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Right whales that shut down canal likely looking for food, experts say

Peter Duley/Northeast Fisheries Science Center, collected under MMPA Permit #21371

The three critically endangered right whales that shut down the Cape Cod Canal over the weekend were likely looking for food, experts say.

For almost a full day, the Army Corps of Engineers declared no boats could pass through the canal until the whales had cleared the area, causing a backup of boats waiting for passage.

Stormy Mayo, a right whale ecology expert at Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), said we only see right whales in the bay every two to three years or so, and it’s not clear why they would leave the safety of a bay (where they often are) for the canal.

“Reaching into the mind of a right whale is even more perilous than it is reaching into the mind of our dogs and cats, for that matter,” he said. “We as sort of simple human beings, don't understand much of what their lives are like.” 

But Amy James, a CCS flight coordinator who followed two of the the whales by plane before alerting canal control, said there are a few clues about why the juveniles — between one and two years old — would explore.

“I do know that both individuals were brought to Cape Cod Bay by their moms as calves. So whether they were just trying to find a shortcut into Cape Cod Bay or they were just kind of following the food, who really knows? 

"That one stuck its nose into the canal," Mayo agreed. "The current was right and it went through."

At least one of the whales was seen opening its mouth and feeding — likely on copepods, tiny orangey crustaceans that can be planktonic. That whale is the 2021 in calf of a female known to researchers as “Grand Teton,” who was first seen in 1981. The other whale James saw was the 2022 calf of a female known to researchers as “Silt,” who was first seen by researchers in 1988. (Her team photographed the whales from the plane and later identified them by matching their features with photos of whales that can be found in a a database maintained by the New England Aquarium).

Ultimately, James concluded, there’s no reason at the moment, at least, to be concerned about what brought the whales to the canal, but with just 340 North Atlantic right whales estimated to be left on the planet, she said, mariners need to be careful.

“It's busy for vessel traffic.  So [in the future] we want to make sure,” she said, “that other mariners know to be on the lookout for whales.”  

Last year, the Center for Coastal Studies team saw 81 percent of the total North Atlantic right whale population in Cape Cod Bay. With plankton concentrations high again, they’re expecting perhaps even more whales this year.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.