Marine Conservation, Research, & Observations

A World of Plastic

Marine debris is any man-made solid material that has been directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed or abandoned into the marine environment (NOAA, What is marine debris?). 60% to 80% of all marine debris is composed of plastic (Derraik 2002). Plastics are lightweight, durable, and cheap synthetic organic polymers. This has allowed them to invade all aspects of our everyday life. The same qualities that make plastic useful also make them harmful. Plastic is lightweight enough that it is buoyant, resulting in long dispersal distances. Additionally, its durability results in it taking 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. Meaning that every piece of plastic made still exists in some form (D’Alessandro, 2014). Finally, its cheap nature results in exuberant amounts of plastic being used and manufactured daily. Unfortunately, the results of our plastic dependency are not pleasant for the marine environment

Massive amounts of plastics find their way into our oceans daily. Approximately 269,000 tons of plastic float on the ocean surface, while four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer cover the deep sea (Parker, 2015). The plastic found includes lost or discarded fishing gear, industrial, and domestic products (NOAA, Plastics). They enter the marine environment through improper waste management, littering on shorelines or at sea, and storm water runoff (NOAA, Plastics). 80% of marine debris enters the water through land-based sources, such as runoff or improper waste management. The other 20% comes direct from ocean-based littering (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Therefore, we are all to blame for the plastic entering our oceans, whether we live by an ocean or not.

The presence of plastic creates many negative effects on the marine environment. 267 species are impacted by marine plastic pollution worldwide, including fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Fatalities can result from ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Marine animals and birds will consume plastic in various forms because they confuse them for food. This plastic can block digestion, accumulate in the stomach resulting in a loss of appetite, or even block airways of sea birds. Many species are highly susceptible to entanglement of marine debris, such as sea turtles or marine mammals. For example, young fur seals will roll in marine debris, tangling themselves. As they grow, they can suffocate, gain infections, or it can impede their ability to capture food and avoid predation (Derraik, 2002).  Unfortunalty, after they die and decompose, the plastic is now free to entangle its next victim. Plastic debris will also transport invasive marine species through ocean currents, including: bacteria, diatoms, algae, barnacles, hydroids, and tunicates. The arrival of alien taxa to a new area can create negative effects across ecosystems. Additionally, it has been estimated that 80-85% of the ocean floor is covered in plastic debris. Plastic inhibits gas exchange between the ocean and the sediment, creating hypoxic or anoxic conditions (Derraik 2002). Plastic debris negatively impacts all members of the marine environment.

Taken by Arianna Nixon at Sunset Beach in Cape May, – 2017

A new area of research in the world of plastic pollution is microplastics.  Plastics that are less than five millimeters long are considered microplastics (NOAA,What are microplastics?). One source of microplastics is the degradation of larger plastic debris into smaller pieces. Another large source of microplastics are microbeads. Microbeads are manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added to health and beauty products such as toothpaste and facial cleansers (NOAA, What are microplastics?). These microplastics will easily pass through water and waste filtration systems and quickly end up in the ocean. The threats of microplastics are still widely unknown, and is an emerging field of study.

The real question, is what can we do about this? Aboard both the American and Atlantic Star, we have created the Clean Ocean Initiative, a part of our NJ-Non Profit; Whale and Dolphin Research Center of Cape May. This means that we collect all marine debris found on all dolphin and whale watching tours. We use the collection as an opportunity to engage and educate all guests on the prevention of marine debris. The most common item collected include: balloons, plastic bags, and rope. However, the elimination of marine debris starts with us at home. The first things to do is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reducing our plastic use should be our first goal, especially single use plastic. The elimination of plastic water bottles, and plastic bags is a great first step in limiting our plastic use. When plastic use is unavoidable, reusing and recycling are additional steps to help reducing our impact.  The most important step to reducing our plastic consumption, is to spread the word to those around us. Educating others to do their part can help create an entire community of people working to reduce our footprint on the world.

-Arianna Nixon, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Tampa

Works Cited
Clean Water Action. (n.d.). The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from
D’Alessandro, N. (2014, April 7). 22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It). Retrieved from EcoWatch:
Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine enviornment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 842-852.
NOAA. (n.d.). Plastics . Retrieved from
NOAA. (n.d.). What are microplastics? Retrieved from
NOAA. (n.d.). What is marine debris? Retrieved from
Parker, L. (2015, January 11). Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Question Remain. Retrieved from National Geographic :

Predator or Prey?

Predator or Prey?

