NOAA's national marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers are currently closed to the public, and in accordance with Executive Order 13991 - Protecting the Federal Workforce and Requiring Mask Wearing, all individuals in NOAA-managed areas are required to follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on mask-wearing and maintaining social distances. Sanctuary waters remain open for responsible use in accordance with CDC guidance, U.S. Coast Guard requirements, and local regulations. More information on the response from NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can be found on

Soundings banner art

Summer 1996

Sanctuary to Establish Advisory Council
Sanctuary Quiz
Banknotes-A Quiet Eye in the Sky
Sanctuary Currents
Blubber--Fat with a Message
Getting to Know the Big-Winged New Englanders
Whale Behavior Guide
Chow Time for Humpbacks
Education Digest
Stellwagen and the Aquanauts
Research Briefs

Sanctuary to Establish Advisory Council

Fishing boats and whale watching vessels ply the waters in quest of their prey. Researchers plumb its depths in the interest of science. Educators and their charges rediscover its history and observe its present state. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary means many things to many different audiences.

To better serve these interests and to develop a sounding board for Stellwagen Bank-related programs and projects, the Sanctuary is developing a 15-member Advisory Council. Seats on the Council will be allocated to representatives of major user groups, including commercial interests, research, education and outreach, environmental and conservation groups, and two at-large seats. Representatives from federal, state and regional government agencies as well as regional Congressional offices will serve as ex-officio members to the Council.

The Sanctuary has solicited letters of interest from the public and will announce the names of the Advisory Council by early summer. Membership will include five representatives of commercial interests, including fixed and mobile-gear fishing, party and charterboat operations, recreational fishing and boating, and whalewatching. There will be one seat allocated to research, three for environmental and conservation groups, four for education and outreach, and two representatives of the general public. In future years, the Sanctuary will also seek a representative from the social science/economics community.

At the present time, plans call for the Advisory Council to meet twice yearly to discuss issues relating to the National Marine Sanctuary, including:

  • providing advice on opportunities for funding options for Sanctuary management.
  • advising the Sanctuary Manager on planning for the use, development, and maintenance of Sanctuary facilities.
  • advising and assisting in building support for the Sanctuary and in the development of and informed constituency.
  • providing an interface to various segments of the community.
  • advising the Sanctuary Manager and Education Coordinator on means of enhancing public awareness, understanding, and appropriate use of the marine environment through educational and interpretive activities.
  • advising the Sanctuary Manager and Research Coordinator on priority research and monitoring needs, proposals, and reports.
  • advising the Sanctuary Manager and staff on the effectiveness of Sanctuary regulations in providing adequate resource protection, and providing management recommendations.
  • advising the Sanctuary Manager on the effectiveness of surveillance and enforcement efforts.
  • providing information and advice on appropriate permits and proposals, as requested by the Sanctuary Manager.
  • providing assistance to the Sanctuary Manager in identifying human uses in the Sanctuary and facilitating those uses consistent with the primary objective of resource protection.

Advisors will serve for one, two or three-year terms (based on luck of the draw during the first year); all subsequent seats will offer a three-year term. The Sanctuary has determined that, in order to best meet the needs of the public and to reach the broadest possible public, terms will be limited to three years (except for first term advisors drawing one and two-year terms; they will be allowed to serve a second term if so willing). The first meeting of the Advisory Council will be held in early summer.



What is a National Marine Sanctuary?
In response to a growing awareness of the intrinsic natural, cultural, and historical value of our oceanic and coastal waters, Congress passed the National Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act in 1972. The goal of National Marine Sanctuaries is to promote comprehensive management of special ecological, historical, recreational, and aesthetic marine resources. These Sanctuaries may be designated in coastal and ocean waters, in submerged lands, and in the Great Lakes and their connecting waters. Fourteen National Marine Sanctuaries have been designated to date and include near-shore and open ocean waters ranging in size from less than 1 to more than 5,000 square miles.

Marine Sanctuaries Belong to All of Us
Grassroots support is vital to the success of marine sanctuaries. Without grassroots support in the nomination and designation process, and continued public involvement in day-to-day operations, they would not exist. National Marine Sanctuaries are cherished recreational spots for diving, sport fishing, and wildlife viewing, and support valuable commercial industries such as fishing, boating, and tourism. These protected waters provide a secure habitat for species close to extinction, and protect historically significant shipwrecks and cultural artifacts. Once designated, sanctuaries belong to all of us, and come with a responsibility to preserve these special places for our children, and their children.

Ecosystem Management Works
Marine sanctuaries strive to protect entire ecosystems by balancing resource protection with commercial, recreational, cultural, scientific, and educational uses. Marine sanctuaries are where we earn our living , experience the thrill of a whale watch or a first scuba dive, teach our children, connect with our cultural past, and research natural and human processes. Our challenge is to balance these and other important uses with long-term protection of the marine environment.

Sanctuaries Are a Good Investment
Sanctuaries are excelling in every phase of marine resource management: research, education, community involvement, volunteerism, international relations, state-federal partnerships. One of the most important roles a sanctuary plays is bringing people together. With a $12 million federal budget for 14 marine sanctuaries and two more in the designation process, we look to partners to join us in our resource protection efforts. The list of partners include local and state governments, large and small businesses, environmental organizations, other federal agencies, and thousands of citizens.

