Seamounts Species Spotlight: North Atlantic Right Whale

The New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts are a special area 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod. The unique geological formations make this area a biological hotspot, attracting many unique species. This blog post is part 2 in a series that profiles some of these incredible animals.

A rare sight in the open ocean, the North Atlantic right whale depends on the New England Coral Canyons and Seamounts area as a rich feeding zone each year beginning in early spring and lasting through the end of August.

A right whale is easily distinguishable from other species by its large head, two blow holes, and bumpy patches that dot its head and jawline. These rough patches of skin, called callosities, are frequently covered in microscopic sea lice which makes them appear white or orange. Each whale has a different callosities pattern, making individuals easily distinguishable from one another.

These massive critters can grow up to 50 feet in length and weigh in at more than 70 tons by consuming hundreds of pounds of zooplankton and copepods each day, making them one of the largest baleen whale species. Right whales feed using the same method as all baleen whales: by taking in a huge mouthful of water and then pushing the water through its tooth-like baleen plates to catch tiny organisms.

The canyons and seamounts make for a reliable feeding area for the right whale, with high concentrations of food sources, and relatively few human disturbances (most of the canyons and seamounts don’t see much commercial fishing activity).

Despite their impressive size, right whales are very slow and were historically an easy and popular target for human hunters for centuries. Currently, the North Atlantic right whale is listed as endangered on the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

What’s in a Name?

Back during the heyday of whaling, this graceful creature was the “right” target for a whaler’s harpoon because of its high blubber content and tendency to float on the surface once killed. This is largely thought to be what first caused the population to crash.

Although the species has been internationally protected since 1949 by the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, the global population is estimated to be hovering between just 300-500 individuals. These low numbers may be in part due to small litter sizes, making it more difficult for populations to rebound – or because of continued accidental human interference in a variety of ways: Just this spring, a baby right whale died after an apparent ship strike near Cape Cod.

Reducing Human Threats

Right whales can frequently find themselves sharing the waters with boats, resulting in seriously harmful or fatal collisions. Off the coast of New England, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary has been successful in moving shipping lanes to reduce the risk of commercial vessel strikes; a small 12 degree shift has the potential to reduce strikes by 58 percent. There has also been progress developing technologies to track whale activity that boats can use to help avoid collisions.

In other cases, development projects can pose threats, such as the Deepwater Wind offshore wind farm off Block Island. Deepwater Wind successfully worked with Conservation Law Foundation and other organizations, however, to halt pre-construction activities during times when right whales were known to be in the area.

Another significant threat to the right whale is fishing rope entanglement, which causes lacerations and infections and can make it difficult for the whale to dive and resurface. But, not all hope is lost: recent innovations in fishing rope production hope to minimize rope entanglement threats.

And, NOAA recently moved to significantly expand critical habitat for right whales, meaning federal agencies conducting permitting activities must work with NOAA Fisheries to avoid or reduce impacts on the critical habitat areas.

These actions are hugely helpful for this struggling species, but more will be needed to ensure population recovery. Comprehensive protection of feeding grounds, such as the canyons and seamounts, would be another big step in the right direction. With little fishing activity occurring in these areas, the canyons and seamounts are a relatively safe place for whales to live and eat, away from busier places where threats are higher.


Maritime Heritage at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary

Located at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary sits astride 400-year old shipping routes and fishing grounds for New England’s oldest ports.  Centuries of marine calamites have made the sanctuary’s seafloor an underwater museum.  Archaeological research has only begun to reveal these stories of the past. Beginning in 2000, sanctuary researchers took the first steps to locate and identify the historic shipwrecks in the sanctuary waters. Since then, the sanctuary has partnered with the Northeast Underwater Research Technology and Education Center (NURTEC) at the University of Connecticut to bring advanced remote sensing technologies to the sanctuary for shipwreck exploration.

When I joined the sanctuary research team in 2002, I was immediately impressed with the possibilities the sanctuary offered for archaeological research. Unlike other Federal waters, historic sanctuary shipwrecks are protected by regulations that prohibit their damage or disturbance (unfortunately fishing activities are exempted from these regulations, a significant gap in the sanctuary’s resource protection abilities). The sanctuary’s largely unexplored location and its relatively deep waters meant that artifacts have remained on sites ready to shed light on our ancestor’s maritime activities. Thus, archaeological discovery in the sanctuary is a thrilling process, from the first hints that side scan sonar has revealed a new shipwreck to the first observation of that site, either by SCUBA diving or remotely operated vehicle (ROV).

