Cape Cod Bay Update

Our colleagues at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown, MA, have been very busy in the last few weeks as their annual spring right whale surveys continue in and around Cape Cod Bay. In recent days CCS has reported seeing as many as 100 right whales in the Bay! Most of the whales are feeding at or just below the surface on the high concentrations of zooplankton. If you live in the area you might want to get out to one of the Cape or south shore beaches with a pair of binoculars and start looking--you might be lucky enough to see one of the rarest whales in the world!

Two right whales skim feed near Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown. Photo: Marilyn Marx/NEAq

In among those many whales CCS confirmed the first northern sighting of a 2014 mother/calf pair: Couplet (Catalog #2123) and calf!! They successfully made the long and perilous journey up the busy east coast from the calving ground off Florida and GeorgiaCouplet was born in 1991 to Sonnet (Catalog #1123) and has had four previous calves. We hope the pair are soon joined in Cape Cod Bay by the rest of this year's mothers and calves--we always breathe a little easier when they've all returned to the feeding grounds!

Couplet  in the waters off Florida in 2003 with her second calf.   Photo: Monica Zani/NEAq

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What are those whales doing in Cape Cod Bay?

It's been a bumpy transition from winter, but solid signs of spring are finally here: geese have been spotted flying northward, crocuses are popping out of the ground, and right whales are feeding in Cape Cod Bay!

Skim feeding in Cape Cod Bay! Photo: Amy Knowlton

The Bay has recently been hosting our beloved creatures as it does every spring, and it will continue to do so for several more weeks as the feeding season moves into full swing. Right whales feasting on abundant concentrations of tiny copepods can be seen skimming the surface as they filter their prey from the water.

About the size of a grain of rice, this is what copepods look like to the human eye. This sample was collected by our team in the Bay of Fundy, a summer feeding habitat.

How do they achieve this? Baleen! These long plates of keratin hang down from the roof of the mouth. While the outside of the baleen looks smooth and orderly, the inside looks more like matted hair—a net that traps those copepods so they can get gobbled up.

A view into the mouth—see the tongue? Notice how the inside of the baleen plates look a bit roughed up? This tangle of fringed baleen creates a net to trap food. Photo: Amy Knowlton 

Just like an iceburg, there's so much more below the surface! Photo: Amy Knowlton

Many lucky people will get to see these whales in action—while watching from the shore! To help protect these endangered whales, laws exist to make it illegal to approach a right whale within 500 yards, so watching from the shoreline is the best way for humans to observe these hungry whales. Please remember that if you, your family or friends are on a boat in Cape Cod Bay this spring, watch out for whales and slow down!! These creatures can be difficult to see and don't move very fast. Collisions with vessels cause severe injuries to whales, but can also damage boats and harm people on board.

Watching from a distance can make you miss some details though, so I thought some up-close and personal footage of skim feeding right whales would be appropriate. Knowledge of what you're witnessing makes this an even more amazing phenomenon, don't you agree?!

This footage was collected under NOAA/NMFS scientific Permit #15415 issued to 
the New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Team. 


Want to learn more about these amazing, critically-endangered animals?
If you're interested in supporting this important research, consider sponsoring a right whale! Meet the whales and find out how your donation can help right whale research.

North Atlantic right whales are endangered. To protect this species, IT IS ILLEGAL for vessels/humans to approach a North Atlantic right whale within 500 yards while in U.S. waters. If you see a right whale, please report it to NOAA at 978-585-8473. Injured, dead or entangled right whales should be immediately reported to NOAA at 1-866-755-NOAA (6622), or please call the USCG on VHF channel 16.


Calving Season Drawing to a Close

As the end of March approaches, the few right whales that remain down on the calving ground off Florida and Georgia begin heading north along the coast to their feeding grounds off Massachusetts. Southern survey teams (FWC, GDNR, the Marineland Right Whale Project, Sea-to-Shore Alliance, UNCW, and others) report a relatively quiet season this year with only 50-60 whales seen and 10 calves documented. Although the number of whales seen the year before was roughly the same, the number of calves this year is half of what was born last year. Sadly, this relatively low calving count was made even smaller by the loss of #1301's calf (read about the unusual history of this whale from this previous blog). Similar to two years ago, #1301's calf looked thin at its last sighting and then #1301 was later seen without it.

Mono (#1321) with her adorable 2014 calf. 
Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA Research Permit #15488.

