Wednesday, December 21, 2011

{Press} Right whales return to Provincetown for rare December frolic Read more: Right whales return to Provincetown for rare December frolic

Provincetown Banner | Kaimi Rose Lum | December 21, 2011


The right whales have returned in time for the holidays this year, creating such a spectacle in Provincetown Harbor last week that even Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo, researcher of right whales for 30 years, was impressed.

Mayo dashed off to the residence of an old friend, Dick Burhoe, on Beach Point last Thursday after Burhoe reported seeing right whales breaching offshore. The scientist arrived in time to witness a scene worthy of “Animal Planet”: a sort of unwieldy whale ballet being performed about a third of a mile out, as a pair of the rare cetaceans leaped repeatedly from the water.

“I’ve never seen two right whales jumping simultaneously,” Mayo said. “It’s extremely dramatic when you see an extremely rare animal doing such extremely rare behavior. … These two animals were breaching regularly, more than I have ever seen. I probably saw as many as 20 or 30 breaches and maybe more.”

Between jumps, he said, the whales engaged in some overtly flirtatious behavior, rolling at the surface and zigzagging. Frisky groups of right whales are referred to as SAGs, for “sexually active groups” or “surface active groups.”

As far as the right whales’ reproductive calendar goes, December is the most fruitful month, a time when fertilization tends to be successful, Mayo said. So it’s possible that one of the baby right whales born next year will have been conceived in Provincetown.

Although Mayo saw only two or three individuals, reports of right whales elsewhere in Cape Cod Bay have been trickling in since the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies announced their return last week. Some have observed the whales on the opposite side of the bay, some at Herring Cove, and one report came in from the ocean side, at Cahoon Hollow in Wellfleet, where a group of right whales was seen skim-feeding at the surface.

With so many sightings occurring from shore, there’s no telling what kind of activity has been going on in the deeper parts of the bay, beyond the range of beachgoers’ binoculars. The Center for Coastal Studies’ aerial team, which conducts right whale surveys by plane throughout the winter months, won’t begin its field season until early next year, Mayo said.

“The best guess is that we have a scattering of whales, maybe even aggregations, quite early in the season,” Mayo said. “It’s not unheard of at all, but to have this many reports is pretty special. … It just leads me to believe there may be a lot more, or may have been a lot more, going on.”

If the whales are hanging around, he added, it’s probably an indication that there’s a healthy, early supply of zooplankton for them to feed on. The center’s right whale habitat studies team will begin sampling bay waters for plankton levels next month.

North Atlantic right whales are among the rarest of the baleen whale species, with a population that hovers around 473, according to the Center for Coastal Studies. A rich feeding ground for the animals, Cape Cod Bay attracts a number of them every year. In the late winter and spring of 2011, approximately 320 right whales, representing almost three-quarters of the total population, appeared in local waters, leading to a busy field season for Coastal Studies researchers.

Mayo reminded Outer Capers that the return of the right whale allows them to be privileged observers of one of the world’s most unique species.

“People should realize they have something happening here that is more dramatic than anything you see on ‘Animal Planet,’ and it’s right outside their door — in that one of the rarest creatures on earth chooses to come back here to our hometowns every year,” he said."

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