Lamartine 1 courtesy of NOAA_SBNMS_and_NURTEC_UConn
Anemones and a sea star living on Lamartine’s granite cargo. Note the manhole bored through the granite slab’s center for access to the underlying sewer basin. Courtesy of NOAA SBNMS and NURTEC UConn


Recent research on a sunken schooner, named Lamartine, highlighted the interesting investigative aspects of sanctuary maritime heritage research. Located in 2004 while searching for another shipwreck, archaeologists used NURTEC’s ROV to image the site; a pile of intricately shaped flat granite slabs lying on top of a wooden hull. Library research determined that the granite slabs were sewer catch basin covers used in the construction of street corners. Nearly 7 years of archival research failed to turn up any likely candidates for the shipwreck until a volunteer historian found the Lamartine’s story. A visit to the University of Maine’s library uncovered the granite quarry’s ledger that supplied Lamartine’s cargo confirming the shipwreck’s identity. During a May 1893 storm off Cape Ann, that cargo shifted capsizing the schooner and taking the life of one sailor. Next time you are walking the old streets of Boston or New York, look down and you might see one of these granite basin covers still in place over 100 years after its installation.

In juxtaposition to the dramatic stories of destruction encapsulated in Stellwagen Bank sanctuary shipwrecks, I am wowed by the vibrant marine life that now inhabits these oases of biodiversity.  Shipwreck structure provides ideal homes for many of New England’s undersea inhabitants. To so many, New England’s waters are cold, dark places, seemingly impenetrable from the beach.  The archaeological fieldwork I’ve conducted has revealed dozens of varieties of colorful organisms that would amaze people if they saw them living in their native habitat.

Announcing our January Photo Contest Winner!

Congratulations to Matthew Lawrence, the photographer of our January winning photo! The photo shows a rare Atlantic wolffish taking shelter under a sunken trawler in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. We love the way it highlights this charismatic (if a bit homely) fish.

If you have pictures to share, there’s still time left in our February contest! Even better, we have a very special prize for this month’s winner. The winning photo will be displayed in the New England Ocean Odyssey booth at the Boston Sea Rovers Show, March 9-10. At the end of the show, the winner will receive an enlarged print of their photo.

Entering is easy! Explore New England’s oceans, take some photographs and then share them with our online community on Flickr™. All you need to do is add your photos to the New England Ocean Odyssey group and tag them “PhotoContestNEOO2012”. Find out more here.

Also check our our New England Ocean Odyssey Facebook page where we’ll be posting the honorable mentions from the January photo contest over the next few days.

We look forward to seeing your photos!

The Sounds of Stellwagen Bank

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, some of the scientists and experts there are introducing us to the fascinating research and activities they are involved with. Here Leila Hatch, the Sanctuary’s Marine Ecologist, talks about her research on underwater sound in Stellwagen Bank. – Ed.

More than 2,000 years ago Aristotle told us that he was listening underwater. Leonardo Da Vinci followed up during the 1400s with the knowledge that ships could be heard underwater from far away. In the 1900s, some of the earliest applications of that knowledge were dedicated to navigation purposes in Boston Harbor. We have been able to record underwater sounds for decades. And yet, even today, we cannot identify all of the sounds recorded in Massachusetts Bay, despite knowing that some of them are biological in origin.

As a marine ecologist at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary I specialize in the underwater acoustic habitat of this federally designated protected area at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay. I work with a team of collaborators from NOAA, universities and companies. We monitor the sound field of the sanctuary in order to better understand contributions made to it by a variety of marine animals, natural processes, and by humans.

Sound, and particularly low frequency or “low keys on the piano” sound, is transmitted extremely efficiently underwater. For this reason, animals rely on their hearing underwater as a primary means for interacting with their environment and with each other. Light degrades quickly underwater, but not sound. Some sounds can travel without losing significant energy for tens of thousands of kilometers, and, under some conditions, from pole to pole. During the course of two World Wars and beyond, humans invested large amounts of time and money to develop systems that attempted to match the abilities of marine mammals. Some products closely resemble the animals’ natural capabilities, such as long distance ship to ship communication and detection of objects of interest over large distances.

