Marine Mammals and Underwater Mountains: More Evidence for Protecting Habitats with Diverse Wildlife

The deep-water canyons, seamounts, and underwater mountain ranges in the coastal waters of New England are gaining recognition for their importance to the health of fish populations like the struggling Atlantic cod. But these unique geological formations are also critical for the marine mammals that call the North Atlantic home.

Hail the WhalesNorth Atlantic Right Whale mother and calf

The Atlantic coast is a veritable highway for migrating whales, which travel from breeding grounds in the south to feeding grounds in the north each year. But with many species facing reduced habitat, diminished populations, and increased boat traffic, this annual journey has become more and more difficult. These growing threats make areas of food abundance and shelter, such as Cashes Ledge and the New England Canyons and Seamounts, ever more critical to the success of migrating whales’ journeys.

Cashes Ledge and the canyons and seamounts are unique in the Atlantic because their topography creates ideal conditions for plankton, zooplankton, and copepods – the main food for migrating minke, right, and humpback whales – to thrive. They also serve as spawning ground for larger food sources – including many squish, fish, and crustaceans. Altogether, this rich abundance of species adds up to a bountiful buffet for whales and other marine mammals.

Sperm whales have often been spotted in the waters of seamounts, taking advantage of the reliable food, and Cashes Ledge serves as an oasis for hungry whales on their journey north.

The healthy kelp domino effect

These areas are not only crucial to whales; other marine mammals depend on them as well. Cashes Ledge boasts the largest coldwater kelp forest on the Atlantic seaboard, a habitat that creates ideal spawning grounds for cod, herring, and hake. The abundance of fish in turn feeds seals and porpoises, as well as whales.

Scientists have noted a positive correlation between the size of an undersea kelp forest and populations of marine mammals, suggesting that more, healthy kelp means more marine mammals. That makes protecting areas with large kelp forests such as Cashes Ledge even more important.

Even marine mammals that don’t visit Cashes Ledge itself still benefit from the protection of the area’s kelp forest, thanks to the “spillover effect:” Fish spawned in the shelter of the rocky crevasses and havens of the kelp forests disperse beyond Cashes Ledge and feed sea animals throughout the Gulf of Maine.

Across the globe, underwater mountain and canyon habitats have proved to be important areas where marine mammals congregate to feed – and the canyons, seamounts, and ledges off the coast of New England are no different. Unfortunately, these important ecosystems are delicate and facing threats from harmful fishing gear and climate change.

With so much at stake, it is vital to protect these places – not only for their inherent ecological value, but also so that they may sustain the mammals that depend on them.

Save the Whales: Create marine protected areas

“Save the Whales” was a popular cry in the late 1980s to ban commercial whaling worldwide. While progress has certainly been made, this phrase should not be relegated to a dated trope: Many whale populations are still struggling, including our New England’s own North Atlantic Right Whale.

Found from Nova Scotia to Florida, the area from the Gulf of Maine to Cape Cod is essential for this endangered species. Its name comes from the idea that it was the “right” whale to hunt – it was slow-moving and had lots of oil and baleen. Commercial whaling for this species ended in 1935, but these New England whales are still rebuilding.

Zach Klyver, a naturalist with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, has conducted surveys commissioned by the New England Aquarium on whales in the Cashes Ledge Area in the Gulf of Maine. During these winter surveys, Klyer says he saw many right whales breeching just before sunset. According to Klyver, “Cashes Ledge is a significant place for right whales year-round.”

Marine protected areas allow species like the right whale to find refuge from human threats and to thrive. Dr. Scott Kraus, marine scientist at the New England Aquarium, says that the reason Cashes Ledge in particular is important is because “The landscape underwater has a lot of steep angles and hills, so that any water currents rush to the surface. This makes plankton bloom, and it brings fish in – it’s a great restaurant for whales in New England.”

Thriving whale populations also help boost tourism during the popular whale-watching season—more whales means more opportunities for sightseeing. Tourism in New England provides 230,000 jobs and brings in $16 billion – more than all the fisheries, forestry, and agriculture industries combined – making it the life blood of New England’s economy.

An expanding coalition is working to establish permanent protections for Cashes Ledge and another important New England area, the Coral Canyons and Seamounts, by calling on President Obama to establish the first Marine National Monument in the Atlantic. Join the conversation on Twitter: Tweet with #SaveOceanTreasures


Special Species Round-Up: 6 Creatures found in Cashes Ledge

If you are familiar with New England Ocean Odyssey, you know we love Cashes Ledge, a majestic 25-mile undersea mountain range and biological hot spot in the Gulf of Maine.Kelp Forest at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

You know that this natural laboratory offers scientists the chance to explore a relatively pristine and unique ecosystem, to discover and observe rare and endangered species, and to hypothesize about what the greater Gulf of Maine looked like before the commercial fishing industry existed.

