope they have similar protectors on their tremendous migrations to and from Antarctica, and the only whalers they ever encounter are those heading back to Nantucket on the Steamship after another try at the Island Cup.

Monica Pepe, conservation and education manager at WCD, contributed to this piece.

Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown, and author of Martha’s Vineyard: A Field Guide to Island Nature.