Record numbers of the rare whales feed in Cape Cod Bay

Kaimi Rose Lum

The show to see was not at any theater in town but in the much more impressive performance space over at Herring Cove and Race Point.

For hours each day at the end of last week in the waters just offshore, dozens of right whales gathered to feed, the saltwater-slicked wedge shapes of their heads lolling above the waves while flocks of gannets dive-bombed the surface around them and an occasional humpback or finback spouted in the distance.

A whale show is always a treat, but those who came to the beaches to watch, setting up camp on the sand or beside their cars in the Herring Cove parking lot with binoculars and cameras and cups of coffee, may not have known that even as whale shows go this was something extraordinary. What was extraordinary was the sheer number of them.

“It’s a remarkable time. It’s the greatest concentration we’ve seen in all the 23 years of our work ... and Provincetown is at the center of it,” said Charles “Stormy” Mayo, senior scientist and director of right whale research at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. The right whale bonanza began about two weeks ago, and Mayo predicted it would continue for another week or so. He attributed the high density of whales to the “extremely rich food source” that is available to them right now.

“I imagine if you could count them you’d be seeing as many as 80 animals, maybe more,” Mayo said. In just one flight, the center’s air survey team counted 60 of them. They are spread out across the eastern two-thirds of Cape Cod Bay, he said, and on Friday a group of 16 right whales spent the afternoon at the mouth of Provincetown Harbor.

Mayo said the right whales that are in the bay right now equal about a third of the population of North Atlantic right whales left in the world, and that seeing one is a privilege Cape Enders shouldn’t take for granted.

“This is one of the rarest mammals on earth,” he said. It’s so rare that many cetacean experts haven’t been able to add the North Atlantic right whale to their “life lists” yet. “Even for people who work on whales this would be a remarkable event, just to say they’ve seen them.”

He added that among the whales sighted in the past weeks were several mother-and-calf pairs.

Joanne Jarzobski, education coordinator for PCCS, went on a hike to Race Point with the Appalachian Mountain Club on Thursday and was extremely impressed with the right whale turnout. She counted two dozen right whales that day, as well as four humpbacks and one or two finbacks kick-feeding in the same area.

“I couldn’t believe how close they were. You’re on a beach and you’re watching them 100 feet from shore,” she said. “I’m standing there and I’m like, where’s the rest of the world? Everybody should see this because it’s just such a rare opportunity.”

Race Point is a particularly good spot for whale-watching because there is deep water close to shore, allowing the whales to come in and flash their flukes and flippers within clear sight of the beach. There is also a steep drop-off near Wood End where the whales can come in close.

The scientists say that watching them from the beach is the best approach — safer for the whales and for people. Feeding right whales are susceptible to shipstrikes, one of the leading causes of death to the endangered creatures. With the large numbers spotted in the bay and the harbor, warnings have gone out to mariners advising them to keep a safe distance from the whales.

It is illegal for boaters to approach within 500 yards of them.

Right whales begin showing up in the area in January and February and increase in number throughout the spring as more of the population moves in from the warmer calving grounds off the southeast coast of the U.S. and from other, unknown locations offshore to feed on the zooplankton in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel.

They move to higher latitudes as the year wears on.