New England Aquarium aerial survey team spots Salt, the iconic humpback whale

Local News

Salt’s speckled dorsal fin makes her one of the most identifiable whales in New England waters.

Salt and three other whales were spotted bubble feeding south of Martha’s Vineyard on Monday. New England Aquarium

She’s been called the “Grande Dame of Stellwagen Bank” and the “Grand Old Lady of the North Atlantic.” She has fans from Maine to Miami. First spotted in the 1970s, she is known for her namesake speckled dorsal fin. There are plenty of whales in the sea, but Salt is perhaps New England’s favorite.

On Monday, the New England Aquarium’s aerial survey team got a rare look at the famous humpback south of Martha’s Vineyard, where she was feeding with three other whales.

The group was “bubble feeding,” a cooperative, synchronized group hunting strategy characteristic of the highly-intelligent humpback species.

“It was a rare treat for our survey team to see this iconic female humpback!” the New England Aquarium wrote on Facebook. 

Salt has been instrumental in advancing scientists’ understanding of humpback whale behavior. For instance, although she was originally named in tandem with her companion, Pepper, researchers later used DNA swabs collected from Salt and her calves to prove that female humpbacks are “promiscuous” in the words of Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies — their calves have different fathers. Salt’s DNA is also being used in cancer research.

According to the website “Whales with Names,” Salt has 14 calves, 15 grandcalves, and two great-grandcalves. 

The family of Aaron Avellar, the whale watcher who named Salt in the ’70s, is responsible for naming her progeny, too. Many of Salt’s older calves have condiment names like “Tabasco” and “Wasabi,” but in recent years the Avellars have strayed from the theme with monikers like “Etch-A-Sketch” and “Shishkabob.”

Fans of the mammalian matriarch flooded the New England Aquarium’s Facebook after the sighting.

“Ah, Salt! My favorite Humpback Momma!” one commented.

“I’ve been waiting all summer to hear about Salt!” another said.