Cape Cod’s Most Unusual Tourists Are Some of the Rarest in the World

Endangered right whales are showing up in unexpectedly high numbers, but experts worry the population is on the decline.

A young southern right whale swims in the waters of the Atlantic Sea next to its mother in Argentina’s Patagonian village of Puerto Piramides. (Photo: Maxi Jonas/Reuters)

Mar 15, 2016· 2 MIN READ
TakePart editorial fellow Nicole Mormann covers a variety of topics, including social justice, entertainment, and environment.

In recent years, Eubalaena glacialis—popularly known as North Atlantic right whales­ and one of the most endangered large whales—have been flocking to the coastal area of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. It’s a phenomenon that experts say exceeds anything they’ve seen before, with nearly half the estimated 510 remaining right whales arriving in the state’s bay waters in time for spring.

While scientists are enjoying the sights of the rare baleen whales, the unusual timing and numbers of them coming into Cape Cod are cause for concern among those who’ve been monitoring them for decades.

“We’re seeing dozens of whales at a time of year when we shouldn’t expect to see them,” Charles “Stormy” Mayo, a senior scientist and director of right whale ecology at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, told TakePart. “It’s like looking out the window at your house and seeing a flock of birds outside when you know it’s not the time of year for that. That’s what’s happening in our backyards here.”

Mayo and his team of right whale researchers at CCS have been tracking the rare creatures for the last 30 years, conducting everything from aerial surveillance to habitat and food resource monitoring to learn more about the whales’ behavior and migration into Cape Cod Bay.

From what they’ve observed so far, Mayo said, there’s a strong indication that an increase in plankton—possibly caused by climate change—is what’s driving the right whales into the bay.

“I think underlying this whole story is a change in currents, which results in change of food, and a possible threat of this is climate change,” he said. “Climate change is having a big effect, but whether that’s increasing food or whale migration, it’s difficult to say. It must certainly be playing some role.”

The team has been collecting food samples floating next to the whales, using nets to catch the plankton. Over the past couple years, they’ve noticed an increase in the amount of plankton living in the bay. The researchers also fly an airplane over the bay to photograph the whales to identify them by the markings on their heads. Normally, the team will assign numbers to each whale to keep tabs, but in some cases, the whales will get names. In one case, researchers named a whale Wart because of a marking she had on her snout.

When Mayo and his team first started researching right whales, he said, there were about 300 in existence. While their numbers have increased over time, there’s evidence that the population as a whole is declining.

“Right now, the death rates are higher than they should be,” said Mayo. “This area is fully protected, so we know no one is harpooning them.”

Right whale populations have fallen drastically over centuries mostly because of the whaling industry. The whales get their name from hunters who said they were the “right” whale to hunt based on their slow pace, tendency to migrate toward land, and ability to float after being killed. These days, federal agencies have made numerous efforts to stop the hunting of the endangered species in areas where they’re known to aggregate.

Massachusetts federal law prohibits anyone without a search permit from coming within 500 yards of a right whale, and ships are required to slow down to about 11.5 miles per hour. But in unprotected areas, the whales are constantly faced with the threat of being hit by ships and propellers and entangled in fishing gear. Mayo said saving the animals will require governments to enact more regulations to change existing methods of fishing.

“Because their habitat is so big, it’s hard to know how to protect them, said Mayo. “You can’t shut down the entire North Atlantic Ocean, so governments, as much as they’d like to protect them, have been having a hard time trying to do so.”

According to Mayo, Massachusetts is working on adding regulations on shipping gear in an effort to conserve the right whale population, but now it’s just a matter of unprotected areas along the North Atlantic Ocean enacting similar measures.