Marine sanctuaries are important for all Americans, not just those living along the coast.

Protecting our coasts and oceans is as important for people living in Iowa, Kansas, or Colorado, as it is for those in Florida, California, or Hawaii. Our oceans and Great Lakes provide jobs, act as our favorite vacations spots, serve as natural classrooms for children across the country, hold the secrets to our past and the promises for the future. They are a national trust that we all have a responsibility to protect and enjoy.

How can I help?
National marine sanctuaries need your support. When visiting sanctuary waters, comply with all rules and regulations, and assist in spreading the word. Staff are receptive to suggestions and comments from user groups about sanctuary-related issues and programs. And, or course, donations of equipment, photography, artwork, and volunteer time are always welcome. These are your sanctuaries. Enjoy them today, but let's also work together so that future generations may appreciate these same resources tomorrow.

National Marine Sanctuary Quiz

1. Some of the richest shellfishing grounds in the world are found within this sanctuary. It also contains the largest bald eagle population in the continental U.S. The strong cultural history here indicates that the area has been revered as a sanctuary by Native Americans for centuries.

2. This sanctuary has such diverse habitats and rich seasonal upwellings that it supports both warm and cold water species of marine life. It is also known for its spectacular underwater canyon and significant archaeological resources.

3. The northern-most coral reefs on the North American continental shelf are found in this sanctuary. These vibrantly colored coral reefs, the envy of any botanical garden, may be as much as 15,000 years old.

4. This was the very first to be designated as a National Marine Sanctuary. It is only one nautical mile in diameter, yet it is of great historical significance -- it protects the wreck of an important Civil War vessel.

5. This tiny, remote area, the only U.S. National Marine Sanctuary located south of the equator, protects nearly 200 species of coral that form a fringing reef around an eroded volcano crater.

6. Not only is this sanctuary the home of one of the largest limestone (or hardbottom) reefs, it is also near one of the only known calving grounds for the endangered Northern Right Whale.

7. This sanctuary of offshore, nearshore and intertidal habitats completely surrounds a National Park. Aside from a wealth of wildlife, the sanctuary also contains significant ancient Indian artifacts and many historical shipwrecks.

8. This sanctuary now incorporates two older sanctuaries, with a grand total of 2,800 square nautical miles of bay waters, mangrove islands, seagrass meadows and coral reefs that support a rich array of tropical marine life.

9. Located on the edge of the western continental shelf, this sanctuary's bank rises to 115 feet below the surface, while only a few miles away there are water depths of 6000 feet or more. This small sanctuary shares its staff and headquarters with another nearby sanctuary.

10. Host to many marine mammals (including the endangered blue whales, California sea lions and elephant seals), this sanctuary is also home to the largest concentration of breeding seabirds in the continental U.S. California's largest breeding population of harbor seals can be found here, too.

11. This sanctuary's prominent submarine feature was created by glacial activity about 15,000 years ago. It is surrounded by a variety of marine habitats that support a rich diversity of marine life. It is also a popular summer feeding ground to several species of migrating marine animals and birds, including the endangered northern right whale.

12. After feeding in Alaska's food rich waters, humpback whales migrate 3,000 miles to spend their winters in this tropical paradise. Aside from its beauty, this sanctuary's warm, shallow waters are ideally suited for the humpback's mating and calving activities.

Answers to Sanctuary Quiz: 1. Olympic Coast NMS 2. Monterey Bay NMS 3. Flower Garden Banks NMS 4. Monitor NMS 5. Fagatele Bay NMS 6. Gray's Reef NMS 7. Channel Islands NMS 8. Florida Keys NMS/ including Key Largo NMS & Looe Key NMS 9. Cordell Bank NMS 10. Gulf of Farallones NMS 11. Stellwagen Bank NMS 12. Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale NMS


BANKNOTES -- A Quiet Eye in the Sky

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary sees its share of unusual creatures. Take the goosefish, for example. This outlandish denizen of the ocean bottom calmly sits partially buried in the sand waving its own fishing lure. Any animal foolish enough to investigate the possible prey, becomes prey itself. Or, for another example, take any of the annelids – or sea worms – that together may account for over 15% of the benthic (ocean bottom) biomass at Stellwagen Bank. Some of these segmented worms even have gills. Among the birds, the razorbills, who are related to puffins and murres, seem just as comfortable in the water as the air.

But perhaps the most unusual "creature" out at Stellwagen Bank, sporadically seen over the past few years, has been an oversized and seemingly quite ungainly "bird" of a different color. Two years ago Blimpus gulfus (the Gulf Oil airship or blimp) circled Stellwagen Bank searching out its prey – the great whales -- while later that year Blimpus fuji (the Fuji Film blimp) continued the effort.

James Hain, a marine mammal researcher for the National Marine Fisheries Service, has been enlisting the aid of the nation's airship fleet for his whale research. Slow moving, stable, and, most importantly, quiet, the blimps provide an ideal platform for studying whale behavior in a non-intrusive manner. When whales are spotted, the airship, unlike a plane, can hover in place for continued observations and photography. And unlike helicopters, the blimps cause no downdrafts or noise, other than the subdued hum of their directional engines.

