I was on a boat in Cape Cod Bay with scientists from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, conducting research for my first book. We were surveying the bay for North Atlantic right whales, whose global population today hovers around 360 individuals. We had just finished seven hours of
|Right whale mother and calf (PCCS)|
As we approached the harbor at the end of the day, three right whales surfaced in front of the boat and began skim feeding – lifting their massive heads out of the water with their mouths partly open and skimming the surface of the water for copepods, the tiny crustaceans that make up the bulk of their diet. Back and forth the animals went in front of us, sometimes just 30 feet away, while the researchers and I stood with our own mouths open enjoying the spectacle.
That’s when one whale changed direction and came straight at us, still skim feeding, giving us a view straight down its throat. A view that perhaps only Jonah has had before. And then it reversed course and disappeared.
I was enthralled by the experience, alternating between excited gibberish and stunned silence, knowing that I’ll never have that opportunity again.
And yet right whales travel through Rhode Island waters every year in late winter and early spring on their way to Cape Cod Bay to feed for a few months before heading further north for the summer. This year, nearly one quarter of the total population of right whales was observed in the bay at the same time, and most of them probably swam within hailing distance of Block Island after leaving their breeding grounds on the coast of Georgia and North Florida.
Not many of us spend much time in offshore waters in early spring to catch a glimpse of the whales on their way through, but I bet some of our local commercial fishermen have some whale stories to tell.
Sadly, the future isn’t bright for the North Atlantic right whale. With just 100 breeding age females in the population, and a minimum of three years between pregnancies – and increasingly more like four or five years – they can’t seem to produce enough calves to keep up with the death rate. Which means the population is declining.
This year has actually been a good one for right whales. At least 17 newborn calves have been observed so far, more than three times the average of the previous four years, but still not enough to reverse the population decline. More than 10 percent of the population has died or suffered serious injury in the last five years.
I visited Provincetown a couple weeks ago to try to get a glimpse of a right whale and was thrilled to see a single whale from a beach. It remained near the surface as it swam parallel to shore, probably because it had found a dense aggregation of prey, which is what attracts them to the area each year.
I felt like cheering each time it surfaced, until I noticed that I was holding my breath, wondering if I’d ever have that opportunity again.
This article first appeared in The Independent on April 10, 2021.