For over 400 million years, sharks have greatly inhabited the ocean’s open waters. However, in a recent turn of events, their populations are beginning to decline due to human’s two greatest instincts; fear and food.

For a long time, humans and sharks lived in peace. The idea that sharks were mostly harmless and that they don’t actually bite people, was the popular belief of the time. We ignored them for the most part and they ignored us, however in 1916, everything changed. A series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey created a nationwide panic, that would soon get the name the “twelve days of terror”. Beginning on July 1st and continuing until the 12th, five people were attacked and only one person survived. This was not only one of the greatest tragedies of the time, but also one of the inspirations for the well known movie and book, “Jaws”. After these attacks, the distrust towards sharks began to increase greatly and thus started their very own century of terror for these creatures of the sea.

There are three main reasons shark populations are decreasing; shark finning, food, and the ongoing fear. After these attacks, people began to see these docile creatures as the fierce man-eaters that these animals are described as today. In a way, sharks became the bogeyman of the sea and everyone was out for their blood. These creatures, once apex predators, have now become the prey. For years now, their populations have been declining and are continuing to do so. It is said that we are losing around 100 million sharks every year, whether for food or simply for the pleasure of hunting them.

One of the methods for hunting sharks is called shark finning. This is when a fisherman will simply cut off the dorsal fin of the shark and throw the leftover body back into the ocean, usually still alive. Because of its cultural significance, the dorsal fin is the most expensive part of the whole body. In quite a lot of Chinese cultures, shark fin soup is a fine delicacy that promotes the status of the families, so their need for shark fins is incredibly high.

We had THREE more sightings of #Hammerheadsharks today!!! #Awesome day on the water! #sharkweek #sharkweek2015 #sharkweekeveryweek #capemay #newjersey

A post shared by CM Whale Watch & Research Ctr (@capemaywhalewatch_researchctr) on

In every ecosystem, there is a certain balance that is needed in order to maintain a successful and healthy world. However, with the decline of these shark populations, scientists are beginning to worry that they may cause torrential consequences for the environment, if it continues. Because of how complicated these systems are, one little ripple or disturbance could completely disrupt everything that the environment has sustained for so long. There have been a few conservation efforts, such as the “2010 Shark Conservation Act”, however, it is important that we make more progress if we still wish to see these creatures in the future.  

-Sarah Caplan, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Roanoke College


  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017,
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017,
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017,

New Ways of Propulsion Discovered in Humpback Whales

Humpback whales have always been characterized by their large pectoral fins. In fact their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to “big winged New Englander,” paying homage to their nearly 15 foot fins. These fins are specifically designed to be extremely hydrodynamic, allowing for easy movement through the water, despite their size. They are so efficient, that many wind turbine blades are designed based off of these fins.

Photo credit: CMWWRC Database 2012

Their pectoral fins are often used in social behaviors known as “pec slapping,” which is when a humpback whale will raise its pectoral fin up in the air while on its back or side, and slap it against the water. This behavior is believed to be a form of non-verbal communication for whales, which can be seen on both breeding and feeding grounds. Though it is unsure why exactly humpback whales pec slap, but there are several hypotheses. One is that it is a way that the whale shows frustration, while others suggest that it is a playful behavior.

Logistically, it has long been thought that the pectoral fins are used for steering, something these 45 foot mammals do exceptionally well, especially when their size is taken into consideration. However, a recent study done out of Stanford University suggests that humpbacks also used them for propulsion.

Photo credit: CMWWRC Database 2012

Using relatively new video tagging technology, researchers were able to study the movement of these whales in an unprecedented way. They were able to find that the whales would occasionally flap their fins like a penguin would while swimming underwater. This flapping would cause a very short boost in acceleration for the whale. The researchers believe that this is not something the whale can do frequently, due to the fact that likely requires a lot of energy, but can be very beneficial to the whale if it needs to travel short distances very quickly.

They also suggest that this propulsion is highly beneficial when lunge feeding, which is when a whale goes through a bait ball in a short burst of swimming with its mouth wide open. Like all other propulsion, it was always thought that this lunge was created by the undulation of the tail. But this study shows that, in some instances, it may be caused by the flapping of the pectoral fins.

The study also notes that it is likely that humpbacks are the only species capable of using this flapping mechanism for propulsion, because they are the only marine mammal with pectoral fins long enough to create such propulsion.

