Right whales off Block Island largest pod ever counted there

This photo from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center shows a mother North Atlantic right whale with her calf, submerged left, in Block Island Sound off the coast of Rhode Island, part of a record number of the rare mammals counted during an aerial survey.
This photo from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration's Northeast Fisheries Science Center shows a mother North Atlantic right whale with her calf, submerged left, in Block Island Sound off the coast of Rhode Island, part of a record number of the rare mammals counted during an aerial survey.

One quarter of the world's entire population of right whales is congregating in waters between Block Island and Martha's Vineyard.

That's an unusually large grouping in an area rarely visited by these endangered mammals.

Among the group of about 100 whales are at least two mothers with calves, David Gouveia, marine mammal program coordinator for the northeastern regional office of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said Friday. There are only about 400 right whales left in the world, he noted, and they normally travel in pods of about 15 to 40 each.

This is the largest group of whales ever recorded in these waters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the parent agency of the marine fisheries service.

The whales are heading north on their annual spring migration, but they normally stay in waters further to the east, off Nantucket and Cape Cod, Gouveia said. There are no predictions about how long they will stay in the Block Island-Martha's Vineyard area.

"It could be a week, it could be a day," Gouveia said.

To protect the whales from being struck by passing vessels, a slow-speed zone has been established in the area through May 5. Vessels 65 feet and larger are asked to travel at no more than 10 knots, or about 11.5 mph, in the waters in a defined region between the two islands.

"They're close to one of the major shipping lanes into New York City," Gouveia said of the whales.

So-called ship strikes are a major cause of injury and mortality for right whales, which can measure 55 feet in length and weigh 70 tons. In 2008, NOAA established a system of notifying mariners where right whales are traveling and setting temporary speed restrictions in those areas, as well as seasonal speed restrictions along their typical migration path. NOAA, the Coast Guard and other groups are doing aerial monitoring to keep track of whales.

The whales are migrating north along the East Coast after calving in waters off Georgia this winter. They follow currents carrying the tiny marine zooplankton called copepods, feeding as they travel, Gouveia said.

"The currents must have dipped into that area" between Block Island and Martha's Vineyard, he said. "That's why the whales are there."

After they leave the area, they will continue north, stopping to feed along the way, until they reach the Bay of Fundy off Nova Scotia in the fall.

j.benson@theday.com

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