We hope the remaining calves fair better- many were born to experienced moms such as Naevus (#2040) [pictured above], Mono (#1321) [pictured below], Couplet (#2123), and Boomerang (#2503). You can see photos and sighting histories of these whales and all the others in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog at the Catalog web site.

Nauvus (#2040) shows part of her head, with her one month-old calf at the surface.
Photo: Georgia DNR, taken under NOAA Research Permit #15488.

Three other females that have calved in previous years were seen in the area, but never with a calf. It is possible that they did calve but were simply missed afterwards. We'll be looking for these three up north to see if they have a young one in tow. There were also a few females who have likely reached reproductive age but have not calved previously. One of them, Caterpillar (#3503), had the right whale community concerned. She was named for a large propeller scar on her side that looks like the tracks from a Caterpillar tractor.

Caterpillar, with propeller wounds on her side. Photo: Heather Foley, New England Aquarium.

Although she has seemed in good health since she received the wound, we were concerned that if she were pregnant and her girth increasing, the wound could further open and become infected. This happened to the right whale Lucky (#2143), proving that even if a right whale survives the initial propeller wounds, those wounds can still cause problems later in life.Caterpillar was only seen once, so we are hoping she made a quick visit to the area and is safely feeding somewhere up north.

We wish this year's calves and their moms a safe migration and eagerly await their arrival on the feeding grounds. You can keep tabs on their progress by going to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center interactive sighting map- if you zoom in on the area near Cape Cod and see the symbol of a small fluke next to a larger fluke- you'll know the mom and calf pairs have arrived!



Ship Speed Rule: Right Whales Win!

Today, the right whale community breathes a sigh of relief and rejoices in a wonderful gift: the elimination of the "sunset clause" in the ship speed reduction rule. Conservationists, scientists and organizations pulled together this year to rally support to encourage the federal government to remove this expiration date from the rule. The fact that it was accomplished is major reason to celebrate!

Photo: New England Aquarium

What is this ship speed reduction rule and why are we so excited by its continuation? Because right whales spend time at the surface and are slow moving, they are no strangers to vessel collisions, particularly in the southeast U.S. where mothers birth and nurse their newborn calves. The faster a ship travels, the more likely they are to strike and kill a right whale. Implemented in 2008, the crux of this rule requires vessels of 65+ ft in length to slow down to at least 10 knots in designated areas on the East Coast at certain times of the year when right whales are most likely to be present. Models predicted that this rule would reduce the probability of fatal ship strikes of right whales by a whopping 80-90%! And it's proven to have made a difference: "no right whale ship strike deaths have occurred in Seasonal Management Areas since the rule went into place" (from NOAA). However, these measures were only temporary and set to expire in December 2013. It was scary to think that this rule could cease to exist— with a current estimated population of only 510 individuals, removal of these speed restrictions would have been taking several steps backwards. Fortunately, the rule now exists in perpetuity!!

Photo: New England Aquarium

Many people have worked tirelessly to ensure that this rule continues to exist, but we must also remember that (to quote Amy Knowlton) "the shipping industry is to be commended for complying with this rule that has clearly made a difference for the North Atlantic right whale."

The final rule is available here!


The Perfect Holiday Gift – one that makes a difference!

This time of year, when we show our care for others, is the perfect time to help make a difference in the recovery of one of Earth’s most endangered species, the North Atlantic Right Whale. How? By giving the gift of a Right Whale sponsorship as part of The North Atlantic Right Whale Research Program of the New England Aquarium.
The Right Whale is a species that has been hunted to near extinction; a species whose habitat along the coast of eastern North America is one of the most congested, industrial, and urbanized pieces of ocean in the world; a species that, while no longer hunted, is still under intense survival pressure due to high mortality from ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements. Today, fewer than 600 North Atlantic Right Whales remain in the entire world.

Right whale calf. Photo: Yan Guilbault

But, we’re working hard to change all that.

Started in 1980, The Right Whale Research Program of the New England Aquarium is one of the longest continuously running whale research and conservation programs in the world.  Working with government, scientists, the shipping industry, and commercial fishing interests, the Right Whale Research Program seeks to find ways to assure the continued survival of these magnificent animals. 

One of our research teams at work! 

Tax-deductable sponsorships are available at many different levels and go directly towards the research and conservation work focused on saving this most endangered whale.  100% of your sponsorship dollars will go towards supporting this critical cause, so you know your contribution will help in making a difference.

To find out more on how you can sponsor a North Atlantic Right Whale please visit www.neaq.org/rwsponsor .