Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Winter Approaches

WD Aleutian Dream at sea in swell

Aleutian Dream ( Courtesy Wayne Davis)

Our work with the Massachusetts White Shark population study is winding down with only a couple of weeks to go to the end of the field season. The air and water temperatures are dropping and with the onset of autumn the weather in New England has added some drama to our trips when we can get out. The work continues to be exciting as we have observed changes in the shark behavior and especially in the size of the sharks that are in the area. Larger sharks, both male and female seem to be patrolling the coast now and once again the grey seal herd is beginning to congregate in southern part of our study area on Monomoy. Even though we have been challenged with tough sea conditions and low temperatures the action observing very large white sharks hunting seals in shallow water has been amazing to watch. The above image taken by Wayne Davis tells a perfect story of the change of the mood of the ocean at this time of year.  Shorter days and lower sun angles make spotting more difficult especially from the boat. But the seascapes are stunning in autumn light.

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Rare glimpse of a Minke Whale as it breaks the surface feeding on sand eels near Monomoy

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Fin Whale spotted feeding (one of four) just east of the North Chatham Inlet


Dunlins in flight off of “Shark Alley” otherwise known as South Beach south of the cut.

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Dr. Greg Skomal in his full winter working “kit” aboard the Aleutian Dream

On October 16 we were introduced to one of the largest white sharks of the 2015 season. A 16 ft female estimated to be 3000 lbs hunting in the area near Shark Cove. The image below was captured by Greg Skomal and then “cleaned up” by John Chisholm to reveal this magnificent female. Pam and I were given the privilege of naming her and Pam chose the name “Monomoy” in honor of our family’s ancestors who have inhabited this land for hundreds of years AND to honor the young people of Chatham and Harwich who selected the white shark as their mascot a few years back. Now they have one for their very own. We were able to place an acoustic tag on this beauty so scientists will be able to follow her return visits in the years to come through our listening “receivers” deployed on the outer Cape.


White Shark “Monomoy” – note the markings on her second gill plate.

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Wayne Davis captured the (below) magnificent image of white shark “Monomoy” near the land which inspired her name.


Courtesy Wayne Davis (oceanaerials.com)

Captain Nick Nickerson (below) works with a film crew off of Monomoy in less than ideal conditions.

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Working with a film crew off of North Chatham inlet. (Photo courtesy Wayne Davis)



Read more.. Wednesday, October 21st, 2015

Into the Great Bear Rainforest

Some may know that many years ago we worked as commercial fishermen on vessels based in Seattle that made the yearly voyage to western Alaska via the incomparable “Inside Passage”, a magnificent coastline stretching north from Seattle that connects almost 850 miles of wild fiords mostly in British Columbia and Southeast Alaska. This area is almost entirely devoid of human development with the exception of a few small ports and legacy villages from the per-European contact days. In 1997 a significant portion of this region was recognized and protected in British Columbia by a collaboration between First Nations tribes, Conservation NGO’s and the BC Provincial government in an area branded The Great Bear Rainforest and now covers an area of approximately 12,000 square miles.

The Great Bear Rainforest is one of the largest remaining tracts of unspoiled temperate rainforest left in the world. The area is home to species such as cougars, wolves, grizzly bears, salmon and the rarely seen Kermode bear, known by First Nation people as the “Spirit Bear”. a unique subspecies of the black bear, in which one in ten cubs displays a recessive white colored coat. On our many trips through this area on fishing boats we had never taken time to explore the BC wilderness and observe its unique and abundant charismatic wildlife. Therefore when we had the chance to team up with our friends at Apex Expeditions (apex-expeditions.com) to organize a trip we were keen to go. An intrepid group gathered in Bella Bella, BC to board the 68 ft. Island Odyssey for the first portion of our expedition into the wilds of The Great Bear Rainforest. One primary target of the expedition was to track and photograph one of the rarest bears in the world, the “Spirit Bear”. In September the salmon runs are active spawning in most of the rivers on the coast; an activity which brings all bears  to the BC rivers to feast on the abundant fish to stock up on fat reserves for their long winter hibernation naps. Connected to an excellent local guide we were still believing we had only a 1 in 5 chance to see the spirit bear since there are so few and their home terrain is rugged and remote. But as luck would have it in driving rains and gale force winds we were finally rewarded with a sighting of this living legend and there was so much more. Check out the following images of cratures large and small and the dramatic landscapes of British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest.

