Bowhead Whale Seen off Cape Cod

The NEFSC aerial survey team had a particularly spectacular flight on Saturday, April 19. While conducting a survey of Stellwagen Bank and Wilkinson Basin, we spotted an aggregation of whales feeding close to Race Point in Provincetown. We briefly circled over the group to ascertain if there was a mom/calf right whale pair present. They are the focus of a vessel-based acoustic project being conducted by NEFSC in partnership with Syracuse University. There was a mom/calf pair in the group skim feeding, so we relayed their location to the NEFSC Research Vessel Selkie and continued with our survey.

After completing our survey, we decided to return to the aggregation to provide  aerial support to the R/V Selkie if needed and also to obtain ID photos of the mom/calf, to verify that it was a known mother. NEFSC aerial and vessel survey teams have, on occasion, discovered new moms of the year that had not been seen in the Southeast U.S. calving grounds (exp 3995), so it never hurts to double check.

While circling over the mom/calf pair – ID’d as 1425, a known mom of the year – we noticed a whale skim feeding nearby that seemed unusual. Unusual indeed! It turned out to be a bowhead whale!

bowhead whale

A rare bowhead whale, sighted off Cape Cod on April 19, 2014 by the NEFSC aerial survey team. Photo credit: Peter Duley, NEFSC/NOAA .

Bowhead whales are generally only found in the Arctic Circle, so this whale was well south of its typical habitat. In fact, the only other time a bowhead has been seen in New England waters was in 2012 – once east of Cape Cod in March by the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS) and once in the Bay of Fundy by the New England Aquarium (NEA) in August.

Bowhead whales are very similar to right whales. They have the same overall shape – stocky bodies with highly arched lower jaws, no dorsal fin, and broad-paddle shaped flippers. They differ from right whales in that they do not have callosities on their head, lips or chin. They have a white chin with black dots along the sides and often a white patch on their peduncle, just before the flukes. Bowheads feed on the same type of prey and in the same fashion as right whales.

three  whales

Two right whales and a bowhead whale feeding close to Race Point in Provincetown on Saturday, April 19, 2014. Can you tell which one is different? Although bowheads are related to right whales, bowheads do not have callosities on their heads, lips or chin. Photo credit: Peter Duley, NEFSC/NOAA. Image collected under MMPA research permit 1058-1733-01.

We had been notified a few days prior that a bowhead had been sighted in Cape Cod Bay April 9 by the aerial survey team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), but we expected it had moved on since subsequent surveys had not seen it again. Imagine our surprise and delight to see this arctic whale, a long way from its usual feeding grounds, skim feeding along right whales just a few hundred yards off the beach of Race Point!

R/V Selkie was not in the area as they were working with whales elsewhere in the bay, so we notified them of the mom/calf and the bowhead. We also notified our colleagues at PCCS, who went out to collect vessel-based photos and a biopsy sample. The whale proved to be too evasive for biopsy, but through the aerial and vessel photos obtained, PCCS was able to confirm that this is the same individual whale they and NEA sighted in 2012!

Allison Henry
NEFSC Aerial Survey Team


One thought on “Bowhead Whale Seen off Cape Cod

  1. Pingback: You never know what you will see! | NEFSC Field Science

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