Whale and Dolphin Bonanza in the New England Marine Monument

Sperm whale in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument
Credit: New England Aquarium

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument continues to impress.

Scientists from the New England Aquarium recently conducted their spring aerial survey of the Monument, and they were astounded by the huge number and diversity of whales, dolphins, and other marine creatures sighted—impressive even by the high standard set by prior surveys. Dr. Ester Quintana, chief scientist at the Aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, in a blog about the survey, called the sightings in the monument “extraordinary” and a testimonial to “the importance of preserving its ecological value.”

The Aquarium’s spring survey sighted a total of 339 animals, including bottlenose dolphins, Risso’s dolphins, Sowerby’s beaked whales, pilot whales, and sperm whales, as well as basking sharks—the world’s second largest shark (it can exceed 25 feet in length). A particularly exciting observation was thirteen beaked whales, in three separate groups—a species that is rarely seen. The sightings of pilot whales, 57 in all, was also a first for the surveys.

The Aquarium’s blog also discussed the Monument’s unique scientific and conservation value, with Dr. Scott Kraus, Vice President and Senior Science Advisor to the Cabot Center, noting that, even though the area is only about one-tenth of 1 percent of all U.S. ocean waters, it has an “incredible abundance of marine life” and is “worthy of complete protection.”

The Aquarium conducted prior surveys last summer and fall—on July 27, 2017 and November 12th.  NRDC scientist Francine Kershaw wrote about the November survey here. The April survey had the highest number of sightings of the surveys so far. The composition of species was also different. There were no baleen whales spotted (fin whales were seen in November) but more whale species that eat fish and squid, like the sperm, pilot, and beaked whales.

Sowerby’s beaked shales in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument
Credit: New England Aquarium

President Obama designated the Canyons and Seamounts Monument on September 16, 2016.  It encompasses three undersea canyons, each deeper than the Grand Canyon, and four extinct undersea volcanoes, called seamounts, that rise higher than any mountain east of the Rockies. The complex currents and upwellings that swirl around and over these dramatic ocean features trap and concentrate nutrients, fueling a food chain that culminates in large numbers of marine mammals like those spotted in the aerial surveys, as well as other predators. The Monument is also home to centuries-old deep-sea corals, seabirds, sea birds, and countless species of fish and other ocean creatures. I have written more about the monument here and here

In April 2017, the Trump Administration targeted the Monument, as well as three other marine monuments and two dozen land monuments, for rollback. In December 2017, Secretary of the Interior Zinke recommended that the Canyons and Seamounts Monument specifically be opened up to commercial extractive uses. I wrote about this grave threat here. Fortunately, this recommendation has yet to be acted on. Rest assured that if it is, NRDC and its partners will fight back, for the whales, dolphins, basking sharks, and the more than a thousand other species that call the Monument home.

Corals in the Monument’s Oceanographer Canyon
Credit: NOAA OKEANOS Explorer Program, 2013 Northeast U.S. Canyons Expedition