Meet the Whales

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2023 /

Writer: Leslie Hatton

“For whatever we lose (like a you or a me) it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.”

~ e.e. cummings

Whether you grew up with them embroidered on your stylish Bermuda bag or your favorite belt, or you fell in love with them on a summer family outing where you scouted for glimpses of their flukes to emerge from the ocean, it’s likely safe to say, everyone loves whales. That’s especially true here on Cape Cod, where we are so fortunate that these majestic and mysterious creatures have taken up residence. In the following pages you will meet the awe-inspiring whales that cruise our coastline. Learn about their habits, their companions, how they were named, and most importantly, how we can help protect these gentle giants, who are dwindling in number, so that they may return here and enable us to observe and enjoy them for years to come.

Humpback Whales

CCS, NMFS ESA-MMPA Permit 21485

The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) studies the life histories of humpback whales off New England. Keeping track of individuals, generation after generation, provides critical insight into the population that we are privileged to have off our coast. Learn more about this work at coastalstudies.org.

Salt is one of the most famous humpback whales in the world. Her life history has contributed to science and inspired the public for decades. Salt was first seen off Cape Cod in the mid-1970s. She was named by a captain of the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch (Aaron Avellar) who noticed that he could recognize her from the white scarring like a layer of salt on her dorsal fin. This inspired a community process for naming whales that has been led by CCS ever since. Salt has had 16 calves and her lineage extends across four generations. Her firstborn is the main character of a 1986 children’s book: Crystal: The Story of a Real Baby Whale. Her youngest calf, Miso, was born just last year. 

CCS, NMFS ESA-MMPA Permit 21485

Toboggan is Mostaza’s daughter and Salt’s granddaughter. When she was young, she was named for a curved black line on the right side of her tail that looked like a sled or slide. That mark is now barely visible because she is one of a small fraction of individuals whose pigmentation has changed significantly in the first few years of life. Humpback whales are identified by these patterns and so it is important for scientists to track such changes carefully over time. It is also one reason that whales tend to be named only after they are re-sighted later in life. Toboggan is regularly seen off the Massachusetts coast. She recently became a first-time mother herself, making Salt a great-grandmother for the fourth time.

CCS, NMFS ESA-MMPA Permit 21485

Mostaza is one of Salt’s daughters. The Avellar family has the honor of naming all of Salt’s calves outside of the community naming process. Most are named for characteristics or types of salt, but they are also sometimes named after other types of seasonings. Mostaza means “mustard” in Spanish. The parallel white scars on the left tip of Mostaza’s tail are evidence of an orca attack that she survived as a calf before she first arrived in our waters. Mostaza is now over two decades old. Like her mother, she has been seen off Massachusetts every year. She is one of three daughters that are continuing the lineage with calves of their own. Salt has 19 grand-calves and Mostaza is the mother of six.

CCS, NMFS ESA-MMPA Permit 21485

Astro is Toboggan’s niece and another of Salt’s granddaughters. She was named for the white markings that look like comets and stars on her black tail. Astro has already survived two of the main human-caused threats to whales. In the year after she weaned, she became entangled in fishing gear off Cape Cod. Luckily, the CCS Marine Animal Entanglement Response team was able to find her and remove the entangling gear. A year later, Astro was found entangled again and also had new scars on her back from having been hit by a boat. Fortunately for her, she was freed again and her vessel strike injury was not life-threatening. Many whales are not so lucky, but Astro seems to be a survivor.

North Atlantic Right Whales

For more than 30 years the Center for Coastal Studies Right Whale Ecology Program has worked to learn more about North Atlantic right whales, their use of Cape Cod Bay, and their habitat requirements. Their current research includes aerial surveillance, habitat and food resource monitoring, and investigation into their acoustic behavior.

Pilgrim has an unusual story. Most North Atlantic right whale calves are born in the calving grounds off the southeast coast of the United States. However, Pilgrim was born in the Gulf of Maine in 2013. She was first spotted with her mom, Wart/#1140, right off the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station on Cape Cod Bay. Pilgrim has been spotted in the bay every year since. Pilgrim gave birth to her first calf in December 2022 off the Canaveral National Seashore in Florida. The CCS right whale team spotted Pilgrim and her calf in Cape Cod Bay in March. 

