Looking for Endangered Whales from the Sky

Mar 24, 2017

A Cessna Skymaster 337, the same model airplane that researchers fly in as they look for whales in waters off Cape Cod.
Credit cessnaowner.org/ goo.gl/daXIlf

How do you locate a few endangered whales in 200 square miles of ocean? Take to the air and look for the telltale spout.

There's more to it, of course. Several times a week, weather permitting, researchers from the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown board a small aircraft to look down on the waters around Cape Cod.

Amy James is Flight Coordinator for the Right Whale Ecology Program at the Center. She spoke with Steve Junker about the challenges of finding and identifying right whales, and about just how much fun the job is (a lot). Listen to the conversation below.

So far this spotting season, which began in January with the migratory return of North Atlantic right whales, the team has identified more than 70 whales. The species itself is believed to consist of only about 520 whales. Cape Cod Bay and the surrounding waters are a critical habitat for this endangered population, and offer a unique opportunity to survey and identify the whales. 

As Flight Coordinator, James monitors weather for windows that will allow the team to fly. She's also an observer on flights, one of a three-member team that performs the surveys. 

One of the highlights of the job, says James, is identifying individual whales. 

"You start to learn the family histories and understand when they show up in the bay," James says. "To see them year after year is pretty exciting."