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The Spirit bear totem inside the Long House at Hartley Bay

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Sailing vessel Island Odyssey

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Stellar sea lions hauled out

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Humpback whales “bubble netting” which is a feeding strategy that is incredible to watch.

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Black turnstones and at least one Surf bird in the mix (see lowest bird)

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Rare and amazingly lucky look at a Canis lupus (wolf) family one early morning. They too were in the area to feed on the spawning salmon.

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Surf scoters

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Young Bald Eagle hanging out with Raven

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Harlequin duck (drakes)

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Pam catching the small bits of the rain forest on camera

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Two fish on one hook as this “monster” ling cod bit into a good sized rock fish while it was being reeled up. Quick reflexes resulted in dinner for everyone!

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The prize – a beautiful male spirit bear makes an appearance

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Brown grizzly bear saunters on the shore looking for salmon

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The shy and very elusive Pine Marten

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Our Expedition leader and great friend Kevin Clement from Apex Expeditions with his Spirit Bear stole for luck on the occasion of his birthday!

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A pair of Common mergansers

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An American Dipper – note the eyelid which when closed protects the bird as it forages underwater

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The route of our expedition. Map courtesy of Apex Expeditions.

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LArge male grizzly shows his prowess catching this large chum salmon right out of the Nekite River. Note the battle scars on his flank

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Read more.. Thursday, October 1st, 2015

Wild Cape Cod Notebook

The last six weeks of summer have been a blur of intense activity on the Outer Cape Cod area. Emotional highs and lows and the awe of natural history in action have provided opportunities to witness some unique beauty here. Thought I would leave you a few impressions of a Cape Cod summer in the field as I now take a two week break to travel west. Most of our time in the field here as been in support of the white shark population study being directed by Dr. Greg Skomal, pictured here in a rare moment sitting in the skipper’s perch on the research vessel. It is a true pleasure to work with this dedicated and talented scientist helping with his ground breaking study of Atlantic white sharks.

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One highlight was showing a little six year old shark enthusiast her first white shark very up close and personal.

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Another was to witness a white shark chase a seal literally onto the beach in a failed attempt to make a kill in the area of Monomoy we call shark cove. Similar attempts may have led to the two strandings we have witnessed this summer.

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Some may have seen video of a shark we followed and photographed on this day as it made a full breach in an attempt to subdue a young female grey seal.

The video’s back story is here.

This same shark was able to make a successful kill minutes later . Here are a few frames that were taken seconds after the kill.

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There has been much speculation among the biologists studying white sharks here on Cape Cod as to whether these white sharks breach either in pursuit of prey or for other reasons. This behavior is often observed in False Bay, South Africa near Seal Island but until recently experts had not observed this behavior in Cape Cod waters. That changed a couple of weeks ago when on one quiet morning north of Chatham we apparently startled a 13 ft shark in 12 feet of water causing it to breach immediately in front of the vessel …to the shock and delight of all on board. Though the event was not captured  by our cameras the below image I took in South Africa a couple of years ago will give you an excellent idea of what we witnessed. And of course now the rumors of white shark breaching off the outer Cape have been confirmed with an actual sighting!

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Another highlight was when our spotter pilot Wayne Davis reported the sighting of the rarest of the great whales on the planet, a young Northern right whale – seen here well out of its normal summer range. There are less than 500 of these animals left in the world.

Wayne’s images of the young whale next to the research vessel are here. Our report was eagerly welcomed by the regions marine mammal scientists who have been busy identifying this animal from markings on the whales head pictured below.