In the summer of 1993 the MetLife blimp flew several tracks over Stellwagen Bank and the southern portion of Jeffreys Ledge, allowing the scientists on board to get a "bird's-eye" view of fin whales, humpback whales, and white-sided dolphins. The next year, the Gulf blimp and the Fuji blimp were used to study diving behavior of fin whales (a study that is next to impossible with airplanes or ships due to the inability for on-board observers to identify individual whales and track their movements) as well as the feeding behaviors of these and other endangered large whales. Hain hopes for another visit this year by a member of the airship fleet.

The blimp flights also offer Sanctuary personnel and scientists a chance to more closely monitor interactions between protected species and humans, and to evaluate the effects of close approaches between whales and vessels. With increased interest in whale watching, an increasing number of vessels are heading out to Sanctuary waters where whales and humans meet, occasionally with serious and potentially fatal consequences (usually to the whales). However, Hain indicates that preliminary analysis seems to indicate that the nonconfrontational meetings (where whales and humans eye each other with curiosity or where whales totally disregard the human visitors) may have little effect on the whales' lifestyles.

So, if you see an unusual "bird" hovering over the waters of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, it may not be something listed in any of the marine guidebooks. Instead, this migratory, mechanical visitor to our waters (most commonly seen elsewhere at sporting events) may be contributing to our storehouse of knowledge about the marine ecosystem.

Sanctuary Currents

Sanctuary Boundaries on Electronic Maps
C-MAP, the world's leading designer and manufacturer of electronic charts and charting systems, is now including sanctuary boundaries in its data bases. Beginning with Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, which will be highlighted on all Massachusetts Bay maps, C-MAP/USA has agreed to incorporate sanctuary boundaries whenever appropriate regional charts are revised. Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary Manager Brad Barr provided coordinates for the national network of sanctuaries to the company. Each data cartridge, in addition to outlining sanctuary boundaries, offers a link to a dialog box which provides more information about the sanctuary, including address and phone number. C-MAP received the National Marine Electronics Association's award for Best Electronic Charts for the second consecutive year this past fall. The company's chart library includes more than 9,000 digitally stored electronic charts covering all major areas and ports of interest worldwide. Its USA subsidiary is based in Mashpee, Mass.; its World Wide Web site, which provides easy access to quick reference charts of specific areas of interest, is located at

Coast Guard Educates Boaters About Sanctuary
A coordinated boater education effort kicked-off on Memorial Day weekend and will continue throughout the summer, sponsored by the U.S. Coast Guard, the Coast Guard Auxiliary and the Sanctuary. The program aims to advise boaters about Sanctuary regulations and proper boating techniques around whales. The Sanctuary is the summer feeding grounds for several species of whales, including endangered humpbacks and fin whales, as well as minkes and the occasional sei, orca, and sperm whales. Another common visitor is the white-sided dolphin. The northern right whale, the most endangered great whale, has been spotted in the southern part of the Sanctuary during the spring when it comes to feed on rich copepod patches here and in Cape Cod Bay, and has also been seen sporadically throughout the summer. The joint project with the Coast Guard will provide on the water education, as well as instruction through Auxiliary-sponsored courses.

Site Characterization Study Going On-Line
A newly delivered site characterization for the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary will be available on-line to visitors of the Sanctuary's home page on the World Wide Web ( The characterization provides an overview on the environmental, historical, and cultural conditions that shaped the Sanctuary. The history of whaling, fishing and vessel traffic (and shipwrecks) are detailed, as well as the physical oceanography, sediments, water quality, benthic community structure, marine mammals, fish, and seabird populations. Conservation issues are discussed, as well as ocean disposal, fisheries management, and mariculture. A complete bibliography on topics related to Stellwagen Bank is included. The study was compiled by the Urban Harbors Institute at the University of Massachusetts/Boston with contributions from the Center for Coastal Studies.

Sanctuary Works with Children's Museums
What could be more exciting than taking a voyage underwater or on top of the water? Not much, or so it seems at several children's museums in Massachusetts. The Sanctuary is helping to bring the excitement of ocean exploration to children at the Cape Cod Children's Museum through a new exhibit that lets children see live fish, view videotapes from Stellwagen Bank, study photographs of fish and other sea creatures, map tracks on detailed charts of the Sanctuary, and work with other hand-on activities. All of these exhibits will be housed in a simulated "submersible" (actually a small room) with video screen and fish tank. The Sanctuary has also provided materials to the Boston Children's Museum which is opening a new ports and harbors exhibit. Sanctuary produced boating education material will be available there as well as displays of Sanctuary posters and charts. The Sanctuary hopes to develop cooperative efforts with other local and regional museums in the future.

Volunteers Needed; Donations Gladly Accepted
The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is seeking a volunteer corps of "Stellwageneers" who can assist in our education and outreach efforts. Of particular need are educators (retired teachers, amateur naturalists, college and graduate students, and anyone else with a love for the marine environment) who can staff Sanctuary exhibits at fairs, conferences, and other public events, and who can travel with the Sanctuary's right whale education program. Volunteers will receive instruction about the Sanctuary and its history, the resources at Stellwagen Bank, and major issues of regional concern. The Sanctuary is also in need of artwork and photography, computer expertise in graphics and animation, exhibit design and construction, and, occasionally, clerical assistance. To volunteer, please contact the Sanctuary at (508) 747-1691 or send in the response card on the bottom of this page.

