Tuesday, April 13, 2010

{Press} A whale-watch of vital significance

By David Filipov | www.boston.com | April 13, 2010

"OFF THE COAST OF PROVINCETOWN — Charles “Stormy’’ Mayo descends from a long line of men who have made their living on the sea, but with one big difference. His forebears sometimes hunted the whales that appear off the shores of Cape Cod each spring. He is trying to save them.

Mayo leads a small crew of scientists who are studying the North Atlantic right whale to learn more about the habitat and habits of one of the most endangered animal species on the planet, to better understand and protect the rare leviathans. And here on the research vessel Shearwater, about 5 miles southwest of Herring Cove Beach in Provincetown, is one of the best places in the world to do it.

Some 25 to 40 of the great marine mammals, which can grow 55 feet long and weigh more than 70 tons, have come here to feed, and yesterday the tiny animals that draw them to these waters were teeming on the surface in billowing pink clouds. About a dozen of the giants glided just feet from the Shearwater’s busy deck, skimming zooplankton from the water with the great baleen filters that line their mouths instead of teeth.

Mayo, 67, who helped found the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies 34 years ago, lives for days like this.

“Oh my God, this is amazing," he exclaimed, pointing excitedly at the layers of pink and the whales that scooped them up.

Some of the huge mammals lifted their heads high enough out of the water to reveal their mouths, and steamed right at the Shearwater like shiny black miniature submarines before diving under the calm waters of the bay, showing their perfect V-shaped flukes as they submerged.

“You’re looking at something very special," Mayo said.

Commercial whale-watching boats and other vessels are required to keep 500 yards away from the critically endangered cetaceans.

But researchers aboard the Shearwater, accompanied yesterday by Ian A. Bowles, Massachusetts secretary for the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs, got much closer.

“Part of our charge is to protect endangered species in the Commonwealth," Bowles said. “And this is one of the most endangered species in the world."

Researchers estimate that there are fewer than 450 North Atlantic right whales. Whalers nearly wiped them out — some scientists believe that only 100 or so were left when governments began protecting them eight decades ago.

Whalers gave the majestic animals their name: They were the right whale to hunt. Right whales swim more slowly than other species of large whales and are blanketed with such a thick layer of blubber that they float instead of sinking when they die.

Even smaller fishing boats could pull them to shore — such as the ones piloted by generations of Mayo’s family, from his ancestors who arrived in Provincetown in the mid-1600s, to his father, who stopped hunting whales in the 1930s.

Though they are protected today, the whales are constantly threatened by encounters with humans. Unlike other whales, they graze with such apparently single-minded focus that they often collide with vessels or become entangled in marine equipment.

“When they are feeding, they seem to be oblivious," Mayo said.

The state has adopted speed limits to slow down vessels when whales are present. But scientists are also concerned about the effect that climate change could have on the right whales’ unique feeding habits, Mayo said. A change in the size or prevalence of the zooplankton could have a devastating effect on the species, he said.

The scientists took samples from the water yesterday to determine the concentration of this particular type of zooplankton, small, shrimp-like creatures called copepods.

The stocky, black whales are distinguishable from other species by their V-shaped spouts; they lack a dorsal fin, and their heads have distinctive, brownish, rough patches that allow researchers to identify individuals, said Karen Stamieszkin, a right whale scientist for the center.

“They are odd-looking animals," she said.

Mayo said many of the whales spend the winter farther from shore, and some come from as far as Florida, before arriving in the plankton-rich waters of Cape Cod Bay as early as late February. Researchers had counted 19 calves this year, less than last year’s record of 39, but still a “real good number," Mayo said. By May, many of these whales will move to areas off of Cape Cod and the islands, depending on the food supply.

Mayo and Stamieszkin offered a taste of the whale’s favorite food — zooplankton sushi, they call it. Spread on crackers, it looked a bit like homemade fruit preserves. It tasted a bit like ocean. Bowles joked that the Commonwealth ought to market the stuff.

“This is about the purest food you can get," he said."

No comments: