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Three Highlights of the 2013 Right Whale Season

North Atlantic right whale, Wart, with her weeks-old calf in January, 2013.
Allison Henry
NEFSC under Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies NOAA permit #14603

In another sign of the season, the right whales have come and gone. At the height of things, about ten days ago, 113 North Atlantic right whales - fully a quarter of the estimated 470 existing individuals - were sighted in Cape Cod Bay. A week later, Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies posted on Facebook:

Not a single right whale spotted in Cape Cod Bay...

And while the right whale survey season doesn't officially end until May 15th, researchers at the Center have turned their attention to the next wave of visitors - the humpbacks.
This was a notable right whale season in more than one regard. So, before we move on completely, here's a quick rundown of the highlights:

  1. Early arrival: Cape Cod Bay is an important mid-winter and early spring feeding ground for North Atlantic right whales. Historically, they show up around February or March and stay until May. This year, there were right whales in the Bay at Thanksgiving. A few stragglers wouldn't be unheard of, but the number of early arrivals this year was remarkable.
  2. Wart and her calf: Despite her unflattering name, Wart's story is movie-worthy. For reasons not fully understood, North Atlantic right whales have suffered from low reproductive rates (not a good strategy for rebuilding a population hunted to the brink of extinction). But not Wart. For years, she produced calves at regular, three-year intervals. Then, in 2008, she got tangled in fishing gear. She dragged it around for three years before being freed, only to disappear. No one had seen her for two years until this January, when she showed up in Cape Cod Bay with a new calf - a cause for celebration, but also concern because a baby so young had never been seen this far north. And then, they disappeared again (maybe they headed south?). The story has a happy ending, though. Wart and her calf were sighted again May 1st.
  3. The end of right whale surveys? Researchers at Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies have been keeping tabs on right whales in Cape Cod Bay for going on three decades - conducting boat-based and aerial surveys, learning their behaviors, and examining their diet. The program has yelded invaluable insights. Unfortunately, due to government budget cuts, the future of the program is in jeopardy.

OOPS! We received a call pointing out that Dr. Stormy Mayo of Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies did not invent disentanglement. That honor goes to Dr. Jon Lein, who first disentangled a whale off the coast of Newfoundland. Thanks for keeping us on track!

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