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31 critically endangered right whales seen off Massachusetts in "unusual" occurrence

31 critically endangered whales right whales spotted off Nantucket
31 critically endangered whales right whales spotted off Nantucket 00:31

BOSTON - New England Aquarium scientists recently spotted a large number of North Atlantic right whales off the coast of Massachusetts and are urging boats in the area to slow down to protect the critically endangered species.

An aerial survey flight on Feb. 20 recorded a total of 31 right whales in shipping lanes east of Nantucket. One group was about 35 miles east of the island and the other was seen 20 miles east of Chatham. 

There are estimated to be fewer than 360 right whales left on the planet.

Three right whales ("Spoon,""Tux," and Catalog #3550) echelon feeding in the Great South Channel New England Aquarium, taken under NMFS permit # 25739

"Unusual" sighting of right whales in winter

The researchers weren't expecting to see this many whales in the area this time of year. A research flight with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration first noticed the group on Jan. 31.

"We know a lot about right whales, but they still surprise us all the time," aquarium scientist and aerial survey team leader Orla O'Brien said in a statement. "While historically the Great South Channel has been a hotspot for feeding whales, it is unusual to see them there during the winter."

A mandatory slow zone for boaters in the shipping lanes is only in effect between April 1 and July 31. There are voluntary speed restrictions in place but the aquarium says they are often ignored.

The aquarium says slow zones are vital to protecting the species, especially after a young female was found dead off the coast of Georgia after getting hit by a boat. 

Identifying the right whales off Nantucket

One of the right whales spotted on Feb. 20 was an adult female named Caterpillar who was born in 2005. She was last seen two years ago in Cape Cod Bay, and her nickname comes from a large scar on her back from a boat strike. 

Right whales "Caterpillar" (Catalog #3503) and Catalog #4617 feeding in theGreat South Channel New England Aquarium, taken under NMFS permit # 25739

"Right whales only surface feed under specific conditions, so we felt really lucky to document them this winter," aquarium scientist Katherine McKenna said. "Many of the whales identified so far are adults, including several calving females who have given birth in recent years."   

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