-Andrea Jelaska, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, Wheaton College


The Importance of Oyster Restoration

Oysters are a bivalve species, which feed mainly on phytoplankton, algae, and other small particles within the ocean. They feed by pumping large amounts of water into their bodies. The water is then pumped over their gills, where it is then, trapped by the mucus in their gills, and then the food particles are transported to the oyster’s esophagus and stomach (Bay backpack). When oysters feed, they filter large amounts of water, which helps in removing pollutants, algae, and other small particles out of the water, and thus helping with the water quality in their habitat. In fact, an adult oyster can filter about 25 to 50 gallons of water a day (Robertson 2015)!
Not only are oysters great for filtering water, but they are also an important habitat for different kinds of fish, crabs, invertebrates, and sea grass! And, as many people know, are commonly harvested for food.

mage of aged, bagged oyster shell that is ready to be used as the hard substrate that the juvenile oysters will attach to during the process of oyster restoration.

Unfortunately in recent years oysters have not been doing as well as they once have. This is mainly because of over harvesting, disease, ocean acidification, and other changes in water quality. Along the east coast of the United States the main threat to the oysters tends to be water quality, and over harvesting. Oysters have been harvested for over 300 years in certain areas, and we are now beginning to notice the decline in oysters in these regions, as well as the deterioration in water quality (Oysters).
With the declining populations of these bivalves, oyster restoration is more important than ever. Oyster restoration is the process of rebuilding or restoring oyster reefs. This process involves taking clean oyster shell and juvenile oysters, typically raised in hatcheries, and trying to grow them onto the shell, so that it will have the hard substrate it needs to survive and grow larger (Technical Aspects of Oyster Restoration). Due to the over harvesting of oysters, it has become difficult for oysters to reproduce because many of the larger oysters that are harvested are the older individuals, which are usually the females (Oysters). This causes there to be less eggs for the oyster’s sperm to fertilize, thus creating less new oysters to colonize the reef.
Over harvesting, habitat destruction, turbulence, and water quality has also made it difficult for juvenile oysters to find another oyster shell, or another hard substrate to attach to, because of the lack of shells that are suitable for them to attach to. Many times after oysters are harvested and eaten, very little of the shells ever go back into the ocean. Many are simply thrown out in the garbage after being consumed. Oyster restoration helps with this problem by recycling used shell, and supplying clean and aged oyster shell, or sometimes other types of shell like whelk shell. Many times the shells come from seafood restaurants, volunteers in the community that collect the shell, or they are bought from fishermen.
The way many oyster restoration projects grow the oysters is by first setting the shell in a tank, and then releasing the juveniles that are just about old enough to attach to a shell. After a few days they will begin to settle and after a few weeks they grow larger and you are able to count how many oysters settled on the shells. Once the oysters are a little larger they are then released in what will hopefully become a healthy reef. Even after the oysters are released the reefs are regularly monitored to see how they are growing, and people are not allowed to harvest them in these areas, which helps with the declining populations as well.

Image of juvenile oysters under a light microscope, taken by Alex Blanchet with Stockton University

With the help of locals in our communities, scientists, and others who are eager to learn, help, and protect our marine ecosystems, oyster restoration can become a huge success. Helping with these projects improves water quality in the area, increase the population of oysters in the area, as well as eventually creating more biodiversity within the area due to the increased abundance of oysters and the quality of the water.

-Alexandra Blanchet, Stockton University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Robertson, J. (2015, August 5). Ode to Oysters (or, Happy National Oyster Day!) [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Bay Backpack. (n.d.). How does an Oyster Filter Water? [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Oysters. (n.d.). NOAA. Retrieved from
Technical Aspects of Oyster Restoration. (n.d.). NOAA. Retrieved from
Other references:

Help Our New Jersey Sea Turtle Population

Onboard the American Star, we may encounter a Loggerhead Sea turtle (Caretta caretta) swimming in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the Delaware Bay along the coast of Cape May. These reddish-brown marine reptiles are the most common sea turtle to spot along the coastal waters of New Jersey. Although the Loggerhead sea turtle is considered threatened in all United States waters, Loggerheads found off the coast of New Jersey are classified as endangered. This is largely due to the digestion of plastic and other marine debris.

Loggerhead sea turtles are the largest of all of the hard-shelled sea turtles. They are known for their unproportionate large head and strong jaws. Adult male Loggerheads are much larger than the females, capable of growing to 33-49 inches long and weighing over 400 pounds. They can be found in waters up to 500 miles offshore in the continental shelf of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian ocean, as well as the bays, estuaries, river mouths, lagoons, and streams that connected to these larger bodies of water, but prefer subtropical conditions.

