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North Atlantic Right Whales: Cape Cod’s Endangered Species

Part of the charm of living on Cape Cod is the interaction that you'll have with wildlife and sea animals at any given time. If you so desire, you could have these interactions on a daily basis, as long as you’re out in the natural environment and know where to look.

North Atlantic Right Whale.One mammal that you should make an effort to see after moving to Cape Cod is the North Atlantic right whale, which is an endangered species that makes its home in Cape Cod Bay in the late winter through the spring. While planning to see a right whale might be tricky, they tend to come close to shore, and there are hundreds of sightings annually.

Right whales are massive, as they are between 50 and 70 feet in length and weigh between 70 and 100 tons. They are one of the largest whale species on earth, and they spend much of their time in our own backyard, giving you hope of witnessing their migration at some point.

About the North Atlantic Right Whales

The right whale is a critically endangered species, with an estimated 430 in existence today, and only 100 breeding females. As a result, the species could go extinct in the next 20 years if action isn't taken in a hurry.

Two issues are causing the declining numbers of the mammal, starting with a low birthrate. In fact, researchers haven't found evidence of a single calf being born this birthing season, so we're sure to see numbers drop even further.

The next issue is human-caused deaths, which are the leading factor in right whale deaths near Cape Cod. Since April 2017, 18 of these animals have died, which equals 4% of the species' total population. Many of these deaths are the result of collisions with watercraft, with others occurring after the whales become entangled in fishing gear.

Fishing gear also causes reproduction issues in the whales. Right whale calves are 15 feet in length when they are born. As you can imagine, it takes a lot of energy to carry a mammal of that size throughout the reproductive cycle, especially since gestation lasts a year. Therefore, when a whale isn’t healthy, she can’t reproduce.

When a whale is wrapped in rope or other fishing gear, she expends a lot of energy carrying this extra weight and, as a result, won’t be healthy enough to reproduce. Since these whales feed close to shore and near the surface of the water, they are very prone to encountering this gear.

Kleenex the Right Whale

An example of our fishing gear causing problems for the whales has come to the forefront this year. You see, right whales are so established in Cape Cod lore that many have names. One such whale is called Kleenex, a great-grandmother who is over 50 years old. Over the years, Kleenex has given birth to eight calves and has 22 direct descendants. Basically, Kleenex is one of the highest contributors to keeping North Atlantic right whales in existence since the late 1970s.

There is a problem, however, as Kleenex currently has a rope wrapped around her head, covering part of her blowhole and upper jaw. Researchers believe she has been tangled in this rope for the last three years. Since it is virtually impossible to get close enough to the whale to remove the line from her head, conservationist fired a cutting arrow from a boat in April to help with the process.

The idea is that the cutting arrow damages the rope to the point where it will eventually come off on its own, but with Kleenex aging rapidly and no other females producing offspring, this situation could further harm the whale’s long-term prognosis.

Protective Measures

Some protective measures are being taken to keep the North Atlantic right whale in existence into the future. Since right whales are an endangered species, you are prohibited from getting to within 500 yards of them in a boat or by any other means. The idea is that by staying out of their way, we can help them to live naturally and, hopefully, begin to reproduce.

Speed limits are in effect in Cape Cod Bay when the whales are present, as well, as marine vessels over 65 feet must travel below 10 knots through much of the spring. Further emergency regulations were brought in this year, holding boats under 65 feet to the same restrictions.


Massachusetts also requires marine fisheries to use sinking ground-line, making it more difficult for right whales to get tangled up while trying to feed on herring and other fish. The state has delayed the use of trap-pots and the opening date of lobster fisheries, as well, to further aid in the whales' conservation.

How to See the Whales

Right whales return to Cape Cod Bay every winter and stay well into the spring. Despite the decreasing numbers of North Atlantic right whales, hundreds of sightings occur every year in the area between Cape Cod and the mainland, in addition to northern Massachusetts, off the coast of Boston.

In fact, an aerial survey conducted in April showed 100 right whales in Cape Cod Bay, which is almost a quarter of the entire population of the animal worldwide.

The best place to watch from the shore is Race Point in Provincetown, as, on a sunny day, it offers unmatched views of Cape Cod Bay. You might also have luck up and down the Cape Cod National Seashore, especially in the late winter as the whales make their way to Cape Cod from southern areas coastal like Florida and Georgia, where they spend the colder months.

There are are whale-watching cruises leaving practically every day, providing you with more opportunity to get up close and personal, or at least to within 500 yards. The great thing about right whales is that they arrive earlier in the year than other whales species, giving you the chance to take a cruise before the summer crowds appear and, if you're lucky, have your very own sighting.

As you buy real estate on Cape Cod and become involved in the local community, you'll quickly learn the quirks that make this such a special place. Being one of the only places in the world where you can see North Atlantic right whales is one such quality, so take the time to get out there and witness these beautiful creates for yourself.