Sperm whale and calf seen off Cape for 1st time in 6 years of surveys

Local News

The worldwide sperm whale population is still recovering from more than 100 years of commercial whaling.

A sperm whale and calf spotted by researchers in October 2023 in Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument off the coast of Cape Cod. New England Aquarium

While surveying an area southeast of Cape Cod recently, researchers with the New England Aquarium witnessed a rare treat: an endangered sperm whale adult and a calf. It was the first sighting of a sperm whale and calf since the aquarium began conducting aerial surveys in the area in 2016.  

The whales were seen in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, a stretch of ocean about the size of Connecticut situated 130 miles off the Cape. The protected area is home to four massive seamounts, or extinct volcanoes, and three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon. 

Sperm whales are found in oceans across the globe, but their populations are still recovering from being a main focus of the commercial whaling industry from 1800 to the 1980s.

“As scientists who have flown aerial surveys for years, we never take for granted how exciting it is to see whales, sharks, and dolphins in the wild, particularly an endangered sperm whale calf. It’s a reminder of the rich biodiversity of animals that use the Monument,” Sharon Hsu, a research technician at the New England Aquarium, said in a statement. 

The monument is known as a mecca of diverse marine life. A total of 324 marine animals were spotted during the recent survey, which took about five hours on Oct. 19, according to the aquarium. Scientists observed 117 bottlenose dolphins, four fin whales, 27 Risso’s dolphins, two humpback whales, 15 ocean sunfish, 150 common dolphins, one True’s beaked whale, four unidentified beaked whales, and three sperm whales. 

Researchers could not confirm whether the calf was indeed the offspring of the whale it was seen with. Adult sperm whales “exhibit maternal-like interactions,” according to the aquarium. This means that adults other than a mother will sometimes nurse and care for calves that are not their own. 

Spotting a sperm whale, let alone a calf, is rare because they spend a considerable amount of their time on deep sea hunting trips. As the largest species of toothed whale, sperm whales hunt squid and fish at depths of up to 10,000 feet. They can dive for over an hour before returning to the surface to rest. 

Scientists with the aquarium have conducted 16 aerial surveys of the area since 2016. It is the first and only national marine monument in the Atlantic Ocean, designated by President Obama. Most commercial fishing was prohibited in the area before being permitted by President Trump in 2020. President Biden has since revised the rules governing the monument, once again banning commercial fishing.