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Working our way north one day searching for white sharks we came upon an ocean sunfish or mola mola. Curious voyagers in all oceans.

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We witnessed a large pod of 8 -10 Fin whales feeding near the top of the Outer Cape near Race Point.

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Finally we managed to take a day to get in some birding in the Monomoy NWR to observe some of the migrating shorebirds that are passing through on their southerly voyage to feed on our rich mud flats.

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Lesser Yellow-legs

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Short-billed dowitcher

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Young Piping Plover

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Hudsonian Godwit and a Sanderling

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Yellow legs feeding

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Rudy Turnstone and Ringed necked Plover

On another August morning I was able to join a friend and his family for an early morning run to find bluefin tuna off of Chatham. No tuna on this day but a glorious sunrise. Both humpback and minke whales were observed feeding on sand eels about 5 miles off shore too!

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On a very sad note recently we were called to work with colleagues and members of the beach public in a nearby town to rescue a stranded adult male white shark that had beached itself in a falling tide. Despite some heroic efforts the shark was not revived and instead it was brought in to Chatham so that scientists could perform a necropsy. Adult white shark specimens are very rarely observed by shark biologists so much can be learned from studying this 14 foot mature male shark estimated to be 1500 – 2000 lbs.

A magnificent predator even in death.





Read more.. Saturday, September 12th, 2015

Hakai Pass: Food for the Soul

Took a couple of weeks off from our white shark research activity on Cape Cod to head out to the Pacific Northwest. Great to visit family, old friends and to venture into the beautiful and wild coast of British Columbia to do some fishing. For many years, as we have reported before, the “Inside Passage”  was a yearly trek for us in bringing fishing boats north and west to the Alaska Peninsula and points north to work. The striking wild beauty of British Columbia and Southeast Alaska were barely acknowledged in those days as we were focused seasonal openings out west in Dutch Harbor and therefore passed most of the natural beauty at night in our 7 – 10 days trek to the fishing grounds. We vowed that one day we would spend more time exploring this beautiful coastline.

So in modern times (over the past 15 years) we have taken a few trips into the area and more regularly some time to visit a special marine park in along the wild coast called Hakai Pass to fish whenever time and schedule permits. This trip included son Spencer, and a couple of great friends to share the experience for 5 days!

Hakai Pass is a water passage located on the Canadian Pacific Northwest Coast.  This beautiful coastal area is inaccessible by road therefore the only way in is by boat or seaplane.  It’s waters are abundant with record size wild salmon, monster halibut, huge ling cod, yellow eye, prawns, mussels and more. Pods of orca whales, humpback whales, gray whales, numerous seals, dolphins, sea lions, and eagles to name a few species live in and make there way to and from this pristine land.

The weather was typically mercurial – mostly wet and a bit breezy at times but when the sun shone it was spectacular. We explored some new fishing spots saw some amazing humpbacks who stalked us in a tight spot while we re-stocked our freezers for another year with more than 275 lbs of king salmon, coho salmon, halibut and ling cod. Wow what a great time!







Spencer & Gabe take in the last bite at sunset around 9:40PM !


Joe’s 46 pound halibut!!


A nice day’s catch for Spencer & Gabe



Stellar sea lion stalks some salmon


Read more.. Friday, July 31st, 2015

Close Encounters of the Shark Kind II

Heartfelt thanks to the Nickerson Art Gallery in Chatham, to all those who turned out for our reception last night and to those of you who visited our show during the past Shark Week! Very pleased to say that most of the images are going to great homes around the country spreading some shark love.  For those who could not make it to Chatham, here is the line up of images including two limited edition posters that are being exhibited. The show closes today.

