May 2011

The Right Idea

Cape Cod Life  /  May 2011 / , ,

Writer: Jeff Harder

Research by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies has refined our understanding of the North Atlantic right whale, one of the rarest animals in the world and a regular visitor to Cape Cod Bay.

North Atlantic right whale

Two whales travel side by side through costal waters. Photos Courtesy of
the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

The hours pass, the sky slides from sunny to grey, and the boat rocks as southwest winds whip across Cape Cod Bay. It’s late February, and Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo and his six-person crew from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies are on their fourth right whale research cruise of the season aboard a 42-foot Jarvis Newman lobster boat. It’s been hours since they’ve seen their last split-second glimpse of a whale—a massive Y-shaped tail curling as the behemoth dives beneath the surface.

Then an announcement comes through the cabin’s radio: Two crewmembers perched above have just eyed a breaching right whale. Everyone on board moves forward to get a glimpse as a submerged whale blows a surge of spray that looks like an exploding land mine, and a huge head breaks the surface. The right whale is a strange-looking creature, his eyes set back near his underside, his body all black except for the pattern of white calluses on his head. Just as quickly as he’s broken the surface, he’s sunk back beneath.

“People all over the world would give their eye to see what you saw,” Mayo says.

For several months each year, the North Atlantic right whale visits the bay on its seasonal wanderings around the Gulf of Maine. With just 450 known specimens of Eubalaena glacialis, the species is among the rarest in the world. And the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), which marks the 35th anniversary of its founding this year, has been at the forefront of our understanding of this capricious animal.

Back in 1975, Mayo, a native of Provincetown who had been working as a fisheries scientist in Miami, had just returned to Cape Cod with his wife, Barbara. The couple befriended Graham Giese, a physical oceanographer and coastal geology specialist. The trio shared interests in the day’s environmental issues. “We realized we had the core of a science group,” Mayo says. “We all had PhDs and looked good on paper.”

Initially, the three taught courses on environmental issues to Provincetown visitors. As the organization grew, Mayo, whose wife passed away in 1988, says he and the organization struggled because none of the scientists were interested in the bureaucracy of running a nonprofit. Today, with an executive director and roughly 25 employees, the center has become a research institution with a broad reach. PCCS conducts research on humpback whales under the direction of Dr. Jooke Robbins, and it has pioneered techniques to free entangled whales from fishing gear. Giese continues to study the dynamics between land and sea on the Outer Cape. PCCS provides crucial data to policy makers, its members serve on a variety of boards and advisory panels, and the center continues to promote an array of educational programs.

North Atlantic right whale

A whale breaching. Photos Courtesy of
the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

For 27 years, whale research has been a cornerstone of the center’s endeavors, and their research has contributed to the establishment of nearby Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary as well as to the designation of Cape Cod Bay as a critical habitat for right whales. The right whale study began as a hunch: At the time, most experts believed that just a handful of North Atlantic right whales stopped by in late spring to replenish themselves as they traveled further north. But Mayo had a feeling it wasn’t confined to such a narrow window of time—locals had reported right whale sightings much earlier in the season ever since PCCS was founded. “By January 31, 1984, we saw our first right whale,” Mayo says. “And we’ve seen them during the winter ever since.”

Right whales measure up to 46 feet long and weigh as much as 70 tons—the bulk of their heads and their enormous jaws have allowed comparisons to gigantic hippopotamuses. The mammals travel as far down as Florida in the winters and as far north as Canada in the summer. In terms of power, Mayo compares the breaching whale to an 18-wheeler made of blubber.

Each winter and spring, roughly one third of the right whale population visits Cape Cod Bay and its environs, feeding on oily zooplankton for up to 20 hours a day. A confluence of circumstances—high water quality, the arm of the Outer Cape, currents, and other oceanographic characteristics—makes the concentrations of plankton found in the bay among the most abundant in the world.

The stagnation of the right whale population is perplexing. Unlike its counterparts—the southern right whale and the North Pacific right whale—decades of international protections and the demise of the whaling industry haven’t prompted a resurgence in the North Atlantic right whale population. Mayo believes this could stem from a connection between lower right whale calving rates and lower plankton abundance in Cape Cod Bay. Essentially, the whales might not be eating enough to sustain themselves.

North Atlantic right whale

A whale-watcher catches the perfect shot of a whale rising from the water off of the front of his boat. Photos Courtesy of
the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies

During the research cruise, Mayo and company traverse between nine “stations”—sets of coordinates that PCCS has been visiting since 1984. Crew members drag mesh nets behind the boat to collect plankton samples. The pores in the mesh are one third of a millimeter wide to mimic right whales’ baleen, the filtering mechanism in their mouths that separates plankton from the water. Helical flow meters, which measure the amount of water passing through the mesh, are attached to the nets.

Clad in puffy exposure suits, research assistants Beth Larson and Christy Hudak take turns hauling the nets on board, collecting the plankton inside, and shouting the digits displayed on the flow meters to Mayo, who keys them into his laptop. Sarah Fortune, a former research assistant for PCCS and a student at the University of British Columbia, is developing a model using PCCS data that will attempt to predict how much food North Atlantic right whales need to meet their energy requirements. “By knowing what the whales are actually feeding on in the wild, we are able to compare what the model predicts they need with what we observe in the field,” Fortune says.

Another aim of the trip is much simpler, but proves far more elusive: snapping a photo of one of the whales. A report that Mayo sends to a variety of agencies notes between five and seven whale sightings for the day, and those few seconds when the whale slithers out of the water were the longest sustained glimpse of the trip. Very likely, Stormy says, the whales spent the day feasting some 80 feet below the surface.

It turns out that the biggest obstacles to understanding right whales are the whales themselves. “In a sense, they’re about as odd in personality as they are odd in appearance,” Mayo says. Some days they’ll swim right alongside the boat. (Without a permit, it is illegal to approach within 500 meters of a right whale.) Sometimes, visitors to Race Point or Herring Cove in Provincetown can even watch them feeding from the shore. On other days, they are tough to spot from both the boat and the aerial survey planes that circle the skies above.

But just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they aren’t there. At their peak, Mayo says as many as 75 right whales might be in the bay at one time. “Cape Cod is such a rich place for people,” Mayo says. “And apparently, it’s a rich place for right whales.”

Jeff Harder

Jeff Harder is a freelance writer who has written for many publications. For a five-year-period he was also a managing editor at Cape Cod Life Publications and famously wrote profiles on 17 interesting Cape and Islanders for Cape Cod LIFE’s Annual Guide—one each for all 15 Cape Cod towns as well as Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket—and he did this several years in a row. He also enjoys bulldogs, mixed martial arts, and spending time with his family.