Feature photo: October 13, Common dolphin jumping a boat wake in the Atlantic Ocean. Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale
The Gulf of Maine is traversed by many species of marine mammals, from soulful harbor seals to the greatest of whales, either as local residents or tourists on their breeding and feeding voyages. Among the most charismatic of all are dolphins. Besides spotting them from whale-watching boats, how much do you actually know about New England’s native dolphins?
“When people think of dolphins, they think of tropical animals,” says Brian Sharp, stranding director for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, located in Yarmouth Port on Cape Cod. “But you’ve really not seen a dolphin until you’ve seen one of the species endemic to New England waters.”
The two species of dolphin most frequently sighted around Cape Cod Bay have one thing in common: their markings look like custom paint jobs. And although striped dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, and the occasional bottlenose will sometimes pass through, it’s these two species of streamlined wave-riders that New Englanders most often spy skirting the edge of the continental shelf.
Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis)
At 6 to 7 feet long and a svelte 165 to 300 pounds, common dolphins are like “wide receivers” in build, says Tony LaCasse, media relations director of the New England Aquarium and a longtime dolphin rescuer. Even when stranded, common dolphins are communicative, chattering to the other members of their pod through clicks, whirrs, and whistles. Rescuers will often point them towards each other in order to reassure them. They are dark grey and tan with white countercolored bellies, an hourglass shape on their side, and a stripe from their eye to their mouth giving them a masked appearance. They have a long rostrum, or snout.
Even salty, seasoned boat captains describe Atlantic white-sided dolphins as “beautiful.” These cetaceans sport natural detailing of bold white and silver patches on their sides, with a yellow or tan stripe that leads to their tail. At 7 to 9 feet long, and weighing in at more than 500 pounds, they are “girthier” than common dolphins, a look accentuated by their short rostrum. LaCasse compares them to “linebackers:” brawny, husky, and stoic while awaiting rescue at the beach
Most dolphins skim the continental shelf and shelf edge, swimming closer to the coastline if they are hot on the trail of prey such as a school of herring, hake, mackerel, smelt, or anchovies.
Unfortunately, coming near to shore makes dolphins vulnerable to running aground. It’s really impossible to talk about dolphins in New England without giving attention to strandings. Knowing how this phenomenon occurs can help us understand even more about our endemic dolphin species.
Mass strandings in New England have happened longer than humans can remember. Cape Cod Bay, a hooked sandbar with a gently sloping shore, is a notorious trap for dolphins. Anyone who has combed the beaches of the Cape knows that when the tide goes out, it runs out far and fast—so if you are a dolphin who has pursued your prey close to shore, that shallow beach profile with its hidden sandbars can leave you high and dry before you even know what’s happening.
Along the New England coast, “as far as we know, the commonest mass strandings are behaviorally driven, without a human cause,” says Michael Moore, Director of the Marine Mammal Center at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Dolphins, the highly social animals that they are, may follow a sick lead animal inland. Even healthy lead animals can have their echolocation disoriented by mucky water caused by a turn of the tide, or the cloudy aftermath of a nor’easter.
Once dolphins are stranded, time is of the essence in a rescue. Gravity on land presses hard on marine mammals whose skeletons have not evolved to resist its force and protect their internal organs (seals are built to spend significant periods on land, but not so cetaceans). They can suffer significant internal trauma if out of the buoyant salt water for too long. Also, the hot sun can burn dolphin skin in summer, and frostbite can singe it in the winter. There is little temporal margin for error if dolphins are going to be viable again back at sea.
Mass dolphin strandings (from 2 to 20 individuals) occur most often in the winter, from December through April. With the lack of daylight on short winter days, the Northeast Regional Stranding Network monitors and patrols beaches in order to stay ahead of a potential crisis.
Imagine a stranding like a military triage situation. The Cape’s tidal flats can go out a long way, so a dolphin might be stranded as much as a mile from the road. They might be in three feet of tidal mud, or beached on a sand bar far from the water’s edge. Rescuers have refined the use of all-terrain dolphin carts, stretchers with cut-out holes for pectoral fins, and transport trailers that are enclosed and lined to make rescue faster, more efficient, and less traumatic. Even with all that technology, it still can take six people to carry and load a slippery, unwieldy dolphin, so rescuing is muddy, strenuous, and emotional work!
Rescued dolphins are tagged and then released from Herring Cove or Race Point in Provincetown, MA where there are fast drop-offs into deep water. The Provincetown Fire Department sets up lights on the beach to aid rescuers, and trained response volunteers in drysuits walk the dolphins out into the water.
The satellite tags reveal that after a day or two of getting their bearings, even single dolphins usually find their way back to the pod. They will link up with other released dolphins in their family group and then travel together, often heading out towards Georges or Stellwagen Bank… staying well clear of land!