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Blue Shark #1 Whale Shark #1 White Shark below surface White Shark in Shark Cove Monomoy (5) White Shark in Shark Cove Monomoy White shark SA #1 White Shark SA #3 White Shark SA #4 White Shark SA #5 White Sharks Mex Wild Cape Cod 2013 poster Wild Chatham 2012 poster

Read more.. Sunday, July 12th, 2015

Close Encounters of the Shark Kind: An exhibit of original photographs

With Discovery Channel’s Shark Week fast approaching, the adrenaline in this household is starting to increase with anticipation as it has every year at this time in recent memory. And now imagine our thrill at having the honor to be a (small) part of this year’s lead show for the Shark Week line up , titled Shark Trek featuring our very own Dr. Greg Skomal and his important shark research being conducted right in outer Cape Cod waters.

In honor of the weeks’ coming events we are very pleased to be partnering with our friends at Nickerson Gallery in Chatham to share some of the images we have recorded of white sharks and other shark species in our recent travels. The exhibit is titled Close Encounters of the Shark Kind.  We hope our Cape Cod friends will visit the Nickerson Gallery , 618 Main Street in Chatham to have a look. All of the photography will be available for sale and a limited edition poster of a white shark patrolling Cape Cod waters was created especially to benefit white shark research here on Cape Cod. The show will run from July 5 – 12th concurrent with Shark Week and all friends are invited to an artist’s reception on July 11th 5:00 – 8:00 PM at the Gallery. We will be present to share stories of how these images were recorded in most of the world hotspots where white sharks occur including South Africa, Mexico, Australia as well as in Cape Cod waters. Here is a taste below…..and in case you are wondering…NO seals were injured in the making of this image. -JK

Photographer and conservationist John King in the marsh near his home in Chatham, Massachsuetts

Photographer and conservationist John King in the marsh near his home in Chatham, Massachusetts (Photo by Shareen Davis)

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White shark & seal encounter: Seal Island, South Africa

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Read more.. Friday, July 3rd, 2015

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Spring on the Water

On the outer Cape as most Cape Codders know, spring comes later than on the mainland. Sea temperatures are cool from the long winter and warming comes very slowly. Notice the deep blue color on the image below indicating water temps in the 40s F. This “tongue” of cold water has occurred each of the past three years that we have been looking and others have told us they have seen it regularly here in the spring. As you can see the northern tip of it touches the area just south of Chatham, Massachusetts and the Monomoy NWR. As of this date – there are absolutely no data that suggest white sharks have returned to the area. But they are expected very soon. Last year the first white shark was detected by an acoustic receiver off Monomoy on June 14, 2014.

Surface temp June 13 2015

Recently we have traveled offshore to see what kind of marine life has returned to the area. We were pleased to find the return of Gulf of Maine humpback whales along with quite a few fin whales feeding on large schools of sand lances about 10 to 15 miles out. Further friends have reported schools of basking sharks also in the area although we have not seen them this year yet.

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Humpbacks off Truro

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Lots of seabirds as well Here is  nice look at a Sooty shearwater.

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And a bit of a surprise – literally hundreds of North Atlantic Grey seals foraging completely unconcerned about any mammal eating predators that might be in the area. We observed the seals in large groups “porpoising” along in the late afternoon clearly headed out presumably to feed. We even saw a small school of dolphins on the surface but they were a bit shy and we did not got an image of them.

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We were very fortunate to catch a ride with our friend Wayne Davis to fly the outer Cape several days ago. Absolutely a thrill to observe our region from the air.

Pleasant Bay inside North Chatham Inlet


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North Chatham Inlet (looking east)


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Common Flat (looking over Minimoy) eastward

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Common Flat (looking West over Minimoy)

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Main Chatham Harbor entrance - June 14

