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First-of-its kind right whale research boat will soon be in Cape Cod waters

A 9-year-old female right whale (left) and a smaller right whale spotted off the coast of Jekyll Island.
Courtesy Sea to Shore Alliance/ NOAA Research Permit 20556
A 9-year-old female right whale (left) and a smaller right whale spotted off the coast of Jekyll Island.

A research boat dedicated to better understanding North Atlantic right whales is on its way to Cape Cod waters.

“Song of the Whale,” which is operated by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), is traveling from Florida to Canada following the critically endangered species on their migration route. According to IFAW, no other research boat has ever attempted such a long trip to study these whales.

They can record whales 24/7 through passive acoustic monitoring and a thermal camera, take DNA samples, disentangle any whales they find in trouble. And when the boat docks on the Cape in two weeks, they’ll welcome aboard a researcher who’s studying a chemical released by the whales’ favorite food source: tiny crustaceans.

“We can figure out the threshold of this chemical in the water, which will then say, ‘okay, right whales are likely to congregate once that hits that threshold,’” explained Kathleen Collins, a campaign manager at IFAW who’s helping to manage the trip. “So that can be used as a informative tool in management practices.” 

The overall goal is to fill in data gaps for the species that’s notoriously hard to track. That, eventually, should lead to better, stronger rules to protect right whales from their primary threats: collisions with boats and entanglements in rope and fishing gear.

“We're really hopeful [we can] contribute a clearer picture of where these whales are, what they are doing, and how we as humans can shift to better accommodate and protect them.” 

Collins said there may be opportunities for the public to board “Song of the Whale” when it’s here in the coming weeks. By the time the boat heads north from Cape Cod in June, she said she’s hopeful researchers will have encountered and photographed more than half of the 340 remaining North Atlantic right whales.

Eve Zuckoff covers the environment and human impacts of climate change for CAI.