Center for Coastal Studies right whale researchers have seen Domino frequently this season, and he appears to be traveling with his siblings 20-year-old Dune/#3351 and 17-year-old Sandbar/#3651. Domino is 14 years old and has multiple scars on his body that may indicate he has been entangled in fishing gear and also struck by a ship propeller. Domino was first seen off the coast of Georgia in 2009 but didn’t visit Cape Cod waters until 2011. He has been seen in or around Cape Cod Bay consistently since then. 

CCS, NOAA permit #25740-01
CCS, NOAA permit #25740-01

Twister, an 18-year-old male, is well known to the Center’s right whale team. Since his birth in 2005, he has been spotted in Cape Cod or Massachusetts Bay in 15 out of 18 years. Twister received his name based on the unique tornado-shaped scar located on his peduncle (narrow part of the tail). Did you know over 85 percent of right whales have been entangled at least once? Unfortunately, Twister is one of them, with multiple entanglement scars. In April of 2019, the CCS team reported he was healthy with no scarring or signs of entanglement. But by July of that year, Twister was seen with extensive, fresh entanglement wounds around the peduncle and across the leading edge of both flukes.  

Monomoy is a 10-year-old female who is named for the dynamic callosity pattern on her head. The pattern resembles the outline of the shifting sands of Monomoy Island, the sand spit located south of Chatham, MA. Her name can also be considered a familial name since she was born in 2013 to Nauset/#2413. Monomoy is a frequent visitor to Cape Cod Bay and hasn’t given birth yet, but researchers hope she will in the next calving season. 

CCS, NOAA permit #25740-01
CCS, NOAA permit #25740-01

Whaley Great Info

Why we are fascinated with whales is an intricate and complicated question. Perhaps at the core it’s because we are both mammals, and on an intrinsic level we feel as though we can relate to them; they give birth and nurture their young, they form lasting relationships, have a complex system of communication and they even like to play. They clearly dwarf us in size but we find ourselves mesmerized by them and want to both understand and protect them; and like a friend, we root for them to succeed and thrive. 

Did you know? The Center for Coastal Studies, located in Provincetown, was founded in 1976.

Whatever the reasons we are drawn to these colossal creatures, perhaps here on Cape Cod we feel these connections more acutely due to their proximity to us. Whales have been spotted cruising through the Cape Cod Canal, swimming right alongside the path where people are walking their dogs, riding bikes or sitting on a park bench. We flock to our local beaches like Herring Cove in Provincetown or Sandy Neck in Sandwich to spy their telltale spouts (humpbacks’ spouts range in height from 10-16 feet and therefore can clearly be spotted from a distance). When we onlookers are fortunate enough to see them out there on the horizon, we clap, we cheer, we try to snap pictures, and ultimately, we feel something—knowing that we are in the presence of greatness, witnessing the largest animal on the planet. As if this wasn’t an already formidable experience, add in the fact that the right whales who meander into our waters are a critically endangered species, and of the approximately only 340 left in the world, 75% of those will pass through Cape waters. This is truly a staggering statistic.

Did you know? The Center for Coastal Studies operates a year round entanglement hotline. If you come upon a whale or sea turtle that is entangled, can call 1-800-900-3622 or hail the USCG on VHF 16.

Despite being uniquely positioned here on the Cape to observe these giants, we still haven’t unlocked all the answers to the mysteries they hold. Lucky for us, The Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) in Provincetown is replete with individuals who have made it their life’s work to study them; a step on the path to understanding these giants is in identifying them. Amy Jenness, former Director of Marketing, Communications & Outreach at CCS sheds some light on the process, “Our scientists study the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale from winter through spring in Massachusetts waters, including Cape Cod Bay. They study humpback whales off Massachusetts and throughout their feeding range in the Gulf of Maine, and they keep track of fin whales as well. CCS research focuses particularly on the individual whales of each species and their life histories. We have people in planes and boats who will photograph and identify them based on markings and they’ll see who they are with, how’s their health and checking out what kinds of behavior they’re exhibiting. The data that CCS collects on North Atlantic right and humpback whales extends over decades and has been critical to understanding and protecting them.”  

A Whaley Great Site: us.whales.org.