A sea turtle entangled in string. Follow link to photo credit.

After reaching sexual maturity around 12 to 30 years old, the prime mating season for Loggerheads takes place during March and April in the southeastern United Stated waters. The nesting period peaks in June, but the entire nesting season stretches from April to September, primarily at night during high tide. It is common for the female to return to the location where she was hatched to lay her own eggs. She gives birth to clutches of 45-200 eggs per session and can do so up to 9 times per season in 2 week intervals. These eggs will take 7 to 11 weeks to hatch. Incubation temperature of the eggs determines the gender of the hatchling. Warmer temperatures yield females while males are usually produced with cooler temperatures. Loggerhead eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to mortally due to predation, beach erosion, and flooding.

The diet of the Loggerhead sea turtle consists of dead fish and plants, as well as invertebrates such as crabs, mollusks, sponges, and jelly fish. The sea turtles are vulnerable to ingest marine debris that is often mistaken as food. Over time, balloons that make their way to the ocean lose their color and look similar to a jellyfish. The turtle will mistake the colorless balloon as a jellyfish, ultimately sickening, or even killing them. A study by Moreton Bay Research Center found that up to 100% of stranded turtles were found to have ingested plastic as a result of the rise of marine debris.

How can you help our New Jersey population? Next time you are at a birthday or graduation party, do not release your balloons. These balloons may possibly end up in our oceans and cause a threat to the Loggerhead sea turtles, as well as a wide variety of other marine life. You can also opt for biodegradable lanterns which have less of a harmful impact on the environment.

-Gianna Severini, Stockton University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center



Effects of Marine Debris on Whales

 As many of you have already seen on the news or read online, far more than thirty sperm whales have washed ashore in Europe since the beginning of last year. Four of the thirteen whales found in Germany were discovered to have large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. The marine debris included a fishing net, a plastic car engine cover, and part of a plastic bucket. Many toothed whales often mistake plastic and other marine debris as potential food or prey and most baleen whales unknowingly ingest plastic debris when they are feeding. Most of the plastic that ends up in the ocean floats and stays there for a long time. Plastic bags are known to stay in the oceans for about 450 years before beginning to degrade. “According to the Marine Pollution Bulletin, cetaceans are ingesting plastic debris at a rate as high at 31 percent, and in turn, 22 percent of those cetaceans were at an increased risk of death” (Henn 2017). The reason that the toothed or baleen whales ingesting so much marine debris can be fatal is because it can lead to physical damage to their digestive systems. The obstructions caused by the plastic or debris can lead to tears or punctures in the stomach lining. Also, the obstructions in the stomach can trick the whale into thinking that they are not hungry, messing with the feeding patterns of the whale and in turn leading to malnutrition.

Two whales washed up near the resort of Skegness on the English east coast on January 25, 2016.

            There are many easy ways to help reduce the number of marine debris that ends up in our oceans and rivers. One of the easiest and most effective ways to help keep the oceans clean would be to recycle properly. Making sure that each plastic bag or bottle makes it to the recycling bin will not take much time out of your day. Also, reduction can play another big role in decreasing the amount of pollution in the sea. Using a reusable water bottle or reusable shopping bags can lessen the amount of plastic that will later end up in the oceans. Even just letting your friends and family about the effects of manmade pollution in the oceans can help because you are making them aware of our problem. Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center also does a great job informing the passengers on the boat by explaining to them what marine debris is and how it affects marine mammals. We also stop the vessel and pick up any plastic bags, rope, or balloons that we spot on the trip a part of our Clean Ocean Initiative. Make sure to always be aware of any pollution that you see and make efforts in reducing the amount that is brought into the oceans!

-Mary Jacketti

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Miami


“Sperm Whales Found Full of Car Parts and Plastics.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 02 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 June 2017.
Henn, Corrine. “These 5 Marine Animals Are Dying Because of Our Plastic Trash … Here’s How We Can Help.” One Green Planet. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2017.

Why Dolphins Have Blurry Vision Under Water

 If you have ever been on a tour with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, you have heard your naturalist explain that dolphins are mammals. They may swim and look like a fish, but they are not fish. Mammals have hair; they are endothermic; they produce milk for their young.

                However, there is one more characteristic that holds true. A dolphin is a not a fish for all of those reasons above, but another characteristic not listed is the dolphin’s eyesight. Oftentimes on a dolphin watch, one of the bottlenose dolphins will cruise by with its melon above water level. We are physically able to see their black eyes; and we know that those mammals are looking back at us with almost the same scope. Although these animals spend their lives submerged in water, their eyesight is best out of the water. When not submerged, a dolphin and a human have a very similar sense of vision. Underneath the water, a dolphin has a blurred sense of sight like humans do. That is why their extra sense, echolocation, is so important for these mammals.

