April 16th – We didn’t have to travel far to see a slew of marine mammals, who were all concentrated in the rip at Race Point. As we approached the point, we started to see the tell-tale V-shaped spout of the North Atlantic right whale.
According to federal law, we cannot approach this whale within 500 yards, so that spout is a good way for us to know that we should steer clear of an area.
The jet black fluke with a smooth trailing edge is also a good way to distinguish these whales from the similarly-shaped humpback.
Still getting good looks at right whales from a distance, we were also able to find a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, whose pod doubled in size by the time we returned in the afternoon.
Gannets, large pelagic piscivorous birds, sometimes tricked us as they dove into the water after their prey, producing a plume similar to a spout. The photo below depicts an Northern Gannet with adult plumage, distinguished by a yellow head and black wing tips.
Along with the dolphins and the gannets, several other species were drawn to the area, likely due to fish aggregating in the current. Grey seals and harbor seals could occasionally be seen peering out between the wave crests.
When the tide shifted, the right whales began to move away from the point. However, we expect them to stick around for at least another week.
April 18th – With a huge concentration of right whales still in the area, we weren’t surprised to see the environmental police out on patrol. The critically endangered North Atlantic right whale is subject to increased protections due to its fragile population status. Current estimates put the global population of these animals at around 425 individuals!
So many right whales were seen around Cape Cod Bay this week that a special report was issued reminding mariners of federal regulations.
Though we never approach right whales aboard the Dolphin Fleet whale watch vessels,at times one will pop up unexpectedly, allowing us to get a quick look before we carefully leave the area. In the photo below, notice the rough callosity patch on top of the whale’s head. Each right whale can be distinguished as an individual by the shape of this patch of rough skin atop its head.
Notice that the whale has its mouth open, revealing its many baleen plates. Right whales skim feed at the surface, trapping tiny crustaceans in thefine bristles of their baleen.
We did a plankton tow to get a sense of what they were feeding on, and sure enough, our plankton net came back chock of full of oily copepods — the preferred food of right whales!
First mate Mark with a cup full of copepods
As we did this, we were surprised to see a small group of harbor porpoise heading right towards our boat! Harbor porpoise are the smallest cetacean we could see on our cruises, usually not exceeding lengths of five feet, and they are usually elusive and hard to spot. Spring is the time for catching glimpses of these tiny odontocetes!
A few other marine mammal sightings occurred even closer to home. As we rounded Long Point, we noticed that a group of seals had hauled out on Long Point. Seals can often be seen on beaches resting and warming up. If you see a seal on a beach, it is best to not get near it.
To top it off, we saw a few dolphins between the piers in the Provincetown Harbor before we even left the dock!
Although we saw fewer right whales on the afternoon trip, we were lucky enough to see one of them breach right off of Wood End! Quite a dramatic sight considering these whales can weigh over 60 tons!
April 19th – Even after all of the amazing right whale sightings throughout the week, we were still amazed to hear that the right whale aerial survey team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies saw over 100 right whales during their weekly survey of Cape Cod Bay. That’s at least a quarter of the population! Follow their blog to keep up with them for the remainder of their survey season.
This was such a record that it was reported on CNN!
The Dolphin VIII tried to steer clear of the huge aggregation of right whales and instead headed to the Southwest Corner of Stellwagen Bank, determined to see some humpbacks that had been absent from trips earlier in the week.
When we arrived on Stellwagen Bank in the afternoon, we were able to find some familar flukes. Whisk and Perseid, ubiquitous on Stellwagen Bank last summer, were back in action. Although the bubble clouds that they were generating made suggested that they had found food, we didn’t see them emerge from the bubble clouds with full mouths. Perhaps they were feeding deeper in the water column.
Whisk and Perseid were both moms last year. Calves generally only stick around with their mothers for a year or so, and we were not surprised to see them without calves this year, as it is unusual for humpbacks to give birth every year.
April 20 – Despite the fog in the morning, we were still able to get out and see plenty of whales today. The right whales were still here and were skim feeding along the beaches, along with seals galore!
In the afternoon, we found ourselves surrounded by feeding right whales, and were unable to move the boat until they had cleared the area! We were able to get some spectacular shots of their heads and baleen. Right whales need to ingest between 400,000 and 4,000,000 calories per day in order to survive, which is why they come to Cape Cod in the spring. The Gulf of Maine, and Cape Cod Bay in particular, has one of the richest spring plankton blooms in the world, caused by a combination of increasing sunlight and water column mixing (from winds and currents).
The amount of food that they eat seems to be related to how many calves they can produce. Calves are born in the southeast (off of Florida, Georgia, and sometimes South Carolina) between December and March. As of the end of this year’s calving season, 20 right whale calves had been born. This isactually a pretty good number considering the small overall population. However, on April 7th, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center aerial surveyteam discovered a 21st calf had been born to right whale number 1123.
This whale either gave birth in an unusual location north of the normal calving grounds or was undetected by the rigorous survey effort in the south. Either way, the more calves the better!
April 21st – On the morning trip, we saw a group of right whales immediately after rounding Long Point, the very tip of Cape Cod. A large cluster of them could be seen stretched out between Long Point Lighthouse and the Wood End Buoy. Energetic after several weeks of intense feeding, several of these large animals could be seen breaching and lobtailing.
By the afternoon, they had shifted their attention to the food that brings them to Cape Cod Bay every spring. They could be seen feeding all along the beach, only a few hundred feet from shore!
April 22nd – The Dolphin VIII spent much of the day stationed near Race Point, watching the right whale action going on in the rip, while keeping an eye out for some breaching going on further offshore. Smaller splashes were seen intermittently among the 60 foot right whales, and we soon realized that there was a small group of Atlantic white-sided dolphins in the midst as well. Excited whale watchers lined the beaches, where a beached dragger could also be seen on shore.
Birders also noticed the abundance of interesting avian species. Leaving the harbor, a group of 10-15 common loons were spotted. Their distinct calls can often be heard echoing throughout the bay. Further along, a small group of surf scoters bobbed on the water.
Later in the afternoon, the right whales were so concentrated that the boat couldn’t even proceed past Wood End. There were lots of right whales to watch, and some other cetacean species made appearances as well. Three sei whales were feeding in a coordinate fashion. As they lunged through clouds of plankton, they rolled to one side, revealing the pink folds of their bellies.
We even got a quick glimpse at a very tiny harbor porpoise, a common springtime visitor in Cape Cod Bay.
In the image below, notice how close we stay to shore on most of our trips. As the season goes on, the right whales will leave, and we will spend more time heading northward to find humpbacks on Stellwagen Bank. For now, the whales are so close that we barely have to leave the Bay!