29 April 2011

50-ton wonders: Rare right whales visit Cape Cod coast

Sightings of the rare right whale, the most endangered of all species of great whales, are currently thrilling Massachusetts residents.

Earlier this week, an aerial survey of Cape Cod Bay and surrounding waters identified 101 individual right whales, the most ever spotted in a single day. This number is even more remarkable, given that the total population of right whales in the entire North Atlantic is only 300–350.

As these amazing mammals continue to feed and frolic close to shore, state officials are warning boaters to stay clear of the endangered animals.

Life-Saving Rescue
One right whale has already been found tangled in fishing rope, requiring a marine rescue team to spend several hours working to free the ensnared animal. At about 40 feet long (a few feet longer than a school bus), the distressed whale had been spotted by aerial surveyors from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.

The successful rescue effort saved the whale from what would have been a slow and painful death, according to the response team's director. After the rescue, the whale was able to swim away.

Critically Endangered Species
Even after years of protected status, the right whale is listed as "critically endangered"—which is the highest risk category assigned to endangered species, and just one step above "extinct."

The right whale received its name from whalers who thought that it was the "right" whale to kill because it was an easy target. Right whales are slow swimmers, often come close to shore, and float when dead, which made them easier to butcher. 

Today, instead of hunting them, people often watch these graceful, acrobatic animals for pleasure. Right whales are known to frequently breach (jump clear of the sea surface). Right whales, which average between 40 and 50 feet in length and can weigh as much as 70 tons, are are easy to recognize due to the white or yellowish raised patches on their heads. These patches, known as callosities, are unique to each individual whale and are used by scientists to distinguish one right whale from another.

Population recovery of the right whale remains in doubt, and scientists do not know if this amazing mammal will survive at all in the Northern Hemisphere. Although not presently hunted, current conservation problems include collisions with ships, conflicts with fishing activities, habitat destruction, and oil drilling.

Fortunately for Cape Cod residents, the rich plankton bounty that has appeared this spring has drawn this rare species close enough to view. Says one whale enthusiast, "They're so big and magnificent, you just see them and ... it gives you chills. They're amazing."

Elizabeth Gordon | Facebook
Elizabeth is an Asian-Appalachian writer, activist, and college professor living in north central Massachusetts. Once an avowed carnivore, she was a vegetarian for 15 years before making the conversion to veganism. She is passionate about trying to live a life that lessens, rather than contributes to, the amount of cruelty and suffering in this world. Follow Elizabeth on her Vegosphere blog and Facebook page.

Photo credit: cc: flickr.com/photos/masseea