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Endangered right whales spotted in Cape Cod Bay during spring feeding season

A North Atlantic right whale swims in Cape Cod Bay.
A North Atlantic right whale swims in Cape Cod Bay.Peter Flood

An increasing number of endangered North Atlantic right whales have been spotted feeding off of Massachusetts’ coast in recent weeks, a sign that spring is finally here, researchers at the New England Aquarium said.

The right whales live in shallow waters off the southeastern United States during late fall and winter, the aquarium said. After pregnant whales give birth to their calves while living with juvenile and male whales in the region during those months, the whales migrate to Cape Cod Bay during the spring to feed before heading further north.

“In a time when so much is changing around us, I find the appearance of right whales feeding in these waters as they have for hundreds, if not thousands, of years reassuring. Some ancient behaviors remain,” said Philip Hamilton, a research scientist with the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the aquarium.

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The whales chow down on extremely dense and rich blooms of zooplankton while stopped in the bay, the aquarium said.

North Atlantic right whales swim in Cape Cod Bay.
North Atlantic right whales swim in Cape Cod Bay.Center for Coastal Studies

“The plankton patches are so dense that you can often see dozens of right whales at a time forcing their massive open mouths through the water as they feed,” Hamilton said.

Charles “Stormy” Mayo, director of the Right Whale Ecology program at the Center for Coastal Studies, said about 130 whales have been spotted in Cape Cod Bay since early January. The number of sightings had been increasing up until this weekend, when only seven whales were seen in the bay, Mayo said.

One of the whales spotted this year is the only known whale to have been born in Cape Cod Bay. The whale was born off Plymouth in December 2016 or January 2017 to Wart, a whale who has given birth to a high number of calves over the years and is named for a large bump she has on her head, Mayo said.

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Last year, researchers cataloged 171 whales swimming in the bay: nearly 65 percent of the world’s entire right whale population, Mayo said.

Mayo said researchers might miss some of the whales that pass through the bay this year due to the spread of COVID-19, since the virus will likely limit the number of aerial trips they take to spot them.

Diana Brown McCloy, a spokeswoman for the aquarium, said researchers at the aquarium had to cancel recent whale monitoring trips in the bay but are still cataloging any whale sightings they hear about.

There are thought to be less than 409 right whales alive today, according to the aquarium. Hundreds of years of commercial whaling nearly wiped out the species and entanglements in fishing gear, being struck by vessels, and the effects of climate change are constant threats to the whales, the aquarium said.

A North Atlantic right whale swims in Cape Cod Bay.
A North Atlantic right whale swims in Cape Cod Bay.Peter Flood (custom credit)/Peter Flood

“It’s one of the rarest mammals on earth and it’s the rarest of the large whales, but they’re very near extinction,” Mayo said. “We’ve seen a decline in their numbers and their birth rates are very low.”

The aquarium’s right whale team has been tracking right whales and updating the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog for 40 years. The catalog contains images of right whales in the region that were taken by more than 500 people.

Researchers use the cataloged photographs to identify a whale’s markings and any human-related injuries it might have sustained to track where the whale has been. The aquarium said this helps researchers find out where threats to whales exist.

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If you see a right whale, stay at least 500 yards away from it and call NOAA’s sighting hotline at 866-755-6622 or use the WhaleAlert app on your phone to report the sighting. You can also submit any photos of right whales to the aquarium through the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog’s website.

Caroline Enos can be reached at caroline.enos@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CarolineEnos.