A large number of North Atlantic right whales have been seen in the Gulf of Maine in recent days, leading right whale researchers at NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) to believe they have identified a wintering ground and potentially a breeding ground for this endangered species.
The NEFSC's aerial survey team saw 44 individual right whales on December 3 in the Jordan Basin area, located about 70 miles south of Bar Harbor, Maine. Weather permitting, the team regularly surveys the waters from Maine to Long Island and offshore 150 miles to the Hague Line (the U.S.-Canadian border), an area about 25,000 nautical square miles.
"We're excited because seeing 44 right whales together in the Gulf of Maine is a record for the winter months, when daily observations of 3 or 5 animals are much more common," said Tim Cole, who heads the team. "Right whales are baleen whales, and in the winter spend a lot of time diving for food deep in the water column. Seeing so many of them at the surface when we are flying over an area is a bit of luck."
Just a few days later, on December 6, the team observed only three right whales on Cashes Ledge, about 80 miles east of Gloucester, Mass. Cole says the whales are known to be in the region, but actually seeing any of them on any given aerial survey is unpredictable. On December 14, the team saw 41 right whales just west of Jordan Basin.
Many female North Atlantic right whales head south in winter to give birth in the waters off Florida and Georgia, the only known calving ground for this population. Little is known about where other individual right whales go in winter, largely due to surveying conditions. Bad weather, the challenges of finding whales in such a large area, and the resources required to assess their distribution make sightings in winter especially difficult. The aerial surveys, conducted year-round, began in the 1990s.
"Sometimes we will see a whale we haven'
|Contact: Shelley Dawicki|
NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service