Blubber -- Fat with a Message

Marine biologists have suspected that pollutants from industry and agriculture could be hindering the recovery of marine mammals such as humpback and right whales. But evidence on the extent of the problem has eluded them. Researchers believe that unlike oil spills or encounter with ships and fishing gear, the consequences of toxins are more insidious than dramatic, and are therefore difficult to measure. Toxic chemicals, such as PCPs and the pesticide DDT, work their way up the food chain, from zooplankton, to fish, to whale, and accumulate in the higher predators over many years. Scientists fear that at high enough concentrations, these toxins could increase a whale population's susceptibility to stress and disease, decrease the birth rate, or even lead to birth defects.

In the past, scientists could only gather information on the bioaccumulation of pollutants by dissecting dead whales that had washed up on shore. Now, scientists are taking advantage of a new source of information -- the hundreds of biopsies extracted from humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine and throughout the North Atlantic.

Romona Haebler, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist in Narragansett, Rhode Island, is analyzing blubber from these biopsies for signs of toxic chemicals. "There is a wide spectrum of organic chemicals that we know are in the ocean," said Haebler. "These tests will help us determine which ones are coming through the food chain."

Haebler hopes to gather baseline data on the concentrations of toxins in healthy whales. In the future, scientists will be able to use these data to study trends in bioaccumulation of toxins. For example, they will be able to compare chemical concentrations in whales before and after the extension of the outfall pipe from Boston Harbor into Massachusetts Bay.

Another advantage of gathering information from biopsies is that scientists can correlate the concentrations of pollutants in an individual whale with the whale's sex and genetic composition. Haebler says that she will also be able to coordinate with scientists who track humpbacks to determine whether there is a relationship between bioaccumulation and the age of the whale and where the whale has been.

"It's a marvelous opportunity," she said.


Getting to Know the Big-Winged New Englanders

At first, only the "footprints" were visible -- evenly-spaced patches of swirling water, stirred by the pumping massive flukes. Then dark shadows and neon- green shapes appeared below the surface, gliding towards the whale watchers. Finally, the shadows took form. The green shapes transformed into long, wing-like fins. A mother humpback whale and her calf broke the surface in unison, sharply expelled clouds of mist through their blow holes, then arched back under. The pair reemerged less than 50 feet from the idling boat, the nursing calf now on the opposite side of its mother. The whales surfaced several more times before the captain maneuvered the boat away so that other whale-watch cruises could take their turn.

More than any of the other great whales, humpbacks entertain. Seeing these whales throw their 45-foot, 40-ton bodies out of the water and perform the ultimate backflop, or roll around slapping their fins and tails on the water, is an unforgettable experience.

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae or "big-winged New Englanders) are found throughout the world's oceans from Alaska to the Antarctic despite their regionally-associated scientific name. In the North Atlantic, humpbacks spend their summers feeding in the Gulf of Maine and off the coasts of Canada, Greenland, and Iceland. As winter approaches, the whales migrate thousands of miles south to courtship and calving grounds in the Caribbean. [See sidebar on Silver Bank.]

At one time, spotting humpbacks in the productive waters over Stellwagen Bank was almost a sure thing. Brian Forist, a naturalist for the Hyannis Whale Watcher Cruises in Barnstable on Cape Cod, and a veteran whale observer, says that in the late 1980s, whale watch customers typically saw a dozen humpbacks per trip. But over the past few years, the situation has changed. Although the number of humpbacks at the bank declined to much smaller numbers, a few whales still make regular appearances and occasionally mother-calf pairs may wander by.

But the humpbacks have not disappeared entirely from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and the Gulf of Maine. They have just moved. Last summer, fishers, whale watchers, and scientists reported seeing dozens of whales feeding over the Great South Channel southeast of Cape Cod. Smaller groups of whales have gathered along Jeffrey's Ledge northeast of Gloucester (part of which is in the Sanctuary) and the along ledges paralleling the Maine coast. Among these whales, researchers have identified 25 new calves.

Scientists and other observers agree that the humpbacks have shifted locations because their prey has shifted. These baleen whales feed on small schooling fish such as sand lance, herring, and capelin, and on tiny shrimp-like crustaceans called krill. Mason Weinrich, chief scientist at the Cetacean Research Unit in Gloucester, says that during the peak of humpback abundance in the 1980s, the bank was thick with sand lance. Then over the past several years, sand lance on the bank declined, herring further offshore multiplied, and humpbacks moved a short distance to where these fish are flourishing.

Tracking humpback populations is not only important to the whale-watch industry, it is also critical to scientists figuring out how best to preserve them. Although humpbacks are faring better than the beleaguered northern right whales, numbering in the thousands instead of the hundreds, scientists don't know whether the population is recovering from centuries of hunting. During the 1800s, New England supported a small humpback whaling industry. Extensive commercial whaling continued on in Canadian, Caribbean, and the Antarctic waters until the International Whaling Commission banned commercial hunting in the 1960s. Despite 30 years of international protection, humpbacks are still listed as endangered in the United States.

Humpbacks also face other dangers. Approximately 40% of the North Atlantic humpbacks display scars from colliding with ships or entangling themselves in fishing gear. Nobody knows how many succumb to these encounters. Scientists also worry that pollutants, particularly organic chlorines, may be sapping the strength of the remaining whales. (See sidebar story on blubber.)

