On Tuesday May 17, 2016, passengers on board Hyannis Whale Watcher witnessed the highly unusual sighting of a breaching fin whale (also known as a finback) . Fin whales are a federally endangered species and the second-largest creature on earth, out-sized only by the blue whale. Full grown, fin whales reach lengths of 75 ft (22 m) long and up to 80 tons (72,575 kg).
While sightings of fin whales are not unusual in the waters off of Cape Cod, the dense-bodied whales are rarely seen throwing their body out of the water, a behavior known as breaching. Biologists from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation were on board at the time, and note they have no records of fin whales breaching in their database which documents over 4,000 whale watches over the past ten years.
According to Monica Pepe, WDC’s Conservation and Education Manager, “Breaching is a behavior that probably serves many purposes, and may include communicating or removing parasites. We may never know why whales breach, but we do know that it uses a lot of energy, so it must be important for them.”
“It is humbling and overwhelming to have the privilege to see something so amazing and rare” said Jon Brink, lead naturalist at the Hyannis Whale Watcher “These are wild animals doing what they want, when they want to. It’s why I love whale watching- you never know what you will see from one trip to the next.”
The Hyannis Whale Watcher is based in Barnstable Harbor, and is a proud member of the award-winning Whale SENSE program where participating companies voluntarily agree to adhere to a higher standard of responsible whale watching. Hyannis Whale Watcher also provides a research and education platform for Whale and Dolphin Conservation’s international Field Research Internship Program, where interns collect sightings data as well as educate passengers about marine mammal biology and conservation.
Pepe went on to say that the breaching fin whale was not the only surprise sighting today. “We also spotted a critically endangered North Atlantic right whale today. Seeing the right whale today is an important reminder to all boaters that they should proceed with caution and post a lookout when transiting the waters off Massachusetts.” Fewer than 500 North Atlantic right whales remain and their recovery is impeded by vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear. Regulations designed specifically to protect this highly-endangered species include a 10kt speed rule in place in Cape Cod Bay from January 1st through May 15th as well as an approach regulation which requires all vessels to maintain a distance of 500 yards from right whales.