Cape Cod sees many more big fish tourists – endangered right whales drawn to the gastronomic possibilities of its plankton-rich bay.
Experts who track majestic marine mammals, some of the rarest creatures on Earth, say nearly half of the world’s estimated population of around 500 animals have been spotted in Cape Cod Bay in recent springs.
And they’re back in what appears to be a record number, delighting amateur photographers and scientists still anxious about their future.
“It’s quite extraordinary and somewhat mind-blowing,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist and director of right whale ecology at the government-funded Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown.
North Atlantic right whales have been feeding in Cape Cod Bay for centuries, where their numbers have been wiped out by whalers who hunted them for their oil and plastic baleen.
But until recently, they were rarely spotted in the bay. For a period in the late 1990s, fewer than 30 whales were seen each year, said Mr Mayo, who has been monitoring them and their ecosystem since 1984 by boat and plane.
“There has been a huge boost in numbers over the past few years,” said Amy Knowlton, scientist with the Right Whale Research Project at the New England Aquarium.
“Right whales are probably looking for food all the time. Maybe when one of them finds it, they call their friends.”
Each whale has a unique mark on its head and researchers use them to identify and catalog individuals. The Aquarium, which also keeps a close watch on the population, gives some animals funny names like Kleenex, Snotnose, and Wart.
Right whales spend most of their time in the Western Atlantic, and many are thought to congregate in the Gulf of Maine.
They are rarely seen north of the entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the Maritime provinces of Canada. A few venture as far south as the coasts of Florida and Georgia, mostly females giving birth to calves – something scientists say doesn’t happen often enough.
Their growing presence in Cape Cod Bay surprised scientists. Mr Mayo speculates that changing ocean currents – possibly due to global climate change – are injecting more plankton into the bay, even as traditional whale feeding grounds off the Maine coast falter.
“They are a bit like cows in a field. They move away from places that are not good to places that are good,” he said.
Although some right whales arrive in the bay in early December and linger until mid-May, their presence generally increases in March and peaks in mid-April, when plankton concentrations are at their highest. .
Animated waters harbor clear and present dangers: a risk of being struck by commercial vessels and pleasure craft or of becoming entangled in nets.
Researchers who spot whales report their whereabouts to state and federal authorities, who in turn alert nearby ships. Federal law prohibits approaching within 500 meters of a right whale and requires ships to slow to 10 knots – around 11.5 mph. Whale watching tours are to be avoided, instead focusing on humpback whales and other relatively abundant species.
“It’s always heartwarming whenever we see individuals and know they’re still alive,” Ms. Knowlton said. “It is only by seeing them and their scars that we can truly understand what is going on with them.”
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