Scientists are finally accumulating the information they need to patch together a profile of the humpback population. David Mattila, a senior scientist at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, boasts that the North Atlantic humpback whale population is now one of the most thoroughly studied groups of marine mammals in the world. "Everybody looks at our database and drools."

For the past 20 years, Mattila, Mason Weinrich, and other scientists, have combed New England waters aboard research boats and commercial whale-watch vessels, photographing over 950 whales in the Gulf of Maine alone. The most intensive effort to gather information came in 1992 and 1993-dubbed YONAH (Years of the North Atlantic Humpback). Scientists from seven North Atlantic countries fanned out from Greenland to the Dominican Republic, photographing over 3,500 whales and taking skin and blubber samples.

Researchers keep a file of photos of every whale, each photo marked with the time and place it was taken. The pictures are equivalent to fingerprints – helping researchers to distinguish one whale from another. Each whale has a unique black-and-white pattern on the underside of its flukes and a distinctive shape to its dorsal fin. The photographic records enable scientists to keep tabs of an individual from year to year and determine where and how far it travels each season. They can also discern important reproductive information by monitoring individuals since calfhood. For example, researchers have learned that females reach sexual maturity at five years and give birth every one to two years.

Scientists also use these records to count whales. Even the most dedicated whale watchers can't expect to find every humpback in a particular area, so instead they use a technique called "mark/recapture." Scientists "mark" (photograph) as many whales as possible one year, then return the next year to photograph the whales again. Then they compare the number of "recaptured" whales (individuals photographed both years) to the number of whales photographed only once. If the percentage of recaptured whales is high, scientists conclude that they have spotted most of the whales in the region. If it is low, they conclude that they are only finding a small proportion of the population. Once analyzed, the mark/recapture data from the YONAH studies should yield the best estimates yet on the size of the North Atlantic population.

Cameras are not the researcher's only tool. Marine biologists have also armed themselves with crossbows and small, specially-tipped darts. Like the commercial whalers of old, the scientists in small boats pursue the whales, and then take aim. Their prize is not the oil or baleen, but rather a sample of DNA, the whale's genetic material. The dart penetrates four millimeters into the whale, and extracts a small plug of skin and blubber. Based on careful observations of the whales' reactions, scientists have concluded that the whales hardly feel a thing.

Once scientists decipher the DNA found in the skin, they not only can determine an individual's gender, they can trace a whale's family history back over many generations. Researchers have already established the maternity of many whales based on studies of mitochondrial DNA, and are currently trying to establish their paternity. Scientists will then be able to determine which whales mate with which and whether there are discreet breeding populations. Researchers are especially interested in whether only a few males are succeeding in mating. If the majority of the humpbacks are descended from only a few individuals or if there substantial inbreeding, harmful genes could accumulate, stifling the recovery of the population.

One intriguing revelation from these studies is that most whales appear to return to the same summer feeding areas where their mothers brought them as calves, although they move around within these areas depending on the prey distribution. Scientists have identified five distinct feeding aggregations, including a Gulf of Maine group which may, according to Mattila, contain as many as 1,000 individuals. Other aggregations spend their summers in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the waters off of Newfoundland, southwest Greenland, and Iceland.

In the winter, whales from all the feeding groups mingle in the Caribbean where mating occurs. Scientists are currently trying to determine whether whales from different feeding groups interbreed.

The whales' affinities to certain feeding areas has important conservation implications, according to David Mattila. "Because the whales are strongly linked to certain locations, we can't assume that they will move if the sites are threatened." Governments therefore will need to pay particular attention to protecting these regions.

And while the resident population of whales at Stellwagen Bank may be low at the present time, scientists are still unsure as to whether or not the herring and sand lance booms and busts are cyclical natural phenomenon. It may be that the humpbacks will return in force one day soon. Even if they don't, other whales, including finbacks, minkes and white-sided dolphins, continue to make Stellwagen Bank a destination of choice, offering whale watching passengers a daily treat.

Whale Behavior Guide

Whale watching is an exciting and awe-inspiring activity. Whales may demonstrate a wide range of behaviors that may serve a variety of functions -- some of which we still do not understand. Here is a key to some of the more commonly seen behaviors.

This word refers to both the act of breathing and the cloud of air and condensed water that the whale releases voluntarily at the surface. Different species of whales have different shaped blows. Right whales have distinct v-shaped blows, humpbacks have bushy, medium-height blows (3 to 5 meters or 10 to 16 feet), fin whales may reach to over 5 meters, and the blue whales have tall, columnar blows up to 15 meters (49 feet). The occasional sperm whale has a blow that angles forward and to the left.

Round Out/Peduncle Arch
In order to dive, the whale will arch its body while moving forward at the surface (rounding out). Some whales may arch their bodies more dramatically than others during this diving sequence. The peduncle is the area of the body between the flukes and the main body cavity.

Fluke-up/Fluke-down Dive
After arching its body, the humpback and several other species may bring their flukes above the surface. If the tail is brought straight up so that spectators can see the ventral (bottom) side, it's called fluke-up. At other times the flukes may clear the water but remain turned down.

Pec Slap or Flipper Slap
Some whales, particularly humpbacks and occasionally rights, will roll on their sides and slap the water with their pectoral fins. At other times they may lie on their backs and wave their flippers in the air before slapping.