Chatham Harbor Main entrance

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Handkerchief Shoal Rips

Handkerchief Shoal Rips






Read more.. Friday, June 19th, 2015

Finding the Last Dragons: Great Whites in South Australia

Apologies to those of you who regularly check in on this blog. We have been remiss in posting for many weeks. Lots to catch up on. For most of the last few months we were exploring some of the wilder and remote parts of Australia by car, ship and plane in their autumn. In total we were among the wonderful Aussies for about six weeks. Because the experience is fresh and now back on Cape Cod will post some impressions of our last stop in South Australia at small but prosperous fishing village called Port Lincoln. This town of less than 15,000 boasts one of the most successful fishing fleets in all of Australia targeting such high value species like blue fin tuna, yellowtail kingfish, abalone, mussels, oysters and experimental farming in seahorses and spiny lobsters. It is also the jumping off point to the Neptune Islands  a few rocky islets about 15 miles off the coast a seasonal home to a population of New Zealand fur seals and for much of the year, feeding great white sharks. We teamed up with the people at Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions for an eight day expedition aboard their live aboard dive boat the Princess II to attempt to find and photograph great whites from the relative safety of a cage at the ocean floor. Owner and fellow shark conservationist Andrew Fox led the expedition and has been diving in these waters for over thirty five years together with his father, Rodney Fox.

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Together Rodney and Andrew have more experience observing white sharks underwater than anyone else in the world. Rodney was featured in the legendary documentary Blue Water, White Death made by Peter Gimbel and others in 1971. Andrew is active in white shark research projects in Australia and a renown underwater photographer. The Neptune Islands are the only location in all of Australia where cage diving and related chumming is allowed. A strict code of conduct is in force and only two operators have permits. Fox, however has a unique permit which allows he an his clients to plunge a cage down 60 – 70+ feet to the bottom to observe a habitat of sand, kelp and rock formations where white sharks often forage on abundant resident sting rays. This is the only place in the world where one can see white sharks at significant bottom depths and we were keen to try it. Weather conditions in the late fall are often a challenge and we climbed on board the Princess II just after a major storm had passed through leaving behind significant ocean swell and some turbidity making excellent photography a challenge bt nothing could have prepared us for the kind of action we were to experience among these massive predators who Andrew Fox calls – the earth’s last dragons. In 7 1/2 days among the islands we made 15 dives to the bottom in freezing a** cold water (about 50 degrees F) in wetsuits. Each dive lasting about 45 – 50 minutes depending on depth and conditions. What we witnessed was absolutely incredible. Heart stopping action watching the earth’s last dragons in their winter lairs Down Under.

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This massive female (below) was estimated to be over 5 meters in length and weigh in excess of 3,000 lbs.

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This 14 foot male (1300 lbs) below, was one of several very aggressive sharks that resolutely tried to invade our cage through openings that were too small for them and caused us to keep the sliding doors for photography closed during this dive. We literally had three sharks with their heads in the cage all at once! Adrenalin was flowing.

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12 O’clock high..This fellow came in hard and with my spotter’s help just barely able to turn him away with a push from my camera dome. Yikes!

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Strobes failed to fire but you get the idea. ….Camera door open.

After several days one of the very large females that sometime visit the area at this time of year made an appearance at the bottom. At 65 feet she boldly approached the cage at the top lodging herself between the bridle harnessing the cage to the surface and the roof of the cage. Unable to move forward this behemoth started to thrash its body violently in an attempt to back out of her predicament. In the process she tossed the cage with four of us inside in scuba with the force of a centrifuge turning the cage completely on one side then the other  side causing us to divers to pile up inside like cord wood in tanks.. A truly scary moment. The shark eventually freed herself and swam away only to return to investigate the bait we were carrying inside. Once we returned to the surface we realized that the cage’s emergency assent tank had been damaged in the process by the shark’s violence and had our surface cable severed we would have been in very deep doo doo.

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Baby fur seals barely 4 moths old and just learning to swim are the main attraction for the sharks at this time of year.

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Some incredible looks at seabirds including this Black browed Albatross.

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Port Lincoln

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Heading down to the bottom.

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Dramatic setting sun as we headed in after an amazing week. Wow!

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Read more.. Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Djibouti & the Horn of Africa

Continuing our 9 week African odyssey in East Africa we had the opportunity to explore Djibouti with our great friends and amazing wildlife guides Jonathan Rossouw and Giovanna Fasanelli. Of course we took it! You never know what you might see unless you try and man were we surprised by the dramatic contrasts and beauty of this somewhat forgotten corner of the African continent. Unique and wonderful wildlife and culture were in store for us….and no pirates!