While little can be done to prevent geographically-caused mass strandings, you can support your local rescue network to make sure that stranded animals have a viable chance at survival. Single animal strandings often caused by illness, injury, or entanglement in fishing gear are more complex. In that case, advocating for responsible, sustainable fishing practices will help dolphins and other pelagic species avoid becoming bycatch casualties.
Dolphins are very much residents of New England waters, and there are more of them out there than we might realize: “When you see four or five dolphins at the surface,” says Brian Sharp, “it can be an iceberg effect: that really is a small portion of the number of animals actually around you, below the water and beyond your vision.”
Hopefully what you have learned here will help expand your vision so that you will see our endemic dolphin species even more clearly!
If you find a dolphin stranded south of Boston, please telephone IFAW’s stranding hotline at 508-743-9548. From Boston on north, please dial the New England Aquarium’s Marine Animal Hotline at 617-973-5247. For entanglements or by-caught cetaceans, please call the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies at 1-800-900-3622.
NOW is the time for you to be part of the planning process that is taking place to better coordinate our coastal and ocean uses in the face of all these changes. Everyone who cares about the ocean and how we use it should have a voice in the planning – a “seat at the table.”
How can you get involved?
Learn about ocean planning! There is a fantastic new film called Ocean Frontiers that tells stories about ocean planning from people and places that might surprise you: farmers in Iowa, shipping companies in New England, and fishermen in Oregon – all committed to planning and doing things better for ocean health. Find an Ocean Frontiers screening near you, or host your own!
This fish looks like it was designed by Stephen King, with its angular gaping mouth, needle-like teeth, and beady eyes. Imagine your reaction if you were enjoying a refreshing dip in the ocean then you looked down and saw that face staring up at you. I pride myself on surfing with the sharks in the bracing New England ocean, but seeing that crazy face by my feet might just leave me unhinged for a minute. These fish range throughout the North Atlantic, and as far south as Florida, so I know they’re around.
Really, though, your odds of encountering a monkfish are very low and if you did, they probably wouldn’t attack you. They usually hang out on the ocean floor, where they lie in wait, lure in prey with a filament-like “esca” that sprouts from between their eyes, and snatch up whatever unfortunate little fish happens to show interest.
I would really love to see some Crittercam footage of a monkfish swimming up from the dark, cold depths and rushing a cute little unsuspecting puffin. Pow! Like a shark attack, but smaller and uglier. I’m going to be thinking about this the next time my feet are dangling off my surfboard (although researchers think the puffins were diving down 10 or 20 feet when the monkfish nabbed them). Still – as if the shark anxiety wasn’t bad enough.
Monkfish are also called goosefish, bellyfish, allmouth, and lawyer (that last one seems a little harsh).
These fish have been found almost 3,000 feet down.
They can eat things larger than they are, and are not very picky. Cod, lobster, and birds are all fair game.
Monkfish was not considered marketable in the U.S., until a government funded marketing campaign convinced people they were missing out on something that Europeans had been onto for a while.
While monkfish have yet to show any interest in eating us, we do seem to enjoy eating them. In New England alone, commercial landings have averaged 35 million pounds a year since 1990. Hopefully this important and unique Gulf of Maine dweller will be able to withstand the fishing pressure that is now upon them. Given the state of collapse of our cod fishery, healthier bottom dwelling fish stocks are being increasingly targeted to help sustain the fleet. This sort of action might backfire if populations of monkfish and other groundfish begin to plummet as the cod have, leaving fishermen with less and less. Worse, there are pressures on groundfish other than fishing, like warming seas and ocean acidification, which make it important that we set some habitat aside for our ocean ecosystems to adapt and build resiliency to our changing environment.
As odd looking and voracious as monkfish are, they are an important part of our New England ocean ecosystem. I hope that our fisheries managers and researches keep tabs on monkfish populations so we don’t imperil this true ocean oddity. Especially since I haven’t seen that Crittercam footage yet.
April is National Humor Month, so here’s some evidence that nature can tell a good joke. Meet the sheepshead fish. I can tell you all about where it lives, how big it gets, all the usual statistics. But wouldn’t you rather know about those teeth?
Sheepshead fish eat all kinds of things – from soft-bodied marine worms to clams and barnacles – so they need teeth that can accommodate this dietary range. Teeth like ours, as it turns out (although I’m not sure we could crunch up a clam shell). They also have a bonus feature we lack – extra rows behind the front teeth.
Crazy teeth aside, they are a pretty attractive looking fish, with vertical black and silver stripes that have earned them the nickname “convict fish.”
These odd little fish are actually quite common – ranging from Cape Cod to Florida. In spite of the impressive looking chompers, they only get to be about 30 inches long, and 15 pounds. I hear they are tasty and popular with recreational fishermen, but I’m not sure I could get past those teeth.
