Rare North Atlantic right whales continue to flood into Cape Cod Bay

Four North Atlantic right whales feeding on zooplankton in Cape Cod Bay. April 12, 2017. CCS image, NOAA permit #19315

Records were shattered on Wednesday, April 12, when the aerial survey team at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) photographed almost one third of the global population of rare and critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay.

CCS aerial observers Amy James and Brigid McKenna identified 163 individual whales during the 8 hour flight; this eclipses the previous record count of 112 individuals, set just 3 days prior. “There are only about 524 North Atlantic right whales in the world, so to see this concentration of individuals in what is essentially our back yard is incredibly exciting,” said flight coordinator Amy James.

In addition to the extraordinary numbers of right whales, the survey crew also spotted a previously unrecorded right whale calf, bring the total number of births in 2017 up to four. “We were familiar with the three documented mother/calf pairs, so we knew almost immediately that this was a new addition to the population,” explained observer Brigid McKenna.

Right whale #1412 with calf, photographed off Truro, MA on April 12, 2017. CCS image, NOAA permit #19315.

Colleagues at the New England Aquarium have identified the mother as right whale #1412. According to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, which is curated by the Aquarium, this is the first time she has been seen since 2003, and only the seventh time she’s been spotted since her first sighting in 1984, when she was also with a calf. “Until yesterday, #1412 has only ever been documented on Jeffrey’s Ledge, the Cape Farewell Grounds off Greenland, and off Iceland, so this is a really important sighting” McKenna continued.

“Based on the work our habitat researchers conducted while the plane was in the air, the Bay has as rich a concentration of food as we have ever seen,” commented Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the Center’s Right Whale Ecology program. “These whales, and many other marine mammals species, are flooding into the area to take advantage of this exceptionally plentiful resource.”

Mariners in and around Cape Cod Bay are warned to slow down to a maximum of 10 knots and to keep a close eye out for the whales. “Collisions between boats and right whales can be deadly to both humans and whales, so please be alert on the water” warned Mayo. “We lost four whales last year, including one calf that was struck and killed by a vessel, and we can’t afford to lose any more.”

According to federal regulations it is illegal to approach within 500 yards of a North Atlantic right whale without a research permit, but whale watchers can often see whales close to the bayside beaches and off Herring Cove and Race Point, Provincetown.

CCS right whale research and response operations are conducted in partnership with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and NOAA under federal permits issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service. Support also comes from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, CCS aviation contractor New England Specialized Aviation Services, and contributions from CCS members.