Friday, December 30, 2011

{Press} Early right whale sightings off Cape

Editor's note:

Right whale sightings should be reported to the Northeast Fisheries Science Center Right Whale Sighting Advisory System pager at 978-585-8473


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Cape Cod Times | Jon Offredo | December 30, 2011

"While some surveyed the skies in hopes of spotting Santa over the Christmas holiday, whale watchers looked to the seas as the endangered North Atlantic right whale made an early appearance around the outer Cape.

Charles "Stormy" Mayo, director of right whale habitat studies at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, said he's had a number of people whom he trusts call in with reported whale sightings.

To report a whale sighting, contact Charles "Stormy" Mayo, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, 508-487-3623, ext. 110. Note the location, date, time and place of the sighting, as well as a quick description.
Mayo believes the rare, and endangered whale could still be in the area.

"I think we can say they are likely around. The movement of right whales at this time of year is not very well understood," he said.

There is one possible explanation: food.

"The great likelihood (is) when we see numbers of whales around for more than a day, then it might mean they have found food," Mayo said.

Although right whales are carnivores and feed on plankton, they behave and move more like grazing beasts — imagine cows and goats on a hillside — and as a consequence, their movement patterns can sometimes be indicative of the distribution of their food.

For instance, Mayo and his team know that around March and April, which is when whales are usually sighted off the Outer Cape, their food supply is bountiful.

Last winter and spring, 315 right whales were identified, perhaps the largest number seen in any location in recent years. That is a very big portion of the remaining whales, which number somewhere around 500, Mayo said.

But as for their early showing this year, it's a bit of a mystery.

"It's really more guess than science," he said.

Typically, Mayo and his team at the Center for Coastal Studies start studying whale movements in mid-January. But a shortage of funding has left them unable to survey the whale's current movements.

"These are very rare animals, this is not a time of year when you have a lot of eyes on the water, and we depend right now on what are opportunist reports — people who happen to see them," he said.

Good places to spot right whales include the outer shore from Provincetown all the way to Wellfleet.

"It's likely they are still there," he said.

One of the most recent spottings was on Christmas Day, but Mayo said it has not been verified as a right whale.

Some of the telltale signs of a right whale are: no dorsal fins (the hooked fin on a whale's back) and their spouts, which, when seen from directly ahead or behind, form a "V."

The right whales differ from humpbacks, which might also be in the area. These have a small dorsal fin visible when they lift their tails.

Right whales also have unique and odd behavior, sometimes skimming the ocean for hours on end for plankton. They also sometimes breach."

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