As North Atlantic right whales travel south from Canadian waters, the New England Aquarium aerial survey team recently captured stunning photos of more than a dozen whales in southern New England.

A group of male right whales surfacing together between feeding dives. CREDIT: New England Aquarium, taken under NMFS Permit #19674

Right whales have been on the move in recent weeks along the coast of New England as they head south from Canada, where many spend time feeding in the summer. Aquarium scientists say in a press release that they sighted 15 unique whales about 20 miles south of Nantucket during aerial surveys on October 1 and 3. They observed a small aggregation of whales feeding and swimming close together.

“In addition to feeding, we saw several right whales making body contact with each other using their flippers, heads, and even rolling at the surface—indicating that these whales were socializing as well,” said Katherine McKenna, research assistant at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life in a statement. “We also observed several humpback whales feeding near the right whales, which highlights the importance and productivity of the southern New England habitat.” 

“We often see right whales feeding over the Nantucket Shoals, and we saw evidence of this on both of our surveys last week,” said Associate Scientist Orla O’Brien in a statement. “Although we are not sure specifically what prey species they are targeting in this area, it is a good sign as right whales have had to adapt to the changing distribution of their prey in the last decade.”

In the past several years, the Aquarium’s aerial survey team says that it has started to document an increased use of southern New England waters by right whales. Many of the whales photographed this month appeared to be traveling through the area, though behavior from others indicated they may spend more time in the waters of southern New England. Catalog #4360 and #4546 are repeat visitors to the area. Another whale sighted, “Slalom” (Catalog #1245), has given birth to five calves, three of which are still alive. It has been 10 years since her last calf.

“Around this time, we think of right whales as traveling south to their calving grounds, but a lot of whales stay in southern New England as well. When we see adult females like Slalom, of course we hope she will travel south to calve, but she may stay in northern waters to feed a bit before making that journey,” O’Brien said.

“Slalom” (Catalog #1245), a calving female born in 1982. CREDIT: New England Aquarium, taken under NMFS Permit #19674

For the past decade, the New England Aquarium has regularly conducted aerial surveys south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, including waters slated for wind energy development. These surveys have been funded by a combination of Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, and four wind energy developers. The surveys help monitor changes in animal populations, identify various animal species, and recognize trends collected by standardized data over many years. Determining how right whales are using their habitat and where they are provides crucial information that can be used to better protect the critically endangered species, whose population is estimated to be less than 360. A recent blog post explores how the Aquarium’s aerial survey team uses photography to improve data collection and research, including tracking individuals, monitoring the health of whales, and documenting injuries and deaths.

Just last week, the Biden-Harris Administration restored protections for Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a nearly 5,000 square mile underwater sanctuary lying 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod that is home to diverse and vibrant deep-sea ecosystems. The Aquarium’s ongoing aerial surveys of the Monument have continued to highlight the importance of this area for biodiversity, climate resilience, and ocean health.

Ryan Belmore is the Owner and Publisher of What's Up Newp. He was born and raised in Rhode Island and graduated from Coventry High School. He serves as Vice President of Fort Adams Trust and serves on the Board of Directors for Potter League for Animals. Ryan also is currently the Senior Editor - North America for Mountain News, publisher of OnTheSnow. Ryan is a member of Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers and North American Snowsports Journalists Association (NASJA).