Monday, April 12, 2010

{Press} Off the Cape, researchers tracking right whales

By Globe Staff | | April 12, 2010

"ON CAPE COD BAY – A top state official and researchers today are closely observing a pod of about 40 right whales as the endangered mammals feed along the Massachusetts coastline during their annual northward migration.

As an endangered species, commercial whale watching vessels must stay 500 feet away from the cetaceans. But researchers -- on board the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies' vessel -- and Ian Bowles, secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, are getting a much closer look.

"Part of our charge is to protect endangered species in the commonwealth," Bowles said. He is also tweeting on his experiences. "And this is one of the most endangered species in the world."

An Environmental Police pontoon boat accompanying the researchers off Provincetown. Globe reporter David Filipov and photographer Bill Greene are on board that vessel.

Filipov said by phone that he could see the whales' distinctive V-shaped spumes bursting above the calm waters of the bay. Right whales can also be identified by the lack of a dorsal fin and the way they feed – skimming close to the surface with open mouths, collecting zooplankton floating in the water.

While on the telephone, Filipov saw a whale breaching, lifting nearly 75 percent of the mammal's massive body out of the water.

Right whales were hunted nearly to extinction by the whalers, including those from New Bedford and Nantucket. An estimated 400 now survive in the North Atlantic and about 10 percent of that total are now feeding in the state's coastal waters.

"It's an exceptional day for whale watching," said Filipov, who expects to talk with marine experts later today. He said the water is calm and visibility is unhindered."

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