Spring has sprung, New England style. All the signs are there – the crocuses came up then got covered by sloppy, wet snow, and there’s a bunch of mud underneath it all. What New Englander doesn’t love this time of year? We get to think about shedding our winter wrappings and revealing our tender flesh to the warmer weather.
This happens in the ocean, too. Maine lobsters typically molt (shed the old shell and grow a new one) in the spring, as the water gets warmer. Lobstermen know this, and structure their fishing time around it. Richard Nelson, a lobsterman in Friendship, Maine, says he tries to catch the hard-shell lobsters in early spring before the molting starts, and then starts catching the new shedders right around when the summer tourists show up. The shedders are easier to eat, with their softer shells, and are sweeter tasting. But the shedders are also more fragile, and can’t be shipped very well, so they need to be eaten locally or sent to a processor.
“Lobstermen usually look forward to the shedders as newfound abundance,” said Richard. Lobsters that were previously too small to keep are bigger after they’ve shed, and are more likely to be of legal size. Normally, the appearance of the shedders is good news, but last year the lobsters in Maine were molting a month earlier than usual, which threw a monkey wrench into the whole fishing season. The tourists weren’t there yet to eat the shedders, and the processors were busy with Canadian lobsters, so they couldn’t take the Maine product.
And there are signs that it’s happening again this year, according to Bob Bayer, Executive Director of the Lobster Institute at the University of Maine. Warmer than usual ocean water could be driving the lobsters from their deeper winter homes towards their shallower molting grounds too early for the summer tourists and processors to consume.
This is not the only change we’re seeing. According to Bob, there is a lobster population boom underway from north of Cape Cod well up into Canada. They are increasing in number from year to year, to the point that they are might be overcrowding the ecosystem, which might make them more vulnerable to disease and is possibly leading to cannibalism.
Why are there so many lobsters? Bob thinks there might be few factors at play. First, he thinks it’s possible that water pollution south of Cape Cod might be inhibiting lobster recruitment, while waters to the north are cleaner. Temperature is probably a factor as well, for a couple of reasons. First, lobsters grow more quickly in warmer water. Newly hatched lobsters spend their larval stages near the surface of the water, where they are more exposed to predators, and have to develop adequately before they can settle on the relative safety of the ocean floor. When they grow faster, they reach safety faster. The second reason temperature could be helping lobster populations to increase is that warmer waters can increase the amount of food available to lobsters, which fuels their faster growth – they only grow quickly if there is enough to eat.
If you add it all up – warm, clean water with lots to eat, you get population growth. What usually keeps growth from becoming a boom is predators – in this case, fish like cod and haddock. Cod and haddock, you’ve probably heard, are not having a population boom. So with fewer things around to eat them, except for hungry tourists – and there’s a short season for those – the lobster continue to boom.
Spring is a time of change, of re-growth and renewal. It is also turning into a time of more bad news for New England lobstermen, who depend on a healthy lobster population with a predictable seasonal molt to make a living. Last year, even with the abundance of lobsters in the sea, fishermen struggled with low market prices due to the glut of product. The entire ecosystem in our New England waters is shifting, and it’s anybody’s guess how things will end up, but it seems clear that making a living from the sea is becoming more unpredictable.
I’ll be honest with you – I tend to stay on top of the water when I’m in the ocean. Or, I try, anyway. As a surfer the goal is to spend as little time underwater as possible. Especially in the winter. But I’m starting to think I’m missing out on something by avoiding the chilly depths of our Gulf of Maine.
The Boston Sea Rovers, one of the oldest underwater clubs in the nation, hosted its 59th annual show this past weekend, and I was lucky enough to be there with some fellow CLFers. We went to talk about the importance of preserving valuable habitat, like Cashes Ledge, for protecting our fragile ocean ecosystems and helping our dwindling groundfish stocks recover.
We hoped that by showing people Brian Skerry’s beautiful photographs of the gorgeous kelp forest and amazing animals of Cashes Ledge, the divers would be inspired to help us protect it. They were – we got hundreds of signatures on our petition to ask our fisheries managers to protect essential habitat in the Gulf of Maine. And, while we may have gone there to talk, we ended up doing a lot of listening as well. Here are just a few things I learned after spending two days talking with divers:
The Gulf of Maine is an excellent place to dive. There are so many wonderful animals to see here.
But visibility often stinks. This is partly due to the very productive nature of our waters. As phytoplankton bloom and the food chain gets going, it gets a little harder to see. Or, poor visibility can be due to human activities in the water (see next bullet).
The ocean floor looks pretty bad after a bottom trawler comes through. I heard this dozens of times this weekend. “It looks like a freshly plowed field,” said one diver, and you can see the sediment plume from miles away.
