Beluga whales? Off of Rhode Island? Sounds like wishful thinking to us whale lovers, but it is true! I would love to see beluga whales in the wild and despite a vacation to Quebec City last summer, we didn’t make it far enough north to actually see these amazing animals in the St. Lawrence River. Days ago, however, scientists from the Mystic Aquarium along with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management confirmed reports of sightings of three beluga whales off the coast of Rhode Island.
Researchers from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries obtained biopsy samples to assess the health and genetic origins of the whales. The coordinator of the Quebec Marine Mammal Emergency Response Network also identified one of the beluga whales as being from the threatened St. Lawrence population through photo-identification. The whale was last seen in 2013. The other whales are believed to be from the same population which has been in decline in the past decade. Once numbering more than 10,000 animals in the late 1800s, the population was estimated in 2012 to be around 900 animals.
It is unknown why the beluga whales are in US waters, though they have been spotted in Rhode Island waters before and have occasionally been spotted off in Maine and Massachusetts. This is the first time, however, that a group of three whales has been spotted in the area. Since the water temperatures in the Northeast are still cool, they are believed to be favorable for the whales and their prey. They may have followed the cold waters of the Labrador Current down the coast.
While the whales are not regular residents in the US Northeast, they are protected like all other marine mammals in the US by the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) of 1972. Boaters are prohibited from interacting with the whales and are required to stay at least 100 feet away from the animals; to not chase them, feed them, or impede their movements; and to slow to no-wake speeds if near the whales. And, if you are lucky enough to see the whales, take a picture (from a distance) and send it to me so I can live vicariously through you.