A sheet of water streams off the rounded tail of a humpback whale. Humpbacks usually lift their flukes out of the water when they dive; the underside, not seen here, is different for every whale, giving researchers a way to identify individual whales by their fluke prints. Image courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey.
Located between the Stellwagen Bank NMS, which lies off the coast of Massachusetts, and its sister sanctuary in the Dominican Republic, Bermuda – nearly 650 miles east of the North Carolina coast – is strategically situated, forming a triangle that will protect humpback whales during their 3,200-mile circuit at sea.
NOAA’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary (NMS) and the British Overseas Territory of Bermuda have pledged to cooperate to protect endangered North Atlantic humpback whales. These whales traverse the open ocean between the island and the sanctuary on their annual migratory trek from the Caribbean Sea to the Gulf of Maine.
In July, the sanctuary and the Bermuda Department of Environmental Protection signed a letter of intent expressing interest in pursuing collaborative management efforts leading to the establishment of a “sister sanctuary” partnership.
Stellwagen Bank NMS already has a similar partnership in the Dominican Republic. The addition of Bermuda will form a “benevolent Bermuda Triangle” between the humpbacks’ winter breeding and calving grounds to the south and their summer feeding grounds to the north.
Stellwagen Bank NMS and Bermuda will exchange photos of whale flukes for humpback population studies and related research; share information, data, and experiences in managing marine mammal protected areas; and coordinate research, education, and strategies for engaging their local communities in whale conservation.
Stellwagen Bank’s NMS Superintendent Craig MacDonald says that cooperative programs like this one help foster best practices for worldwide whale conservation and management.
“Humpback whales are international citizens without passports who recognize no political jurisdictions,” MacDonald says. “Just as we share the whales with other nations that border their migratory route, we share responsibility for protecting these fascinating marine mammals.”
Stellwagen Bank NMS encompasses 842 square miles at the mouth of Massachusetts Bay, three miles north of Cape Cod and about 11 miles offshore from sanctuary headquarters in the coastal town of Scituate, Massachusetts. The sanctuary is renowned for its remarkable diversity of marine life, which includes more than 53 seabird, 80 fish, and hundreds of marine invertebrate species.
Groundfish species like cod, haddock, and flounder are plentiful, and the area also provides habitat for Atlantic bluefin tuna, sharks, and large schools of herring. In addition to humpback whales, its 22 species of marine mammals include fin, minke, pilot, and northern right whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins, harbor porpoises, and harbor seals.
Proportionally, the pectoral fins of humpback whales are the longest of any whale species. Humpback whales slap the water with these elongate fins during breaching. Here, a humpback whale breaches next to a whale-watching vessel.
For more than half a century, Stellwagen Bank has gained fame as a whale-watching destination. The World Wildlife Fund consistently calls Cape Cod one of the world’s top-10 whale-watching sites. During the peak viewing months of April to October, eastern Massachusetts hosts about one million visitors who venture seaward to observe some of Earth’s largest living creatures.
Most whale-watching vessels head toward Stellwagen Bank NMS, where the 40-foot, 40-ton humpbacks perform spectacular acrobatics. During breaching, the massive marine mammals launch about 90 percent of their bodies out of the water, then turn in mid-air before landing on their backs or sides.
The knobby-headed humpbacks, which feed only in summer, are fueled by a cold-water buffet that includes herring, haddock, and the abundant sand lances (also known as sand eels). Schools of these fatty, calorie-rich fish provide excellent nutrition not only for humpbacks but also for other large marine mammals, fishes, and seabirds.
A map created by sanctuary staff shows whale distribution and the proposed shipping lane shift in the Gulf of Maine.
In addition to a bountiful menu, the sanctuary offers its humpback visitors another important perk: safe passage. Between 2004 and 2006, scientists from the sanctuary and NOAA Fisheries’ Northeast Science Center investigated ways to reduce the risk of collisions between whales and commercial ships that traverse sanctuary waters on their way to and from the busy Port of Boston.
Their analysis revealed that large vessels were being routed through high-density whale areas, and that a small northward shift in the shipping lanes could reduce the risk of vessel strikes to whales by more than 80 percent. NOAA worked with the International Maritime Organization to make the change, which was enacted in 2007.
Conservationists are optimistic that with continuing help from their terra-firma friends, these fascinating cetacean citizens will continue to survive and thrive in the North Atlantic’s “Benevolent Bermuda Triangle.”