Whale Shark


From Wikipedia, “Djibouti is strategically located near the world’s busiest shipping lanes, controlling access to the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. It serves as a key refueling and transshipment center, and is the principal maritime port for imports to and exports from neighboring Ethiopia. A burgeoning commercial hub, the nation is the site of various foreign military bases, including Camp Lemonniera, a United States Naval Expeditionary Base. Djibouti is situated in the Horn of Africa on the Gulf of Aden and the Bab-el Mandeb at the southern entrance to the Red Sea. It lies between latitudes 10° and 13°N, and longitudes 41° and 44°E. The country’s coastline stretches 195 miles, with terrain consisting mainly of plateau, plains and highlands.”

Our main objective in visiting was to locate and photograph the seasonal visit of whale sharks. As you will see – we were very fortunate to get some good looks in beautifully clear water thanks to folks at Dolphin Diving Services, Djibouti City. .Another memory was etched in our brains as we trekked in a 4×4 Toyota pick up truck for some five hour into the desert wastes in search of Lake Abba. Near sunset we finally reached our destination among the volcanic fumaroles and parched rocky landscape. The light and the landscape images were breathtaking. And we also came upon some herders tending mostly goats who moved slowly in the searing late afternoon heat. It was unclear where these shepherds would be spending the night. We were dozens of miles off of the main road.

Lastly we visited  Lake Assal which is located in the middle of Djibouti, in a closed depression at the northern end of the Great Rift Valley. Situated in the Danakil Desert, it is bounded by hills on the western region. The lake lies at an altitude of 155 m (509 ft) below sea level, making it the lowest point of Africa. The lake is characterized by two parts. The dry part of the lake, resulting from evaporation of the lake waters, is a white plain dry lake bed on the west/northwest side, which is a large expanse of salt (now being mined by a Chinese company). The second part is the highly saline water body.  The watershed area of the lake is 350 sq miles. Floating in the lake was exhilarating as it was impossible not stay high in the water like a cork though when we got out we were caked in salt which we were desperate to wash off. 

Enjoy these images of a relatively unknown country on Africa’s horn and the fringe of rich, warm tropical waters with excellent scuba diving, in close proximity to Somali pirates but western military might. Djibouti is safe and definitely worth a visit.

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Floating in Lake Assal, the saltiest body of water in Africa and the lowest at -150 meters below sea level.


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Read more.. Sunday, March 8th, 2015

North Atlantic Humpbacks in Winter

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For the 4th consecutive year we made our way south out of the frigid New England winter to spend time with our friends at Aquatic Adventures who run expeditions from the Dominican Republic to the Silver Bank to observe North Atlantic humpback whales in their winter habitat. As many of you are aware 2015 is showing the northeast portion of the US and Canada some of the coldest temperatures ever recorded in addition to record amounts of snowfall. The Boston area, near where we live on Cape Cod, had already recorded more than 2 meters of snowfall by the time of our departure (in mid February) and more was on the way.  And we were also very excited to join whale researcher Jenn Tackaberry from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA for our week on the Silver Bank. Jenn has studied Gulf of Maine whales for a decade but this was her first chance to observe humpback whale mothers and young calves (3 – 5 weeks old) as they learn the ways of the ocean in safe Caribbean waters without predators.

We made the 10 hour passage (80 miles off shore) from Puerto Plata out to the Silver Bank in relatively calm waters. However for the following five days we had strong winds and choppy seas to deal with making underwater photography a challenge. And the weather did not dampen the excitement of the expedition team as we observed these beautiful mammals conducting the child rearing and mating rituals that they have been doing here for 100’s of millennia.

Here are just a few images from the experience and once again it was unforgettable. For more information about these expeditions and to learn more about the partnership between Aquatic Adventures and the Center for Coastal Studies AND how you can help – please check this site. www.coastalstudies.org/aquaticadventures

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Check out this short video we have just posted. It was inspired by one of our fellow travelers.

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Read more.. Monday, February 23rd, 2015