On Monday, April 3, the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) right whale aerial survey team spotted a right whale mother and calf pair in the north end of Cape Cod Bay between Race Point and Marshfield. This sighting came just hours after researchers from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center identified a different mother / calf pair observed in the Cape Cod Canal. These are the first sightings of the new calves of the year in Gulf of Maine waters.
The male calf spotted by the CCS team is the offspring of a whale named Pediddle, a whale at least 39 years old that was first identified in 1978 and first seen in Cape Cod Bay in 1979. The new calf is Pediddle’s eighth documented by scientists; her last calf was born in 2009.
“During the sighting the mom was subsurface feeding while the calf was rolling and tail slapping,” said Alison Ogilvie, an aerial observer for the Center’s Right Whale Ecology Program. “Mom and calf looked very healthy considering they’ve just completed a more than 800 mile migration from the calving grounds off Georgia and Florida.”
The aerial survey team also observed and photographed 71 other individual right whales in Cape Cod Bay on Monday, the most seen so far this season.
“This extraordinary influx of whales marks the start of peak season here in the northeast,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, PhD, Director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center for Coastal Studies. “Over the last decade one third to one half of the entire right whale population has visited the bay to feed each year; so far this year we have already observed about 100 individual whales, and we expect to see many more during the next few weeks. Cape Cod Bay is a remarkable ecosystem, a location of exceptional richness in the winter and spring, one to which right whales come with surprising regularity to feed and socialize and to nurse their young. ”
Coincident with the influx of right whales in Cape Cod Bay, this week the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission will meet in Woods Hole, MA to examine some of the most important marine mammal issues in the Northeast region, including the status of the North Atlantic right whales.
This will be the first time in many years that the population has declined. Only three right whale calves were born this season, the lowest birth rate since 2000; this, in combination with the death of three adult right whales and one calf in the last year, is causing concern among researchers who monitor these rare, critically endangered whales.
“With just over 500 right whales remaining in the North Atlantic Ocean, the loss of even a single breeding female could be critical to the survival of the species,” said Mayo
Right whales feed at or just below the surface and can be very hard to spot, and this is particularly true of the very young calves that have entered the bay. Mariners in Cape Cod Bay should slow down to 10 knots and post a look-out to prevent collisions.
With the safety of the population in mind, potential whale watchers are also reminded that it is illegal for watercraft of any kind, as well as light aircraft, to approach a North Atlantic right whale within 500 yards (1500 feet) without a Federal Research Permit. However, the right whales often feed very close to shore, offering potentially unbeatable views of one of the rarest of the marine mammals from Cape Cod Bay beaches.
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.