You know that Ammen Rock, the highest peak in the mountain chain, rises from a depth of 460 feet all the way up into the photic zone (exposure to sunlight), just 40 feet below the ocean’s surface. And you know that Ammen Rock disrupts the dominant Gulf of Maine current, swirling nutrient- and oxygen-rich waters from the seafloor to the top of the water column, providing ideal conditions for a huge array of marine life including sponges, corals, anemones, predatory fish, sharks, whales, and more.

But what specific special species reside at Cashes Ledge, and what migratory visitors stop by throughout the year? Let’s dive a little deeper and find out!

1. (Unclassified) Blue Sponge

This species is so incredibly rare, it hasn’t even been sighted anywhere apart from the rocky walls of Cashes Ledge, let alone taxonomically classified. Needless to say, we have a lot to learn about this species. Cashes is also home to a variety of bright red, orange, and yellow sponges, including mounding sponges as big as footballs! Cod and Invertebrates

Cod swim under a wall of sponges and other invertebrates. Image via NOAA/ONMS

Sponges are primitive creatures that latch on to hard surfaces anywhere from the intertidal zone to the deep ocean floor. They filter feed by absorbing tiny organisms through incurrent (think “inbound”) pores and excreting waste through excurrent (“outbound”) pores. Many sponges can reproduce either sexually or asexually.


2. Red Cod

You’ve read about, seen, and probably eaten Atlantic cod…but have you ever heard of red Atlantic cod? While genetic testing has yet to determine if this variation is a distinct species, Graham Sherwood, Research Scientist at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute in Portland, Maine, hypothesizes that it is not. All cod eat high levels of carotenoids (natural pigments found in organisms such as crabs and worms), so it’s no surprise that some cod are red in color. But why are some red while most are olive-colored?

Kelp Forest and Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

Kelp Forest and Red Cod at Cashes Ledge; 70-miles off the coast of Maine

An olive cod (top) and a red cod (bottom) swim through kelp forests at Cashes Ledge. Images via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.
Sherwood’s theory is that the red coloring is an adaptive advantage. Red cod typically permanently reside in shallower kelp forests, while olive-colored cod roam around deeper waters in the North Atlantic. The red coloring may be a U/V protectant or a form of camouflage for shallower waters. We’ll have to stay tuned to find out if red cod are a separate species, or if they are just a colorful variation of olive-colored Atlantic cod.

Check out more Brian Skerry photos of red and olive-colored cod at Cashes Ledge.


3. Christmas Anemone

Urticina crassicornis, the Christmas anemone, resides on rock faces at depths up to about 100 feet and may grow to be a foot tall and 8 inches in diameter. It feeds on crabs, urchins, mussels, gastropods, chitons, barnacles, and fish by stinging and stunning prey with venomous cells found in the anemone’s tentacles.

The candy-striped shrimp, Lebbeus grandimanus, is immune to the Christmas anemone’s sting; the two organisms live in a commensal relationship whereby the anemone provides shelter for the shrimp, and the shrimp does not affect the anemone.

Red Anemone A Northern red anemone on a rock wall at Cashes Ledge. CLF/Brett Seymour.





4. Porbeagle

Cod and InvertebratesPorbeagle, Lamna nasus. Credit NMFS/E. Hoffmayer, S. Iglésias and R. McAuley.

No, that’s not a white shark – it’s the great white’s lesser known relative, the porbeagle, Lamna nasus. The porbeagle can be easily distinguished from a white shark by its second dorsal fin (that tiny second bump on the shark’s back before its tail). These big guys can grow up to 11 ½ feet long and are highly migratory throughout the Northwest Atlantic. They tend to stay out of shallow waters along the coast, preferring pelagic waters from the surface to depths of 1000 feet. In the Gulf of Maine, they feed on mackerel, herring, other small fish and sharks, and squids.

NOAA listed the porbeagle as a “Species of Concern” for the Northwest Atlantic stock in 2006, the same year that the International Union for the Conservation of Nature listed the subpopulation as endangered. Since the 1960s, overfishing has been a major threat to porbeagles, which are slow-growing with low productivity rates, making it difficult for populations to recover. In the U.S., the species is managed by the Highly Migratory Species Fishery Management Plan. NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service is currently reviewing two 2010 proposals to list the porbeagle on the Federal List of Endangered and Threatened Wildlife under the Endangered Species Act.