Head Rise or Spyhop
When whales rise vertically out of the water and get their heads (and eyes) out of the water, it's called spyhopping. The animal may turn 90-180 degrees around before slipping back into the water.

Tail Slap
As the name implies, this behavior entails lifting the tail out of the water and slapping the water, often quite forcefully. The whale may do this in either a ventral down or dorsal down position. Peduncle Slap This behavior has a whale swing the rear portion of its body, often as far as its dorsal fin, out of the water and then drop it down sideways onto the water (or another whale).

This behavior includes a quick, horizontal burst through the water with open mouth, most often associated with feeding.

When whales are seen lolling on the surface, with little movement and widely spaced blows, they are said to be logging. This may be a resting (semi-sleeping) behavior.


Chow Time for Humpbacks

The humpback whale's flamboyant, often bizarre antics are a delight to whale watchers, but a puzzle to many scientists. For example, researchers aren't sure why humpbacks propel themselves out of the water, an activity that requires a huge amount of energy. Scientists speculate that the whales may be trying to shed barnacles, stun fish, or show off to other whales.

Breaching is just one example of these whales' complex behaviors. Humpbacks also display an array of social interactions and feeding methods. In their wintering grounds, male humpbacks compete fiercely for mates. But in the summer, whales not only tolerate each other, they appear to cooperate, especially while feeding. Scientists have observed male-male, female-female, and male-female pairs dive and surface in unison within a body length of each other. Most "associations" appear to be temporary, although researchers have observed some pairings that have lasted several seasons.

Both Mason Weinrich from the Cetacean Research Unit in Gloucester, and Phillip Clapham from the Center for Coastal Studies have studied these interactions. They speculate that the whales are helping each other concentrate prey for easy feeding. According to Weinrich, the whales have different strategies, depending on the species of fish on which they are dining and whether the fish are close to the surface or far below.

Humpbacks are the only whales to release clouds of bubbles around their prey. Scientists hypothesize that the bubbles induce schooling fish, such as sand lance and herring, to clump together so that the whale can engulf them in a single gulp.

During the 1980s, Weinrich and other researchers observed a new twist to the bubble-net strategy spreading among humpbacks dining on sand lance off the Massachusetts coast and commonly on Stellwagen Bank. As the whales dove, they slapped their flukes against the water as many as three times, "creating a pretty good sized splash." The whales then submerged and released bubble clouds under the spot where they had slapped their flukes. Then they knifed upward, jaws agape, and emerged with mouthfuls of sand lance. Weinrich thinks that the tail slapping may stun or confuse the sand lance, inducing them to clump.

When Weinrich first observed the population, none of the whales he saw were "lobtail feeding." But the number of whales slapping their tails increased from year to year. By the late 1980s, over 50% of the whales he saw were feeding in this way. Weinrich theorizes that the humpbacks changed their feeding behavior as the number of herring declined and sand lance increased, and that whales, especially younger ones, may have learned this behavior from other whales.

Scientists may have another example of the introduction and spread of a new feeding behavior among a humpback population. From 1989 to 1993, researchers taking aerial surveys of Stellwagen Bank observed abrasions and wounds around the jaws of a majority of the humpbacks. In an article published recently in Marine Mammal Science, scientists hypothesized that these whales obtained these wounds while bottom-feeding. Although nobody has actually seen the whales doing so, the scientists speculate that the whales were scuffing against the bottom, flushing out burrowed sand lance. The scientists further speculate that the whales adopted this new feeding method in response to the changing prey concentrations on Stellwagen Bank.

Artwork: E.P. Oberlander (courtesy of National Marine Fisheries Service) Artwork: Mark Gilmore (courtesy of Center for Coastal Studies) Artwork: Allan Parker (courtesy of Channel Islands NMS) Photo: Anne Smrcina Photo: Center for Coastal Studies

Education Digest

Sanctuary and USGS Share WWW Home Page
In what is proving to be an exciting and rewarding cooperative effort, the Sanctuary and the U.S. Geological Service, Atlantic and Gulf Branch, are developing a shared home page on the World Wide Web. The Stellwagen Bank Information Center (located at offers a wealth of information -- from the latest geological map products from USGS to the Sanctuary's new right whale curriculum and site characterization study. Also on-line are animated fly-bys of the Bank, photographs, and links to sources of additional Stellwagen Bank-related information. Come visit us on the web.

MIMIFest Returns to Plymouth
Over 1,400 students were treated to tours of the MIMI sailing vessel in 1995, along with harbor cruises, planetarium shows, and science workshops. This year, MIMIFest Plymouth, promises to be an even bigger event with 1,800 students signed up for the May 20-24 program which complements the Voyage of the MIMI curriculum. Students and teachers, through videos, computer programs and a text, have been following the exploits of a (fictional) research team and ship's crew as they study whales in the Gulf of Maine. Not surprisingly, the first whale they spot is located at Stellwagen Bank -- and thus the Sanctuary's interest in the curriculum. The 1996 Fest participants include students from as far away as Indianapolis and Rochester, NY, as well as many schools in eastern Massachusetts. Scheduled activities include meeting Captain Granville (actually Peter Marston in real life, an MIT researcher and owner of the MIMI), touring the MIMI vessel -- a 72-foot sailing ketch, attending a planetarium show on celestial navigation at the Plymouth Community Intermediate School, and participating in workshops on marine weather by the National Weather Service, fishing techniques, and whale identification. The Sanctuary intends to make MIMIFest Plymouth an annual event, and is presently making plans for next year's program.

