On Tuesday January 17, 2017 scientists on board Center for Coastal Studies’ research vessel Shearwater out of Provincetown spotted two critically endangered North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay, five miles south of the Provincetown Harbor. This was the first confirmed sighting of right whales in the Bay in 2017.
Two days later the Center’s right whale aerial observation team flew over the bay and spotted five right whales in approximately the same location.
“Even though the first right whales arrive around this time every year, seeing such a rare animal is always exciting,” said Christy Hudak, Chief Scientist on the research cruise.
Right whales – whose global population is estimated to be just 524 individuals – enter Cape Cod Bay every winter, drawn to the area by high concentrations of microscopic zooplankton upon which they feed. They arrive in such numbers that they sometimes form what is the most dense aggregation of these rare animals seen anywhere in the North Atlantic Ocean.
Center for Coastal Studies’ scientists have studies right whale behavior, food resources, and distribution since 1976. This year the CCS research team will be on the water and in the air through May, supporting conservation efforts by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
“This year, as in every year in the last many decades, the return of right whales should remind us of the ocean that supports them, and of the fragile environment on which they depend,” Dr. Charles “Stormy“ Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology Program at CCS said of the sighting. “Although the return of right whales is a spectacle that we count on every year, change has come to the global ocean, and we can’t take these sightings for granted.”
Cape Cod Bay is part of a federally designated critical habitat and a location where risk of collision with vessels is particularly high. The low profile of a subsurface feeding right whale makes it difficult for mariners to see, so crews are urged to keep a sharp lookout and observe the federal law prohibiting approach of a right whale within 500 yards (1,500 feet).
CCS vessels, and other federally permitted research vessels working in Cape Cod Bay, fly a large yellow flag with the text “R/V”.
CCS right whale research and response operations are conducted in partnership with the DMF and under Federal permits issued by NOAA, with support from the Massachusetts Environmental Trust, private foundations and CCS members.
If you have a confirmed sighting of right whale please report it to NOAA Fisheries (866-755-6622) or the U.S. Coast Guard (Marine Channel 16).