5. North Atlantic Right Whale

The waters off the coast of New England get some magnificent, gigantic visitors. Endangered North Atlantic Right Whales, Eubalaena glacialis, hang out around New England and the Bay of Fundy in the summer and fall to feed on zooplankton and raise their young. They move about the Gulf of Maine in a regular pattern, often stopping at Cashes Ledge, where regular circulation of the water column produces plankton-rich waters. In the winter months, the whales typically migrate to birthing grounds in the coastal waters off the southeastern United States.

The North Atlantic Right Whale was subject to intensive whaling from the 1500s through 1935; populations off the east coast of North America are still struggling to recover, due in large part to boat collisions and entanglement in fishing gear.

North Atlantic Right Whale with Provincetown lighthouse (Long Point) in the backgroundA North Atlantic Right Whale in Cape Cod Bay in front of Provincetown, MA. Image via Brian Skerry for New England Ocean Odyssey.



6. Bubble Gum Coral

Deep-water coral colonies thrive in the cold, nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. Paragorgia arborea, nicknamed bubble gum coral for its pink color, is a fan-shaped coral (aka “sea fan”…creative, right?) that typically inhabits exposed locations at depths of 600 to 4,300 feet. It can grow up to six meters tall, making it a real treasure for divers to spot. At Cashes Ledge, Paragorgia inhabits the hard-bottom basalt substrate.

Deep sea corals grow slowly and may live to be thousands of years old, making them extremely susceptible to lasting damage from bottom trawlers. One sweep of a trawl net can destroy centuries of growth – a problem not only for the corals, but also for the marine species that use the corals as a nursery and refuge habitat.


Paragorgia colonies in the New England Seamount chain. Image via NOAA Ocean Explorer.

These are just six of the marvelous, charismatic species that depend on the nutrient-rich waters of Cashes Ledge. If we are to protect them, we must start by protecting Cashes Ledge.

New England’s Unexpected Summer Visitors

Pure-white, Arctic-dwelling beluga whales and their black and white cousins the orcas are rarely seen in the Atlantic outside of icy polar waters.  While orcas migrate around the globe and inhabit both Arctic and Antarctic waters, belugas are usually at home only in the frozen north. Massachusetts residents, then, are unlikely to ever see these whales, but this month prospective whale watchers might get lucky. Just a few days ago, both whales were spotted in Massachusetts—quite a distance south from the whales’ usual frigid habitat.

On June 15th, a lone beluga was seen in the mouth of the Taunton River in Fall River, Massachusetts. The sighting was rare for two reasons: first for its distance from the arctic and second because belugas usually travel in pods and are rarely seen alone. This beluga, however, which appeared to be a healthy adult male, cruised around solo in the river for several days, delighting the citizens of Fall River but worrying advocates concerned for the whale’s safety. Meanwhile, on June 25th, the U.S. Coast Guard came across a pod of orcas about 150 miles off the coast of Nantucket. The picture below shows the orcas surfacing beside the CGC Campbell.

A pod of orcas seen from the CGC Campbell. Image: USCG
A pod of orcas seen from the CGC Campbell. Image: USCG

Scientists have been both pleased and puzzled by the unexpected appearances. While the sighting of such rare visitors to New England is certainly exciting, there may be an unfortunate reason for these whales’ presence here. Researchers from Mystic Aquarium suspect that both the beluga’s and the orcas’ movements may be an indication of melting Arctic ice and of the impact this environmental change has on the Arctic’s inhabitants—the whales may have been driven south in search of more abundant food. These aren’t the first polar visitors to New England this year, either—a bowhead whale was spotted in April off the coast of Cape Cod.

The verdict is still out, however, on what the connection is between melting ice and wandering whales. In the meantime, we can enjoy the rare sight of these beautiful creatures.

Feature image via USCG

Now is the Time to be Part of Ocean Planning in New England!

Amazing wildlife like this feeding humpback whale, gorgeous scenery, a natural playground to enjoy with our children – there are so many reasons to appreciate New England’s ocean. But there is also an unprecedented amount of change in the ocean right now: renewable energy has hit the water, our fisheries are in tremendous flux and some of our most iconic and economically important stocks are in true peril, our waters are rapidly warming and getting more acidic, and we are seeing accelerating coastal erosion in some of our most heavily developed shorelines.


The consequences of coastal erosion in New England are likely to be sever in the coming decades, as seen on the coast of Plymouth, MA. Photo by David L. Ryan of the Boston Globe.
The consequences of coastal erosion in New England are likely to be sever in the coming decades, as seen on the coast of Plymouth, MA. Photo by David L. Ryan of the Boston Globe.


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.”



Ralf Meyer, Green Fire Productions Creative Director, on location in Boston Harbor. Photo by Green Fire Productions.
Ralf Meyer, Green Fire Productions Creative Director, on location filming Ocean Frontiers in Boston Harbor. Photo by Green Fire Productions.


