Skip to content

Subscribe  |  Login  |  Account

The Right Idea

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.

You might also like: