Welcome back to our wandering whales! North Atlantic right whales are appearing earlier than usual in Cape Cod Bay and if you’re so inclined, you might just be able to see them from the sandy Provincetown shores. Researchers have been surprised to see so much right whale activity in Cape Cod Bay this early in the season. According to Charles “Stormy” Mayo, PhD., senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, right whales “swirl around loosely in the Gulf of Maine” year round, probably following areas of high food concentration, but they usually don’t start showing up off Cape Cod in concentrated numbers until April.
Normally these whales would have headed off to the Bay of Fundy (except for breeding females, who head south to calve) last fall and not yet returned. The distribution of most of the right whales during winter and early spring is not known, but they are not usually in Cape Cod waters until late March or April. It’s unclear why the whales enjoyed the Cape early this year, having shown up up in December, but it might be due to increased abundance of small marine mollusks called pteropods, which are also being seen in unusually high numbers for this time of year.
The whales do seem to be eating the pteropods, but Dr. Mayo is concerned that they are not exhibiting their usual feeding behaviors. Normally right whales eat constantly. The whales in Cape Cod Bay are eating much more sporadically, potentially at times of day when the pteropods are congregating near the surface. The researchers at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies plan to monitor the whales more closely to try and figure out what’s going on. There were worries last year that the whales were thinner than usual, and were exhibiting some troubling skin conditions, possibly indicating a lowered level of fitness.
Even more troubling, according to the New England Aquarium, there have been fewer mother/calf pairs than usual at their calving grounds in the southeastern U.S., with the number of calves being “markedly lower than it has been in 12 years.” There have also been unexpectedly low numbers of right whales in the Bay of Fundy over the past couple of years. This is worrying news and may affect the long-term recovery of the population as a whole. Every animal matters when the entire population numbers less than 500 individuals.
Researchers are working year round to try and understand more about right whales. It’s hard to study an animal that moves so freely in such a large area, and doesn’t sit still while you take blood samples and put a tag on it. But understanding why the whales go where they do, when they do, and what they do when they get there, is our best hope at protecting them and allowing their numbers to climb back up. And, while there are theories about why the whales are enjoying their spring and summer homes early, there are no conclusive answers yet. “This story is wonderfully intricate and opaque,” says Dr. Mayo. So, for now, the right whale mysteries endure. Stay tuned for more.