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!

Be part of the process! We are in the throes of a first-in-the-nation regional ocean planning process, and we need you to get involved! The Northeast Regional Planning Body is holding a series of public meetings throughout New England to tell people what’s going on in ocean planning and to find out what your questions and comments are. This process is so much more effective and meaningful when people who care about the management of our ocean and coasts get involved.

Stay Informed! We will keep bringing you stories about ocean planning here and at Check out the New England Ocean Action Network  to stay up on the latest planning news. NEOAN is a network of diverse groups – fishermen, surfers, aquariums, conservationists, renewable energy developers, and others – who all support the ocean planning process in New England.

Does New England’s ocean inspire you, comfort you, or leave you awestruck? If you care about the ocean, then make your connection with the sea part of our new ocean planning story.

North Atlantic Right Whale Mysteries – the Plot Thickens

North Atlantic right whales – our critically endangered New England natives – are making more waves this week in the news. A mother and calf, like the ones Brian photographed above, were spotted off the coast of Plymouth, MA on Saturday. For an imperiled population of less than 500 individuals, in which every animal counts, this birth is a great thing. But the timing of the mother’s return to the Gulf of Maine with her calf is extremely curious. Our right whales head south to have their calves, and don’t usually return until April, possibly to take advantage of spring plankton blooms. These two are among the growing ranks of right whales who buck tradition and turn up early. This particular pair is so early that scientists have called it “mind-blowing.” What’s going on? Scientists are still investigating these early arrivals, and have speculated that the whales are simply following the food, which may be available at different times in our warming ocean. We’ll keep you posted as they work to unravel the mystery and, hopefully, help these endangered whales recover.

Flight of the Sea Angels

The ethereal creatures you see above are sea angels, or, more formally, pteropods – a kind of shell-less saltwater snail. They are tiny, graceful, and delicate-looking, and they are voracious eaters of only one thing – sea butterflies, another kind of pteropod that does have a shell (below).


Sea butterflies, photographed by Nancy Copley.


My favorite description of how the innocent looking sea angels get a meal comes from researcher Miriam Goldstein in the endlessly fascinating Deep Sea News: “When (sea angels) see a pteropod, they shoot tentacles out of their face, grab their unfortunate prey, and wrestle it into position to be slowly eaten.” Check out her blog – there’s actually a video of it!

It really doesn’t get any better than that. We had a very lively dinner table discussion in my house after learning this, and talked about all the different things we would do if we could only shoot tentacles out of our faces!

Daydreams aside, these miniature mollusks play a mighty role in our ocean’s ecosystem – they are one of the foundations of our marine food pyramid. Many animals depend on pteropods for a large portion of their diet. Some of our most ecologically and commercially important fish eat pteropods. They’re not the only ones – whales and sea birds eat them, too. And pteropods are in serious trouble.

All pteropods swim, even the ones with shells – the sea butterflies. The shells on sea butterflies are very thin, according to researcher Gareth Lawson of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This is possibly an adaptation to keep them from sinking as fast as an animal with a thicker shell would, but these fragile shells are not standing up well to the rapidly changing conditions in our ocean. 

There has been a lot of news about climate change lately, but not as much about ocean acidification (the increasing acidity of the ocean that results from increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere). That is probably going to change, though, as some startling new discoveries about the effects of “climate change’s evil twin” become more obvious. The plight of the pteropods is one stark example of this.

Sea butterflies are the subject of a worry-inducing new article in Nature Geoscience. These animals must form a specific kind of calcium carbonate to make their shells, and they need to be in water that has just the right chemistry for doing this. As the ocean becomes more acidic due to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere the water chemistry changes, and there is less of what pteropods need in the water to form shells. These incredibly important food animals are becoming less able to make shells. To make matters worse, pteropods that had already formed shells were observed to be dissolving. And the ocean continues to become more acidic.

If the sea butterflies go away, so go the sea angels. Then, what happens to the rest of the food web? This “Sea Butterfly Effect,” as Dr. Lawson calls it, may ripple through our oceans in dramatic ways that are hard to think about.

News like this can provoke a range of responses in people. Personally, I had a minor breakdown when I read about this study from my unheated Massachusetts house – unheated because it was 60 degrees outside. In late December.

Some people will ignore the growing evidence of these big problems. Some people will be too afraid to think about it (understandable!) or have more immediate worries to deal with. Some people will keep doing the good work they are already doing to try and make things better. We all have a choice about what we do next.

As for me, I’m going to keep learning what I can about the changes that are happening, and I’m going to help figure out what we can do to keep our oceans healthy as they become more acidic, warmer, and saltier. I’ll keep you posted.

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.