Journey North with the Whales
Did you know that right whales and humpback whales migrate -- moving south in the winter and north in the spring just like many other species of animals? This year the annual treks are being followed through an Internet-based education program called "Journey North." The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary's education coordinator, Anne Smrcina, is the field correspondent -- relaying information to Journey North on the whales' progress northward from February (Groundhog's Day) through June. "Although they label me the 'whale expert' for the project, I see myself as an educator," notes Anne. "I, in turn, rely on a group of technical experts from such places as the Center for Coastal Studies, the New England Aquarium, and other research institutions to give me the latest information on whale sightings and scientific insight." The Journey North Project, which also tracks peregrine falcons, bald eagles, monarch butterflies, caribou, and several other species besides whales, has been awarded an Annenberg Grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting as a significant effort in math and science education. The Sanctuary is pleased to be a part of this innovative and exciting education effort.

"Lefty" and Curriculum Book Educate About Right Whales
It's 50-feet long, fills a school gymnasium, and generates excitement wherever it goes. It's the sanctuary's traveling, inflatable right whale, nicknamed "Lefty," constructed out of plastic sheeting by the sanctuary staff and a Hingham High School marine science class. The life-size, walk-in model of a right whale has made appearances at several sites including the Cape Cod Children's Museum and the Otis Air National Guard YMCA (where second graders from Bourne "toured" the whale). In addition, the sanctuary offers a new curriculum book, geared for middle school teachers but adaptable to all grades, on the right whale and its history entitled "From Whaling to Watching." The book also comes with a five-foot long poster that shows the migration route of the right whale, a cut-away view of its anatomy, and an external view with comparisons to humans. The curriculum book and poster was a joint project between the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary and the Gray's Reef Sanctuary in Georgia. [The right whale is the state marine mammal of both Massachusetts and Georgia, and appears on a special Massachusetts environmental license plate.] Teachers are invited to contact the Sanctuary to obtain a copies of the book and poster for their classes.

Biodiversity -- A Wealth of Resources at the Bank
More than 3/4 of the species recorded to date are terrestrial, but if one looks at the higher taxonomic groups, diversity in the oceans may be considerably greater. In the seas, there are more phyla and orders -- the big groupings in the classificiation system. Whereas on land there may be dozens of closely related species (such as ants in a section of rain forest), in the ocean there are often several species from a widely diverse assemblage of phyla, such as sponges (Phylum Porifera), comb jellies (Phylum Ctenophora), sea urchins and sea stars (Phylum Echinodermata), lobsters, crabs, shrimp and tiny copepods (Phylum Arthropoda), bivalves such as clams and scallops (Phylum Molluska), marine worms (Phyla Annelida and Nemertea), anemones (Phylum Cnidaria), and marine fish (Phylum Chordata) all within a small, discrete area. Rather than the splintering at the ends of the twigs, the marine environment provides support for the many branches of the taxonomic tree. Due to its high productivity and wealth of resources, the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary serves as an ideal location to study local marine biodiversity. To that end, Stellwagen Bank NMS's education coordinator Anne Smrcina led a three-week marine strand in a Cape Cod Biodiversity course offered at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History this spring (co-sponsored by the Museum, the Sanctuary, and the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod). Assisting in the three-week effort were biologists focusing on invertebrates and fisheries science from the National Marine Fisheries Service (Northeast Fisheries Center in Woods Hole) and a marine mammals specialist. The Sanctuary hopes to continue education efforts in the area of marine biodiversity in the future.


Stellwagen and the Aquanauts

The bow of the ship dipped down as the crane plucked the small yellow submersible from the ocean. The submarine settled on deck. Water streamed off the lights, scoops, and probes that bristled from the front. The hatch opened. First the pilot, then the two researchers -- Monica Foster and Julie Brittain emerged.

They talked about the fish that they saw along the bottom, and about the "horrible" spectacle of fish, lobsters, and small sharks caught in an abandoned drift net. They reported that they had accomplished the most important mission of their dive. Using one of the submarine's arms, they had plucked a dozen sea scallops and sand dollars from the sand.

The ship was now alive with activity. Foster and Brittain climbed above to plot the course that the submarine had taken. Other researchers collected water samples and analyzed them for nutrients in the lab. Two more took the scallops that Foster and Brittain had collected into one of the ship's labs to measure and dissect them. Once back on shore, the different organs would be tested for traces of metals such as cadmium, magnesium, and silver. This project was part of a multi-year study to determine extent to which scallops accumulating these toxic metals.

For Foster, Brittain, and the others, this cruise aboard a research vessel culminated a year of intense study and preparation. They are not veteran scientists. They are high school students from the Prout School in Wakefield, R.I., getting their first taste of marine research.

These students were taking part in the Aquanaut Program. Directed by the National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut, the Aquanaut Program pairs selected classes of motivated students with marine scientists to conduct research on important environmental problems. The students and their teachers start preparing up to a year in advance. They learn basic marine biology, how to design and analyze an experiment, and how to present and publish their results.