The next time I want to talk to divers about the amazing beauty of Cashes Ledge, I’d better bring a map so they know how to get there and see for themselves.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Discovery Channel have partnered to develop a robot that can follow a white shark. Seriously. I saw the footage. More on this later in the month (yes, I am totally geeking out on this).
I also learned that, in spite of difficulties equalizing my ears underwater, there may be ways I can still get down below, if I take things very slowly. I’m pretty stoked to find out if that’s true. My 10 year old son, who was with me this weekend, wants to learn also. Even more motivating!
I’m not sure I’ll be as hardy as diver Zachary Whalen, who took this awesome picture under the ice, but maybe I can at least go down below on a warmer day and watch the seals that I usually only see when they pop their heads up next to me while I surf. But if there are waves – I’m bringing my board.
Congratulations to Josh Cummings, for submitting the photo Brian Skerry chose as the winner of this month’s contest – this exquisite image of a moon snail navigating the sandy bottom of Folly Cove in Rockport, MA. We asked Josh to tell us more about his passion for diving in New England. Read on to hear about Josh’s New England Ocean Odyssey.
My first experiences underwater date back to the early 1980’s while I was on a family vacation. Being only eight years old, I was way too young to dive, but all it took was one snorkeling trip and I was hooked. What I saw was a whole new world; colorful tropical fish in crystal clear warm water swimming amongst vibrant canyon like coral reefs. My little brother and I explored for hours, watching animals such as parrot fish munching on coral, angelfish chasing each other around and moray eels curiously staring us down.
As soon as we got home from that trip, my parents took us down to the local dive shop where I got my first mask and snorkel set; this was the beginning of my love for diving. After a wait that seemed eternal, my little brother and I signed up for a scuba diving course when he was twelve and I was thirteen: just old enough.
We grew up in New Hampshire, close to the Vermont border, where there were no tropical fish or coral reefs to be found, but we were still amazed by what we could find beneath the surface. In those ponds and lakes we were free, able to move around three-dimensionally through the water and swim amongst the trout, bass, and pumpkinseed; still holding out hope that one of Captain Kidd’s ships ended up in a New Hampshire pond.
I continued snorkeling and diving in the nearby ponds and lakes until college, when diving really became an obsession. I took a job at the local dive shop, Underwater Sports of NH, learning everything I could about the sport, and went diving as much as I could. I dreamt of diving in far-off exotic lands, but being a broke college student kept me in New England. There were still many adventures to be had – off beaches, on shipwrecks, under the ice, in caves and even quarries.
Back then, I began to notice the destructive influence people have had on our marine environment. I saw the destruction caused by draggers, the deaths caused by carelessly discarded or lost fishing gear, centuries-old and modern trash, as well as the devastating effects of invasive species, such as zebra mussels.
I noticed that when I recounted my stories to non-divers they were surprised by two things: 1) That there is anything to see in New England waters; and 2) That activities, like carelessly conducted fishing and boating or forgetting that plastic cup on the beach, had long-term consequences.
I did what I thought I could to help the situation. I participated in underwater clean ups and reminded customers to properly clean their equipment and boats when traveling between water bodies. These were little things that helped, but I knew they were only temporary and small solutions – a Band-Aid. The real solution lies in changing people’s attitudes and behaviors.
I left the dive shop after I graduated and started my career in the environmental field, but I kept on diving. As soon as I could, I bought a high quality underwater camera system so I could finally share with family and friends what I saw in those murky ponds and chilly surf. As I practiced and slowly got better, I saw how many people were amazed by the colors, beauty, and sheer volume of life in our New England waters.
I soon realized that the best way to convey the natural beauty of the life in our waters, as well as the damage being done, was through photographs. I wanted to show the destruction, while also showing what is there to protect.
While I have yet to publish any of my photographs commercially, I am proud to have provided many of my photographs to organizations and agencies aimed at protecting our environment such as CLF’s New England Ocean Odyssey, the U.S. EPA and the USACE. Over the past year I have been able to document some incredible marine life behaviors: Atlantic squid mating and laying their eggs, and herring migrating through a rushing herring run. Small wonders happening right here in our backyards.
People often ask, “Where is your favorite place to dive?” It’s a hard question to answer. In my 25years underwater, I have been fortunate enough to dive all over the world (Caribbean, Mexico, California, Thailand, and Palau) with each providing an incredibly different and new experience, but I will always love the excitement and adventure that our New England waters offer. This is my personal New England Ocean Odyssey.
Josh Cummings is an Environmental Scientist for Jacobs Engineering at the New Bedford Harbor Superfund Site. He has a degree in Industrial Chemistry and has been a certified diver since 1987 with certifications through PADI, TDI and IANTD.