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Erin Burke

Erin Burke

Protected Species Specialist, Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF)

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Great South Channel Map

The right whale season in Cape Cod Bay is officially over! Around this time each year, as food in the Bay dwindles, right whales begin exploring nearby habitats for a better meal. Aerial surveys earlier this month of the Bay spotted zero right whales and our acoustic buoys show no activity. However, state and federal aerial surveillance teams have seen right whales in their usual late-spring hot spot – the Great South Channel – a funnel-shaped trench off the coast of Massachusetts where nutrient-rich copepods aggregate each spring….and the whales follow! While the zooplankton buffet in Cape Cod Bay is winding down, the food supply offshore starts to pick up.

The transition of right whales from Cape Cod Bay to Great South Channel is very typical. However, the large group seen in Rhode Island Sound around mid-April was unusual! Right whales generally spend little time there, simply migrating through on their way up from Florida and Georgia, but this year a group of 100 individuals was seen feeding in the area. This event occurred one week after 70 right whales in Cape Cod Bay made short work of the food supply there.

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Green Massachusetts flickr Photostream

Was the Rhode Island group migrating from the south and happened upon a good food source? Or were they hungry Cape Cod Bay whales looking for their next meal? Photo-analysis and comparison to recent sightings history will tell us more about the “origin” of this feeding group. Either way, the unusual aggregation illustrates the point that right whale habitat is broader and more flexible than we may think. The Gulf of Maine and surrounding areas may seem enormous to a human, but it’s no problem for a right whale to have breakfast in Cape Cod Bay and pop over to Rhode Island for dinner.

Photos of right whales from April research trip to Cape Cod Bay by DMF’s Dan McKiernan.

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