In the summer, the students gather at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass. They then depart from Gloucester aboard research vessels for day-long cruises to Stellwagen Bank, Pigeon Hill, or Jeffreys Ledge off the Massachusetts coast to gather data. In November, all the school groups come together at the University of Connecticut at Avery Point to present their findings.

Last summer, groups of students from six schools in southern New England participated. Students from Lyman Memorial High School in Lebanon, Conn. deployed and underwater robot equipped with a video camera to examine the relationship between the abundance of different species on fish and the different types of habitat on the ocean bottom. Students from Montville High School in Oakdale, Conn. studied whether pingers attached to gill nets would deter dolphins from entangling themselves. And for the first time, the Aquanauts included students from the American School for the Deaf. These students gathered measurements of noise levels at Stellwagen Bank by lowering microphones in the water. The information gathered will help scientists determine whether sounds from ships could alter the behavior of whales.

Peter Scheifele, director of Marine Education Programs at the National Undersea Research Center, said that the Aquanaut Program was founded in 1988 "in response to declining interest in science by high school students." The founders of the program hoped that by studying problems facing the undersea environments, high school students would be enticed to pursue science in college and beyond.

During the initial years of the program, students took experiential rides in the submersibles, but did not participate in the research. Then the teachers started to push to get the students involved in the investigations. Today, the students experience first hand how scientists work. Not only do they have a chance to work directly with the scientists, top students can return the following year to conduct their own independent research. These "Phase II" students often receive college credit for their work. So far, 88% of past Aquanaut students have become college science majors.

For the students, the chance to go out on a research vessel, ride in submersibles, and operate underwater robots was a "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But for students such as Aletha Holmes of Ponagansett High School in Ponagansett, R.I., working closely with scientists was one of the most valuable parts of the experience. Holmes and her classmates collected plankton samples from different, tested water samples for nutrients, temperature, and conductivity, helped guide a remote operated vehicle along the ocean floor, and watched for whales. They were looking for correlations between plankton densities, the composition of the water, and the presence of whales.

"Not many people have that type of chance," she said. Added Holmes's classmate Kristy Simeone, "the scientists treated us like we had brains in our heads."

Once again high school student Aquanauts will be visiting Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary sites, including Stellwagen Bank and southern Jeffreys Ledge, during the summer of 1996. And, as was done last year, Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary interns from the Boston University Graduate Program in Science Journalism will offer mini-courses in science writing and science journalism to the high school students. "We all gain from this program," notes Sanctuary Education Coordinator Anne Smrcina. "The high school students get hands-on introductions to science and science communication, the graduate students practice their writing and teaching skills, the National Undersea Research Center continues important research programs, and we here at the Sanctuary are able to collect and disseminate important information about Sanctuary resources."


Research Briefs

Underwater Landscapes at Stellwagen Bank
Peter Auster (NOAA's National Undersea Research Center at the University of Connecticut), Page Valentine (U.S. Geological Survey), and Richard Malatesta (Sea Education Association) are continuing a study to understand how variations in the underwater landscape affect the distribution and abundance of fishes and related species. High resolution side-scan sonar and multibeam bathymetric maps, produced by the USGS, are being used to plan underwater surveys using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that holds video and still cameras, sensors, and a manipulator arm for collecting samples. Video surveys are used to census fishes, crabs, scallops, and other mobile species, as well as record characteristics of seafloor habitats. Data collected in 1994 and 1995 indicate that there are four relatively distinct fish communities within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. A cruise during May 1996, on the MV Diane G, will survey communities which occur during the winter-spring period on the bank. Other interesting results from the project reveal that some habitat types may be of equivalent value to fishes, such as cobble and shell bottom types. Both contain complex interstices for small fish and crustaceans to seek shelter. The ROV surveys have also allowed investigators to identify "sensitive" habitats on the seafloor, such as areas where sponge "forests" are abundant. Other ongoing studies are addressing the need to use remotely sensed data to classify seafloor habitats and predict fish communities which occur there. Stay tuned... more to come.

Sanctuary Program Provides Matching Funds for Whale Research
The Center for Coastal Studies recently completed its 1996 field season for the North Atlantic Right Whale Habitat Use Project, funded in part by NOAA/Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary through the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The researchers are particularly interested in why this endangered species, with approximately 350 animals in the entire population, spends time in Cape Cod Bay and the southern section of Stellwagen Bank during late winter and early spring. Plankton tows show that the whales are feeding on a rich mixture of zooplankton, particularly copepods (small shrimp-like creatures each smaller than a grain of rice). Studies have been looking at these biological characteristics as well as the physical oceanography of the area. In late spring and early summer, the whales move to the Great South Channel and western section of Georges Bank. Both the western (Cape Cod Bay-Stellwagen Bank) and eastern (Great South Channel) areas were federally designated as the Northeastern Critical Habitat in recognition of their importance as feeding and nursery grounds for the right whale. Over the past 10 years, researchers have photographed nearly two-thirds of the right whales of the North Atlantic Ocean in Cape Cod Bay. In addition to continuing the photographic documentation, researchers have been able to observe feeding and socializing behaviors. The goal of this research is to provide important baseline data that can be used in the creation of a management and conservation plan for right whales and their habitats.


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