Like many other species, we want to be able to navigate the ocean or locate areas of high prey abundance. In addition to these purposeful uses of sounds, many of the sounds we make in the ocean are incidental by-products. The construction of offshore platforms and the laying of pipelines produce loud sounds. We also move more than 98% of all retail products by ship. And we are moving more and more of those products every day. Ship propellers create bubbles that produce sounds when they cavitate or burst. The low frequency sounds from large container ships and tankers travel far and wide and add to an increasing hum in the world’s oceans. This growing background noise is highest in the same frequencies used for communication by many marine species, including some of our most endangered baleen whales.

There are some places in the world that are particularly important to both baleen whales and human commerce. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is one of those places. Several baleen whale populations, all of which are vocally active, use these waters to feed and nurse their young every year. But the sanctuary is also bisected by the Boston Traffic Separation Scheme—the in and outbound lanes of commercial shipping to the Port of Boston. In addition, this ocean-going traffic is supplemented by active tug-tow and barge transits, fishing and whale-watching trips, recreational boating excursions, research cruises and more. It’s a busy place.

Since 2006, sanctuary researchers have been working with our partners at NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center, Cornell University’s Bioacoustics Research Program, and Marine Acoustics, Inc. to develop methods to characterize the contributions of vessels to the sanctuary’s sound field and further determine how these noises are influencing the “acoustic habitats” of baleen whales. From this work we can begin to understand how shipping noise impacts whales’ ability to communicate with each other. In particular, we can estimate the loss of communication opportunities for calling whales as shipping traffic and noise increases over time.

Many questions still remain, including how these lost opportunities to communicate affect the longevity of these species. Baleen whales evolved to exploit a very particular niche. These largest of animals eat some of the smallest of prey, so their ability to survive is based on finding and gorging on huge amounts of that small stuff. As patches of high quality food become less predictable or move due to climate change, whales’ communication systems become all the more imperative. If those systems are compromised, we can assume consequences. But much more science is needed from places like Stellwagen Bank sanctuary to fill in these answers.

Photo above: Whales and ships share space in Stellwagen Bank
National Marine Sanctuary.  SBNMS file photo by WCNE.  Photo
taken under NOAA permit #981-1707.

Flying Below the Radar: Stellwagen’s Stealthy Whales

As we celebrate the 20th anniversary of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, some of the scientists and experts there are introducing us to the fascinating research and activities they are involved with. David Wiley, the Sanctuary’s Research Coordinator, talks about one of the most interesting – but difficult to study – residents of Stellwagen Bank. — Ed.

Is there such a thing as an animal that is 55 feet long, weighs 50 tons and is almost invisible? If such a creature did exist, how would you study it? That animal does exist and it’s called a humpback whale, one of the most famous citizens of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. As the sanctuary research coordinator, one of my jobs is to figure out how to study these invisible giants that spend 90% of their time underwater and out of sight. When I first began studying humpback and other large whales more than 20 years ago, we took pictures of them at the surface, wrote down the timing of their breaths, recorded the other animals they were with, and dreamed of being able to follow them into the depths of the ocean and their lives.

Today, those dreams have become reality, made possible by two technological innovations: DTAGs (Digital Acoustic Recording Tags) and National Geographic Crittercams. The DTAG is a synchronous motion, acoustic recording tag invented by our friend Mark Johnson when he was at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. DTAGs are small computers attached to the whales via suction-cups that hold onto the animals for about 24 hours (see above photo). They collect a suite of data including body pitch, roll, heading, and depth, while recording sounds that the whale makes and hears. To make use of the DTAG, we have a team of 14 scientists working on the project.


A 3D trackplot map shows a humpback whale using bubbles to corral fish. Data was recorded by a DTAG placed on the animal’s back. Credit: SBNMS and UNH Advanced Data Visualization Laboratory.


