March 29, 2009

Huge Amount Of Endangered Whales Gather Off Cape Cod

A quarter of the world's North Atlantic right whales have congregated off Cape Cod in Massachusetts in an exceptional feeding frenzy, scientists announced.

One of the rarest species on earth, the large group of endangered 80 right whales is the biggest amount ever seen this time of year. The scientists credited the manifestation to an abnormally huge amount of zooplankton, a species that whales love to dine on.

The 80 whales are six times larger than the number in 2008 and signify 24% of the probable 325 right whales alive, announced officials at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. They are carrying out airborne surveys of the whales, along with the National Marine Fisheries Science Center.

In March, right whales normally eat a winter kind of zooplankton that gathers in Canada and follows the currents into the Cape Cod area. In 2009, the minuscule zooplankton species are particularly bountiful.

"It's a pretty special sight in a tiny embankment so close to land," Dr. Charles Mayo, a senior scientist at the center, told Reuters.

It is uncertain how many North Atlantic right whales perish every year. They are located from the Gulf of Mexico to Norway, carcasses are almost impossible to find once they die, Merrick said.

Right whales were named by the 18th- and 19th-century whale poachers who called the creatures the "right" ones to slay because they are loaded with oil and baleen, do not move quickly, are close to shore and float after dying.

At 59 feet in length and weighing up to 100 tons, right whales are sheltered under the 1937 worldwide ban on hunting whales. However, recently both ship strikes and entanglements in fishing gear have taken a huge toll on them.

In the last two years, bizarrely huge amounts of the whales have met in Cape Cod Bay, where they usually nosh from January to mid-May. There were 148 in 2008 and 161 in 2007, two times the yearly amount from 1998 to 2006.

"I'd expect that we'll beat both those years," noted Mayo.

In April 2008, 70 to 100 right whales met in Cape waters but that was considered really late in the season to feed on their favorite zooplankton, the Calanus finmarchicus.

It's far more unusual, Mayo said, to have a huge amount eating the winter variety, the pseudo Calanus.

"We're in a pivotal time in this season," said Mayo. "The concentration of plankton in the upper levels of the water has now begun to drop from its highs in February and early March. That is normal. And we're anticipating the influx of Calanus, a very rich plankton source."

"If that happens, you can imagine what that means in terms of numbers of whales," he added.


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