Right Whale Presentation Recap

300x225On Tuesday, November 19, 2013 at 6:30pm, the Orleans Conservation Trust (OCT) hosted the last of three presentations associated with our Third Tuesday Fall Lecture Series at the Orleans Yacht Club. Dr. Charles (Stormy) Mayo, Senior Scientist and co-founder of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), captivated over 50 interested Cape Cod residents and visitors with his lecture entitled, “Right Whales at the Brink”.

Since co-founding the PCCS in the late 1970’s, Mayo has studied the foraging behavior of whales and the health of their habitats.  He is also known for his pioneering work developing techniques to disentangle whales from commercial fishing gear. Stormy has worked with the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the U.S. Coast Guard to develop a Rapid Response Rescue Program to disentangle whales at sea, the first program of its kind in the nation.

Stormy began his presentation by talking about the physical make-up of the Right Whale, explaining that these baleen whales have a bow-shaped lower jaw and a head that comprises up to one-quarter of the body length. The Northern Right Whale, which you can see off the shore of Cape Cod Bay at this time of year, can grow to be about 50 feet long, and weigh approximately 120,000 pounds.

The most distinguishing feature of a Right Whale is the rough patches of skin on its head, which appear white due to parasitism that is often referred to as “whale lice”. This “lice” is actually a parasitic crustacean of the family Cyamidae. Despite the name, they are not true lice (which are insects), but rather are related to the better-known skeleton shrimp, most species of which are found in shallower waters. Whale lice are external parasites, found in skin lesions, nostrils, and eyes of marine mammals. These include not only whales but also dolphins and porpoises. The lice create distinct markings on the whale’s head – “callosites” -which enables scientists around the world to identify one particular whale from another.

Stormy then discussed Right Whale behaivor and why they come to the Cape Cod Bay in the first place . Stormy explained that Cape Cod Bay is a critical mid-winter feeding ground. There are days between January and April when a significant proportion of the total North Atlantic population – roughly 20-25% – can be found in Cape Cod Bay. While in Cape Cod Bay, Right Whales tend to feed at the surface of the water.

This is unique in that in almost all other feeding areas, food is found at greater depths. Having the food at the surface provides unparalleled access for both scientists and rescuers to document yearly changes in the northern population – a portion of the estimated worldwide population of 500 whales.  It also gives scientists the opportunity to untangle the whales if they are caught in fishing gear. During the presentation Stormy showed a number of video clips of his team using small life boats and pole saws, trying to free whales that had been tangled in fishing gear.  Some of these whales had been entangled for as long as two years.

Stormy went on to explain that, moving ahead, he and his team at the PCCS will focus on further understanding the Right Whales’ available food source and factors inhibiting the Whales’ ability to survive and reproduce, such as collision mortality. Stormy did say that one recent success was the shifting of a major shipping lane that ran directly through the Right Whales’ migration route into the Bay itself. While this is a step in the right direction, it still doesn’t ensure the long term survival of the Right Whale.

So what’s next for the Right Whale? Stormy explained that while these whales are highly adaptive, it is hard to know what is around the next corner for them. The only thing that we do know is that the Cape Cod Bay is a very important feeding area for the northern Right Whale population and the Bay may well be the place where the fate of the endangered North Atlantic Right Whale is decided.

Our “Right Whale” evening provided  a successful end to the OCT’s Fall 2013 Tuesday Lecture Series, which will resume in January 2014 when OCT will begin hosting a lecture on the first Monday of each month at the Orleans Yacht Club.  The Winter/Spring lecture series will run from early January until the beginning of May. Join us on January 6, 2014 at 6:30pm for the next lecture entitled, “History of the Wild Turkey” given by Brian Malone, Retired Director of the Town of Dennis Natural Resource Department.