Eight North Atlantic right whales have been spotted near Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket in the past week, including six sighted from the air on Feb. 15 swimming between the two islands. The other two were seen south of Nantucket.
Charles (Stormy) Mayo, director of right whale habitat studies at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, said this is the usual time of year for the whales to be spotted south of Cape Cod. A similar sighting was made on Feb. 22, 2012, off Aquinnah.
“I think the waters around Martha’s Vineyard particularly south and west of Martha’s Vineyard are important to right whales. Our knowledge about the area is fairly limited,” Mr. Mayo said. The center for coastal studies has partnered with the New England Aquarium and federal fisheries managers to observe and monitor and protect the whales.
North Atlantic right whales are highly-protected marine mammals. It is estimated that only about 400 exist today, making them nearly extinct. The whales have been observed closely as they make their annual migration from the waters north of Cape Cod to their winter residence off Florida and Georgia, and back again.
“Everything we understand about the right whale is driven by the microscopic food they feed on. These animals are in these waters because of the very rich plankton food they eat. If you see them, you know there is food nearby,” Mr. Mayo said.
Historically right whales were abundant in this region. Vineyard Gazette articles dating to the 1800s carry reports of right whales swimming in Nantucket Sound. In those days they were plentiful and also harvested.
There is some evidence of recovery based on sightings in the past two years from Rhode Island to the Vineyard and Nantucket.
In light of the recent sightings, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service has issued speed restrictions for mariners in a defined an area of water around Nantucket and the Vineyard. The restriction zone went into effect on Tuesday and it continues to March 1. “Mariners are requested to route around this area or transit through it at 10 knots or less,” an announcement from NOAA said.
The whales have also caught the attention of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which is overseeing wind farm lease areas off the Vineyard and Rhode Island, and has commissioned the New England Aquarium to do an aerial survey, according to Tim Cole, a research fisheries biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service.
“Most of the management of coastal waters with respect to marine mammals is driven by the right whale. They are the poster child. Their story is so compelling and the animals are almost extinct,” Mr. Mayo said.
To see a complete list of sightings near the Vineyard and Cape Cod, visit NOAA's interactive right whale sightings map.