Naming whales helps us not only feel closer to them as individual beings, but it also serves the purpose of identification so that researchers can correctly identify them in real-time. When it comes to the endangered right whale, the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium holds the catalog of information. Their website states, “Every right whale in the North Atlantic right whale catalog is assigned a four-digit number based on the year they were born or first seen, as well as the last two digits of their mother’s number if the mother is known.” CCS however is tasked with maintaining the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog and their process, while similar, it is slightly different. According to their site, “Before a whale is named, it must be confirmed to be new to the Gulf of Maine Humpback Whale Catalog. CCS first undertakes an exhaustive process of collating documentation and rigorously matching potential new whales against the cataloged population. Individuals are named for their unique traits, preferentially and almost always on the ventral sides of their flukes. The goal is to choose a name inspired by specific patterns so that they are easily recognized on sight.”  

CCS, NMFS ESA-MMPA Permit 21485

Did you know? You’re whalecome to take a free online course about safe boating around whales at seaspout.org/boatingcourse.

Jon Brink, senior biologist and licensed captain for Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises (HWWC) for the past 21 years, supports the yeoman’s work of CCS and adds that the decline he has seen in overall whale population is “alarming.” Brink and HWWC’s highly knowledgeable crew begin in May hosting passengers in their 130-foot-long boat powered by five water jets, out to Stellwagen Bank. “Stellwagen Bank is essentially a big underwater sandbar that looks like the outer arm of Cape Cod on the bottom of the ocean. Whales tend to visit there because cold water currents from deeper in the ocean, farther offshore come up and mix with the warm, sunlit waters at the surface.It basically sets a table for about five or six-month long buffet for these whales.” 

Did you know? Stellwagen Bank is an 852 mile national marine sanctuary that is roughly the size of the state of Rhode Island.

Over the years Brink has come to know many of the named whales familiar to our area, “a list of usual suspects” he says, “The grand dame, and one who holds the distinction of being the first whale named, is Salt. People recognize her when she comes around; she’s very prominent. She’s contributed 16 calves to the population. We also have an old friend named Colt who is an older male and he’s just a big snuggle bug. He’s very curious and likes to hang out with the boat. He definitely enjoys the company and if there’s a boat around, there’s a good chance he will go and check it out. People love seeing him when he comes our way.” 

Did you know? People, boats, planes and drones need to remain 500 yards away from whales on the water.

What Jenness and Brink both stress is that the biggest threats to whales are entanglements in fishing gear and collisions with boats. An important service CCS provides is a hotline for entanglement. “We have a team of Marine Animal Entanglement Responders and they’re kind of like an ambulance for untangling whales,” Jenness says. “We have a former Coast Guard vessel that’s fully equipped and can go far offshore. They have decades of experience responding to reports of entangled whales and safely removing life-threatening gear.” One way we can help keep these magnificent creatures safe in our shared sea is to become a spout spotter. The nonprofit organization Whale and Dolphin Conservation offers an online course in the hopes of creating a community of safe boaters around whales; take the free course at seeaspout.org/boating-course.

Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises fill up fast! Plan ahead to see what dates and times are available for a memorable summer adventure. Check out their informative site and order tickets at whales.net.

American conservationist and artist Robert Wyland said, “Listen quietly and you will hear the heartbeat of the planet at the edge of the sea.” Whales are surely the heartbeat of the sea and have captured our collective hearts. With education, effort and action, we hope to continue to be in awe of them for years to come.  

Leslie Hatton is the assistant editor at Cape Cod Life Publications.

Leslie Hatton

Leslie (Horne) Hatton enthusiastically joined Cape Cod Life in October of 2022. Educated in Mashpee and Falmouth, she graduated from Assumption College and received her Master of Education degree from Lesley College. A former teacher, she has taught middle school, preschool and most recently, fifth grade. She and her husband Tom have three children: Aidan, Colin, and Erin. Their newest family member is Millie, an outgoing, outrageously happy chocolate lab. She loves to talk about all of them so better not ask. One neat tidbit about Leslie is that she is the author of the locally best-selling children’s book Cape Cod ABCs, with over 10K books sold on Cape Cod, the Islands and across Massachusetts. Happiest in the summer with a little sun on her face, she loves being with friends and her family, laughing, drinking and eating all over beautiful Cape Cod.