"I'd like to stand on a boat and say to them, 'What the hell's going on with you guys?'" said Dr. Charles "Stormy" Mayo, expressing his frustration at the dire situation of the North Atlantic right whales. "If I could stand there and just say: 'Tell me what's going on.' Because it doesn't make a lot of sense."
Mayo is a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown. This week observers from the Center were flying over Cape Cod Bay for the first time this season, and they reported spotting 14 of the endangered whales.
"They reported 14 whales," Mayo said. "But they emphasized to me that they think there were probably more whales than the ones they spotted, because they were on very long dives."
There are believed to be less than 450 North Atlantic right whales left in existence. Each year a significant portion of this population returns to Cape Cod Bay from southern waters, making their arrival beginning in early January.
One of the whales identified this week is a female thought to be 31 years old. Mayo said that this particular whale was emblematic of problems with the species, in that she is never known to have calved.
Last year was a particularly bad year for new right whale calves, with only five reported. The whales typically calve in southern waters, before heading north. So far this year, Mayo said, researchers in the calving grounds have not reported any new calves, which is not encouraging.
If he could ask the whales what's wrong, Mayo said, "Doubtless they would say, 'Well, there's ships, and there's ropes in the water.' But I've got a feeling there's something else too. My feeling is there's something else going on here that we don't understand completely. I think we've got ecosystem problems, added to all their other problems now. The early arrival of right whales here, when they didn't used to be here in numbers, and the prodigious numbers that have been coming in the late winter and late spring - all of that points, to me, to an animal that is not finding what it ought to find."
Listen to Steve Junker's full interview with Stormy Mayo in the audio above.