For the past 9 summers, these scientists have journeyed to the sanctuary to unlock the secrets of humpback whale behavior. Each scientist has a particular team function. For example, Colin Ware, who is the head of the University of New Hampshire’s Advanced Data Visualization Laboratory, takes the DTAG data and turns it into amazing 3D maps of the whale’s behavior and movements (see image above), Elliot Hazen, of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center uses SIMRAD Echosounders to map schools of sand lance prey, and Allison Stimpert, a National Research Council post-doc, examines how the whales use sound. To date, our team has published 10 research papers in scientific journals unveiling humpback life in and around the sanctuary.

In 2011, we teamed up with the Remote Imaging Program at National Geographic to get an entirely different view of humpback life. This effort uses a Crittercam. The miniature camera also attaches to a whale’s back with a suction-cup and provides an animal-based video observation of the whale’s behavior and surroundings. The Crittercam’s wide angle lens often captures images of numerous other animals, letting us watch multiple whales at the same time.

These two technologies have allowed us to begin to see our invisible whales for the first time. We have learned how they blow bubbles to capture fast moving fish and how they feed along the seabed where the whales are vulnerable to commercial fishing gear. Sharing our unique views with fisherman and shippers has helped us come to a common understanding of how whales behave and, in some cases, how they can be protected.

Top photo: A Stellwagen Bank sanctuary humpback whale sports a DTAG and Crittercam.
Credit: SBNMS file photo by Ari Friedlaender. Photo taken under NOAA Fisheries Permit # 14245.

Happy Birthday to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary!

Above – An endangered North Atlantic right whale, among the most beloved residents of Stellwagen Bank, moves along the surface of the water. 

This month marks the 20th anniversary of the designation of the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary – New England’s first and thus far only National Marine Sanctuary and one of only 13 National Marine Sanctuaries nationwide. Named in honor of a long time Massachusetts member of Congress and in recognition of its outstanding ecological importance to New England’s ocean, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary lies just 25 miles off the coast of Boston and encompasses an area approximately 842 square miles in size. Stellwagen Bank itself was named after Henry S. Stellwagen, a Lieutenant in the US Navy who first surveyed and mapped the area and its surround waters in 1854.

Geologists believe that Stellwagen Bank was originally dry land, wandered by wooly mammoths and mastodons, prior to being sculpted and forced underwater 14,000 years ago by the last Ice Age glaciers. Today’s Stellwagen Bank is incredibly diverse – home to more than 575 species, including sponges, corals, starfish, lobster, sea scallops, and squid. There are also many groundfish species, such as Atlantic cod, yellowtail flounder, and Atlantic wolffish. Schools of bluefin tuna and elegant blue sharks cruise the middle depths in search of prey, while 30-foot basking sharks and prehistoric ocean sunfish ride the surface currents. Although increasingly rare, loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles still live here, protected by the Endangered Species Act.

But Stellwagen Bank is perhaps best known for its 19 species of marine mammals – including seals, harbor porpoises, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and pilot, minke, finback, and humpback whales, the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale (pictured above), and the 100-foot blue whale – the world’s largest animal.


A map of Stellwagen Bank, including the original shipping lanes (here called “Existing TSS”) and the current shipping lanes (“Proposed TSS”), which were shifted after intensive whale surveys informed a better route.


Stellwagen’s close proximity to land and its tremendous resources have drawn intensive human activity and uses that pose significant challenges to the long-term health of this special place.  When Stellwagen Bank NMS was designated in 1992, a prohibition on oil and gas drilling and sand and graveling mining within the Sanctuary was imposed, but the designation established little in the way of new protections for its living marine resources.

Intensive commercial and recreational fishing takes place throughout the sanctuary for species such as cod, haddock, flounder, tuna, herring, and lobster. And although it is a National Marine Sanctuary, bottom trawling occurs throughout much of the area threatening seafloor habitats. Hundreds of large cargo ships cut through the middle of the Sanctuary throughout the year traveling along the shipping lanes into Boston, presenting a threat to surface feeding North Atlantic right whales that are prone to ship strikes. The Sanctuary is working to minimize this harm, and has done extensive work to understand where the whales are most likely to be in the Sanctuary, and has cooperated in altering the shipping lanes to be more protective.

Currently the Sanctuary is working to develop a much needed ecological research area that would allow managers to study the impacts of human activities on Stellwagen’s ecosystem and devise better protections for this special place.

This month, New England Ocean Odyssey is excited to celebrate Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with spectacular photographs and stories of the work that the Sanctuary is doing to protect its precious resources.

