Arctic visitor!

Well, Cape Cod Bay is in the news again and this time it's because the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) researchers reported a rare sighting: a bowhead whale!  According to CCS observers the whale was skim feeding in a group of right whales. Bowheads, like right whales, are filter feeders and eat zooplankton; Cape Cod Bay is rich with zooplankton at this time of year so this whale found a good place to stock up!

A bowhead whale and calf in the Arctic.
Photo: Corey Accardo (NOAA), Permit No.782-1719 

Bowheads are typically found only in the Arctic, and they are the bigger, beefier cousins of right whales. They can reach 60 ft in length, their blubber is nearly 2 ft thick (to protect them from the icy waters of the Arctic), and they use their massive heads (a third of their body length)  to break through the ice. Their baleen is similar to that of right whales except twice as long, reaching up to 14ft!!  But one of the most amazing things about bowheads is that there is evidence that they live to be well over 100 years old!

Bowheads (left) and right whales (right) are closely related and have similar features, such as rotund bodies, strongly arched jaws, paddle-shaped flippers and smooth, broad flukes. Illustration: Rox Corbett  (Used with permission)

As unusual as this recent sighting is, it's actually not the first time this particular bowhead whale has visited Cape Cod Bay. Based on some unique scarring, CCS has confirmed that this is the same individual photographed by their aerial survey team back in March 2012. Later that year, the Aquarium's Right Whale Team sighted the same bowhead up in the Bay of Fundy! No one reported seeing it in 2013, so where it went in the interim is anyone's guess.

Bowhead whales (top) are larger, Arctic relatives of right whales (bottom). 
Their heads are more strongly arched and they lack the distinctive callosities of right whales.
Bowhead photo:Meagan Moeyaert/NEAQ; Right whale photo: NEAQ

There has been much speculation as to whether this lonely, wandering bowhead  is from the Eastern Arctic population, or whether it could have traversed the Northwest Passage and be from the Western Arctic. At this point we don’t know anything about its origin except that it’s a long way from home.


Learn more! Here are some noteworthy sightings by the research team that weren't right whales:


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

Learn more about right whales!
Want to help this critically endangered species? Sponsor a right whale today! Your support goes directly to the Aquarium's research and conservation efforts.



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.