Some of the North Atlantic right whales in Cape Cod Bay
(PCCS image taken under NOAA permit 633-1763, under the authority of the U.S. Endangered Species Act and the MMPA)
By Beth Daley, Globe Staff
A magnificent marine spectacle is luring scores of awe-struck spectators to the sandy beaches of Provincetown: Giant rare whales, more than 70 of them, thrashing, frolicking, but mostly feeding in Cape Cod Bay.
Scientists have never seen so many North Atlantic right whales in the bay so early in the spring -- and they say the unprecedented group is a heartening reminder of the resiliency of the federally endangered species that has been ravaged by ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements in recent decades. Almost 20 percent of the estimated 375 leviathans left in the world have been seen in the bay in recent weeks, including ones researchers say they’ve never seen before.
"We see a lot of these animals through the years, but it is just remarkable -- jaw-dropping -- to see so many," said Charles “Stormy" Mayo, senior scientist at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, which has been conducting aerial and ship surveys of the whales for more than two decades. He said the animals started showing up in January, with their numbers dramatically increasing in recent weeks.
The lure appears to be billions of tiny marine organisms called zooplankton that have had a particularly productive year in the waters north and east of Cape Cod. Currents carried this whale food into the bay and within about a mile of Cape beaches. That means people can see the 40-ton, 45-foot animals best through binoculars -- and by looking for their telltale fluke above the water surface.
But the sightseeing may get even better: Scientists say zooplankton that can thrive in shallow surface waters could move in later in the spring. If that happens, the whales will likely follow and could feed within 100 feet of shore in some areas around Provincetown.
For now, the animals are acting like college students at a spring break pool party. They court each other by thrashing and rolling and, if lucky, mate -- hopefully to produce future young in their calving grounds off Georgia and Florida. But like college students, they also spend a lot of time eating – up to 4,000 pounds each a day.
"They are like plankton vacuum cleaners," said Ian Bowles, the state secretary of Energy and the Environment. He went out to see the whales last spring when there was also a large number in the bay. "You can see them cruising ... with their mouths open. I’m delighted to welcome them back to the Commonwealth.”
For centuries, hunters harpooned the right whales, so named because they were the "right whale" to hunt from the 11th century into the 1900s. Lumbering and feeding close to the surface, they were easy to kill. And once dead, they conveniently floated to the surface.
The whales' blubber oozed with valuable oil, and the giant mammals also held a fortune in their upper jaw's fringed plates. The dark-brown material served as an early plastic, used in everything from corsets to combs. In 1935, the League of Nations outlawed right whale hunting, but by then, there were only a few left in the western North Atlantic.
Unlike other species, right whale populations never significantly bounced back once hunting eased. Today, ship strikes and fishing gear entanglements continue to plague them. This winter alone, five right whales were spotted entangled off Georgia and Florida.
Yet there is reason for hope, scientists say: Efforts are underway to get more fishermen to use whale friendly fishing gear. New rules went into effect late last year to force large ships to slow down near right whales. Shipping lanes into Boston were even shifted two years ago to make sure big ships encountered whales less often.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, scientists say, has worked intensively to ensure there are few ship strikes and fishing entanglements in the bay. And this year, a record number of calves -- around 40 -- have been born off Florida and Georgia.
So in many ways, scientists and whale lovers say, the gathering in Cape Cod Bay is almost a celebration -- a sign that maybe things are beginning to turn around for the right whale. It is third year whale numbers have been high in the bay; last year, scientists estimated 70-100 were feeding there, although later in the season.
Mayo said the best places to view the animals are between Race Point and Herring Cove beaches in Provincetown and occasionally, bayside beaches in Truro and Wellfleet.
Don’t get in a boat to see them: Federal and state law prohibits anyone from getting within 500 yards of a North Atlantic right whale. And to make sure they don’t, Massachusetts Environmental police are aggressively patrolling the area.
"It's like the swallows of Capistrano," Mayo said. Just like that "dramatic arrival is a harbinger of spring ... the same thing happens here with whales in Cape Cod Bay."