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A rite of spring; right whale mom and calf in Cape Cod Bay

CCS NOAA Permit 25740-01

The first North Atlantic right whale mother and calf pair of the season has been spotted in Cape Cod Bay.

Mother and calf pairs normally make the trip from their calving grounds off the coast of Georgia and Florida and arrive in Cape Cod Bay in mid-March.

Dr. Charles "Stormy" Mayo, Director of the Center for Coastal Studies Right Whale Ecology Program, tells CAI it's a long and difficult trip for the endangered mammals.

"It's an indication that at least this mother and calf made the perilous journey up the east coast. They have to travel well over a thousand miles straight line to get here," Mayo said.

"They've made it, but imagine the route they have to take with heavy storms and lots of shipping activity going in and out of ports."

There are an estimated 340 right whales in the world, and many of them are in Cape Cod Bay as part of their annual trek northward.

Mother and calf pairs often linger in Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bays, where they feed and rest, before continuing their migration north.

The Center for Coastal Studies right whale team regularly examines bay zooplankton samples to understand what right whales eat and their feeding habits.

Mayo tells CAI boat strikes are a leading threat to right whales. And while adult right whales can often withstand a strike from a large vessel, the young ones are far more likely to sustain major injuries.

"But these little calves are susceptible to being injured even by small propellers and a number of little calves have been found with propeller scars from smaller boats."

Mayo also said that at this time of year, Cape Cod is a prime vantage point for seeing right whales.

"Cape Codders have an opportunity to see one of the rarest creatures on earth and one that is in severe decline. So it may not be around much longer. And we have had another 50 individuals sighted alongside the mother and calf. It's a remarkable place for one of the great and remarkable creatures on earth and you can see them right off the beaches."

Entanglement in ropes, usually from fishing gear, is the other major threat to the species.

The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries places a seasonal 10-knot speed restriction in Cape Cod Bay for vessels less than 65 feet in length. That speed restriction is in place through April 30 and can be extended if whales remain in the area, according to the Center for Coastal Studies.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has a complementary 10-knot seasonal speed restriction in and around Cape Cod Bay for vessels 65 feet or greater.

John Basile is the local host of All Things Considered weekday afternoons and a reporter.