Happy Birthday Stellwagen!

Atlantic Wolffish: A Face only a Mother Could Love?

Bulging of eye and jagged of tooth, the Atlantic wolffish won’t win any beauty contests, but this incredible fish has won our hearts, here at Conservation Law Foundation. OK, so we’re fish people, but we think anyone who gets to know this amazing animal will see the beauty and importance in the Atlantic wolffish. The wolffish, like its name implies, is a keystone predator, or an animal that has a critical ecological function. For example, the predatory wolffish helps keep herbivorous sea urchin populations from exploding and decimating kelp forests. This can provide benefits throughout the food chain to iconic New England species such as cod and lobster.

Look at the impressive set of canine teeth on this wolffish. It is easy to imagine the unprecedented shell-crushing power that helps them eat whole oysters, crabs and sea urchins. If you can’t imagine it, then check out these little video clips and see for yourself! The shells they crunch up eventually turn into gravelly habitat for other animals, like sea cucumbers.

The wolffish, which has evolved with natural anti-freeze to keep its blood flowing in the deep, ice-cold water of the Gulf of Maine it calls home, can live up to 20 years and weigh as much as 40 pounds. Unlike most fish which broadcast millions of eggs into the water to be fertilized by the male and then abandoned, the wolffish pair up (did you check out the video clips?) to reproduce, and spawning occurs internally. The male then protects the eggs in a nest for up to four months. So much for only getting motherly love!

The wolffish is subjected to tremendous fishing pressure. It is a common bycatch species discarded in New England’s groundfishery, and the trawls and dredges that manage to catch wolffish destroy much of its rocky habitat in the process. Unfortunately, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently decided not to afford this ecologically vital native fish protection under the Endangered Species Act.  NMFS ultimately imposed a ban on wolffish landings but took no action to protect its seafloor habitat. Protecting essential habitat for the Atlantic wolffish may be one way to help ensure its survival in the Gulf of Maine in important areas like Cashes Ledge and Stellwagen Bank.

Join Me on the New England Ocean Odyssey!

My love affair with New England’s ocean started when I was a little boy, playing at the water’s edge on the beaches we visited within driving distance from my Uxbridge, Massachusetts home. I learned to scuba dive in the waters off of Cape Cod, Rhode Island and New Hampshire and discovered my life’s calling in their bracing, indigo depths. I had all the passion then to be an underwater photographer, but none of the experience, so New England’s waters became my proving grounds.

Today, my assignments for National Geographic Magazine take me to spectacular places to document the wonders of and mounting threats to our world’s oceans. I’m privileged to be able to provide a view into this underwater world that is so vital to humankind, yet so remote. New England’s ocean, known as the Gulf of Maine, is no exception. Dark, cold and deep, it is among the most mysterious reaches of our planet.

Have you ever wondered what’s down there? If you dive or fish in New England, you know some of its natives: our sacred cod, the fierce-looking Atlantic wolffish, the endearing grey seals and the greatly endangered Northern right whales. But few have explored the depths of the Gulf of Maine, home to some of the world’s most biodiverse underwater ecosystems, including Stellwagen Bank, Cashes Ledge, Jordan’s Basin and Jeffreys Ledge. These special places and their inhabitants need to be seen to be believed—and that’s the idea behind the New England Ocean Odyssey.

When the folks at Conservation Law Foundation asked me to help them in their efforts to raise awareness of these special places in the Gulf of Maine, I jumped at the opportunity. Of course, I’m excited to show people that there is more to New England’s ocean than they might think; the tropics don’t have exclusive rights to colorful, charismatic and magnificent marine life! As an explorer, I’m also drawn by the unknown. The steep canyon walls, underwater mountains, kelp forests and other unique features of New England’s ocean are hard to get to and so, present an enticing mystery just waiting to be discovered.

This spring, I’ll begin this five year odyssey, diving with friends and colleagues in locations near shore and far out to sea. I invite you come along as we welcome our whales back to New England waters, swim with sharks, uncover the evidence of human exploration and reveal areas where humans have never ventured. I can’t promise that we will discover something totally new, but you’ll surely see New England’s ocean in a whole new way. I hope you’ll join me on this journey beneath New England’s waves.