Saturday, April 24, 2010

{Press} Right whales crowd waters off Rhode Island

Provincetown Banner | April 24, 2010


Right whales are setting records in the waters off Rhode Island and south of Martha’s Vineyard, where an estimated 98 of these rare marine mammals have been spotted in recent days.

It’s the largest concentration of right whales ever seen in that area and an impressive occurrence in that the group of whales represents a significant fraction of a critically endangered population. Just 350 to 400 right whales remain in the world.

It all started on April 20 when whale researchers with NOAA’s marine mammal aerial survey team spotted a distinctive-looking slick in Rhode Island Sound — the “flukeprint” left behind when a diving whale flexes its tail under the surface to propel itself downward.

“We circled over the flukeprint and found not one, but 38 feeding right whales,” said whale researcher Pete Duley in a press release.

In the next six hours the team counted 98 right whales altogether, including a mother and calf pair. The group of 38 was seen in the waters south of Nomans, an island below the Vineyard, and smaller clusters of whales were scattered between the Vineyard and Block Island.

All of the whales were actively feeding at the surface, a sign they’ve tracked down an abundance of copepods, the zooplankton they eat.

The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies has been conducting its own right whale surveys in Cape Cod Bay over the last few months, monitoring the marine mammals’ food source and keeping track of the numbers of whales active in local waters. Two weeks ago the PCCS aerial team counted up to 70 right whales in the bay, but those numbers dropped over the past few days, during the same period when another PCCS research team detected “sparse” levels of zooplankton in the bay.

As news of the large aggregation of right whales broke, the alert went out to vessels in the area. Right whales are particularly vulnerable to collisions with ships, one of the leading causes of death to the endangered animal."

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