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Erin Burke

Erin Burke

Protected Species Specialist, Division of Marine Fisheries (DMF)

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The Right Whale Class of 2011 has officially arrived! On St. Patrick’s Day, the aerial survey team saw 49 right whales – most of them deep inside Cape Cod Bay. This endangered species returns each year to feed in the bay. Last year, approximately 50 percent of the known population of 400 animals made use of our waters during winter and spring. I spent the day aboard the Center for Coastal Studies’ habitat sampling boat, inspecting the food resource in the vicinity of 20-plus right whales skim feeding off Sesuit Harbor.

Can you spot the 4 skim feeding right whales?

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Even in such a large group, the whales are very mysterious at this time of year. As we saw, they’re typically engaged in sub-surface or low skim feeding behavior, which makes them notoriously difficult to see – even when you’re looking for them! In April, they usually switch to high skim feeding on copepods at the water’s surface, making them easier to detect. Still, boaters in the bay should be a sharp look-out for right whales over the next couple months to avoid collisions. (Don’t forget the 500 yard no-approach zone though).

Due to the ephemeral nature of both food and whales in the bay, these aggregations often don’t last long. And sure enough, members of the St. Paddy’s Day gang have already gone their separate ways, after mowing down the zooplankton in that area. Right whales know how to clean their plates.

Time will tell how the 2011 season shapes up. Will the surface plankton show up in large quantities? Will vast aggregations of whales arrive again? Will we see high skim feeders from the beach? How will 2011 compare to the astonishing numbers of whales observed since 2007?

Stay tuned…

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