Endangered Whale Species Grazing Off Coast of Cape Cod

Scientists baffled by what caused plankton bloom drawing the right whales.

ByABC News
April 23, 2011, 10:49 PM

April 23, 2011— -- There are only a few hundred right whales in the North Atlantic, but this year beachgoers in Cape Cod have been treated to a rare sight -- at least 100 of the endangered creatures have been counted in the area, grazing in mass just off the shoreline.

"The current must be piling the plankton up," said Charles "Stormy" Mayo of the Center for Coastal Studies. "[There's] a patch of food, of unbelievable richness that's just stretching right along this edge."

The unusually high abundance of plankton this year, numbering in the tens of thousands, is making for a delicious feast for the whales and a special sight for enthusiasts of this rare mammal.

But marine scientists are baffled why the supply of the tiny, shrimp-like creatures the whales subsist on is so plentiful this year, so they're testing the water, using a hose rig that takes samples from different levels.

North Atlantic right whales, characterized by visible rough patches on their heads and distinctive snouts, can grow to be 50 feet long and weigh up to 90 tons.

Right whales got their name in the 19th century because they were the "right" whales to hunt -- slow swimming and peaceful. Slaughtered in the tens of thousands, only 100 remained in 1935 when the Convention for the Regulation of Whaling took effect.

While still listed as critically endangered, right whales are making a comeback -- making this rare sight special for spectators.

"They're so big and magnificent, you just see them and ... it gives you chills," said Deb Gustavson, a whale enthusiast. "They're amazing."

One hundred of the mammals have been counted in the area this past week, and researchers estimate there are at least double that number nearby.

In fact, there are so many right whales that the State of Massachusetts has warned boaters to steer clear of the animals. Federal law also dictates that boats must keep a 500-foot distance from the animals unless they have a research permit.