© 2023
Local NPR for the Cape, Coast & Islands 90.1 91.1 94.3
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

'Coolest Thing We've Ever Seen' Researchers in Awe of Biodiversity off Cape Cod

Nine hundred dolphins, 60 sharks, and one Chilean Devil Ray. Those are among the marine animals scientists spotted during a single aerial survey of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument earlier this month. 

On Aug. 2, researchers with the New England Aquarium spent three hours documenting the biodiversity in the 5,000-square-mile area about 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod.


“Every time we come back from flying the survey it seems like we’ve just seen the coolest thing we’ve ever seen,” said Orla O’Brien, an associate scientist at the aquarium. 


Within just a few hours, O’Brien said, the team saw four whale sharks— a first for those on board. 


“It’s exciting to see because they’re a warm-water species. They’re following these warm-water conditions that the Gulf Stream kind of provides,” she said. 


As climate change warms Cape Cod waters, unusual animals such as whale sharks and hammerhead sharks -- the researchers saw 56 of those -- are appearing more frequently in local waters.  


Among the other treats during the team's first aerial survey since the start of the coronavirus pandemic were whales and dolphins swimming in family groups. 


“That’s important because whales and dolphins are social species— a lot of them,” O'Brien said. “So seeing calves means that this is an important area that the pod feels like they need to take the calf.” 


In 2016, the area became the only marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean, protecting it from commercial fishing because of its ecological fragility and productivity. But protections have since been rolled back under the Trump administration,  after President Trump described them in June as “deeply unfair” to fishermen. 


To O’Brien, the latest survey underscores the area’s ecological value. 


“I think it just really highlights what an important area it is and how much diversity there is out there,” she said. 


Currently only 3 percent of U.S. waters are fully protected. By the end of the decade, scientists hope that rises to 30 percent. 


Researchers with the New England Aquarium hope to take flight again this fall.


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