Whale numbers are up, delighting watchers

SCITUATE, Mass. - Last year, NOAA researcher Dave Wiley says he didn't see any whales off Cape Cod.

This year, they're everywhere, delighting packed whale-watching cruises.

"I took a quick count and I counted about 18 humpbacks and eight to ten finbacks," Wiley told CBS News, peering from the bow of a ship. "There are many more in the distance so I would guess 30 to 40 humpbacks and probably 10 or 15 finbacks."

NOAA researcher Dave Wiley said he didn't see any whales off Cape Cod last year. Now, they're everywhere.
CBS News

Why wasn't the show as good last year?

"Last year there were no Sand Lance around," Wiley said. Sand Lance are the tiny eel-like fish that humpbacks feed on. Little is known about why they thrive some years and are absent others. So Wiley and his team of researchers decided to follow the fish in the water.

They used one camera they could control, and borrowed "critter cams" from National Geographic, to tag unlikely cameramen.

"We have a tag on a long pole that has suction cup on it," Wiley said, describing the process of tagging a humpback whale. "We approach very carefully."

Researchers used "critter cams" to tag unlikely cameramen.
CBS News

The footage showed Sand Lance darting around in schools, and burrowing in the seabed to hide from predators. But as researchers watched the deep water footage from the whales' point of view, they discovered something else. The 40-ton whales were hunting together, blowing bubbles to corral Sand Lance, like fishermen using nets.

"So they will start down maybe 20 meters and then start swimming a spiral and they are emitting bubbles out of blowhole or mouth," Wiley said. "They will make this nice choreographed circle, spiraling effect as they come to the surface and open their mouths and grab as many Sand Lance as they can."

They've essentially mastered teamwork, physics and timing.

"It's amazing the complexity of their behavior," Wiley said.

The whales will leave by the end of summer in search of warmer waters. Wiley said he doesn't know if the Sand Lance will return or if the humpbacks will surface next year.