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Birders Appreciate a Spectacular Show at Race Point, and It's Not All About Seabirds

Keenan Yakola
Along with many varieties of seabirds, breaching whales are visible these days from Race Point in Provincetown.

I talk a lot on the Bird Report about relatively obscure seabirds that you can see if you trudge your way out to Race Point, a potentially four mile round trip in soft sand. Perhaps you don’t find the prospect of jaegers, alcids, and shearwaters enticing enough to make the trip. 

But how about if I throw in several species of whales frolicking within arm’s reach of the beach, including one of the world’s rarest? And maybe some dolphins and porpoises to sweeten the pot?

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been an absolutely epic showing of whales and dolphins at Race Point. Seasoned observers (and I mean literally seasoned—these birders spend so much time at Race Point they are actually salt-encrusted), are saying they have not seen the likes of this cetacean show before. For the uninitiated, cetacean refers to whales and dolphins, and for your fun fact of the day, current taxonomic thinking is that their closest relatives are hippos. The seabird activity has also been awesome, but these folks have been taking frequent breaks from tallying seabirds to enjoy the blubbery goodness of all of these feeding whales cluttering their fields of view.

The stars of the show have been our annual late winter visitors, the North Atlantic right whale. Feeding right whales often resemble a barely animated archipelago of islands as they feed on zooplankton at the surface. But some photographers have been catching spectacular, leaping breaches just off the Race, the kind of behavior usually only demonstrated by frisky humpbacks. Try to picture the splash made a 79 ton leviathan—they put that husky guy that always does a running cannonball into the pool to shame.

An easy way to tell airborne right whales and humpbacks apart is the shape of the pectoral fins, which are gigantically long and white in humpbacks, but black and triangular in right whales. At the surface, right whales lack dorsal fins and show whitish bumps called callosities, which are whitish because of something called whale lice that cling to them. Sounds like a breach of personal hygiene to me.

Right whales have also been visible other places, like Herring Cove in Provincetown and bay beaches in Dennis and Brewster. Thanks to Stormy Mayo’s crew at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, as well as researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the New England Aquarium, and others, we know a lot about how and why such a high percentage of this vanishingly rare species’ population uses Cape Cod, and their work has led to better routing of ships and thus reduced mortality from ship strikes.

Rights aren’t the only whales showing at Race Point—good numbers of fin, minke, and humpback whales have also been around, and both Atlantic white-sided dolphins and harbor porpoises have been common. Any east facing beach from Truro to Chatham could have at least some visible spouts, if not close views of whales.

These other whales will stick around through at least the fall, but summer people won’t know the joys of seeing one of the world’s rarest creatures, as the right whales are gone by the tourist whale watching season. So claim your right as a year round, or at least a shoulder-season Cape Codder, and go enjoy those whales! You might get cold at Race Point, but I guarantee you won’t get sea sick.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.