                It struck me odd that an animal that spends their life in the ocean would have lacking eyesight under the water. It makes sense for humans, because humans are not evolved to spend large amounts of time underwater. It’s the same way that our hair is not aerodynamic, and our lungs are weaker than our marine mammals. So, why do these dolphins not have better eyesight in their natural habitat?

                The answer lies in the evolutionary course that not just dolphins and humans have taken, but life everywhere has evolved from. The very beginning of life began with bacteria; the bacteria that could sense light was the bacteria that survived on went on the multiply. Fast forward a few million years and life has bloomed into a vast array of different sea creatures; each generation with a slightly enhanced sense of vision until a masterfully crafter aquatic eye was formed. Fish in our oceans today that depend upon light to survive have eyes that have been evolving as long as life itself has existed.

                However, when life first ventured out onto land, it was not helpful at all that these creatures were equipped with eyes perfect for life underwater. Their sense of vision on land was atrocious; and evolution could not backspace on itself. Just because life was on land now, did not erase that it had been submerged for most of it existence. After that, every species that stayed on land were adapting away from the aquatic eye into a more sensible eye for land dwelling. The human eye itself is the product of millions of years of evolution away from the aquatic eye.

CMWWRC Database – 2013

                Remember, dolphins are mammals. Dolphins are not fish. The ancestors of both dolphins and whales were not always aquatic. Scientists believe that dolphins have evolved from an Eocene-era mammal called a Mesonyx. This was a four-legged mammal that slept on land but swam and hunted in open waters. So, dolphins have an interesting ancestry; they evolved from a species that eventually returned to the sea.

                Now, dolphins are sea dwellers; but their ancestors were not. They are not fish. Dolphins are mammals, and as mammals, they have lungs. They have hair. And fascinatingly enough, their eyes have not yet adapted back to the perfected aquatic eye. Instead, they have picked up another sense, their echolocation, that helps them “see” better underwater. Their eyes may never be as adapted to the water as the aquatic eye that fish have; however, we have no way of knowing which direction evolution will take our marine mammals in the future.

-Morgan Costello

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, Stockton University

“Cetaceans.” Blue World. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2017.
Hanich, Livia, Steve Holtzman, Bill Pope, Brannon Braga, Neil G. Tyson, Alan Silvestri, Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. , 2014.
Nilsson, Dan-Erik. “Evolution of the Eye.” Evolution: “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. PBS. 2001. Television.

Unusual Mortality Event Strikes East Coast

Unusual Mortality Event Strikes East Coast

As of 2016, the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) indigenous to our east coast has been taken off of the EPA’s endangered species list. The same year, January of 2016, marked the beginning of the Humpback whale Unusual Mortality Event (UME), from Maine to North Carolina, that would continue through 2017 as well. An ‘Unusual Mortality Event’ is described under the Marine Mammal Protection Act as “a stranding that is unexpected; involves a significant die-off of any marine mammal population; and demands immediate response”. Normally, the annual average number of deaths of these whales will come to about fourteen. In 2016 alone, there have been twenty-six documented deaths of humpback whales. So far in 2017, eighteen deaths have occurred, adding up to forty-four deaths since the UME has been declared. Private teams of researchers and scientists are now investigating these mysterious deaths in hopes of getting to the root of this problem.

Fig. 1) Annual Humpback Whale strandings from Marine to North Carolina from 2011-June 2017. The red bars of 2016 and 2017 indicate the current UME. Obtained from

(Fig. 2) Stranding locations of Humpback Whales in the Atlantic from Maine to North Carolina in 2016-April 2017. The locations do not depict the cause of stranding. Obtained from

Unfortunately, this is not the first time we have been witness to an UME. Since the Marine Mammal UME was created in 1991, sixty-three UME cases have been recorded, and at least 8 of them have occurred generally within the same Atlantic region that the current UME is happening. Most recently, in the years of 2013 to 2015, we have experienced a UME among our Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) population (“2013-2015 Bottlenose Dolphin Unusual Mortality Event”, 2013). The cause of the UME was found to be cetacean morbillivirus; a virus specific to cetaceans (whales, dolphins, and porpoise) that affects them similarly to how us humans are affected by measles (the bottlenose dolphin population was also affected by this disease in 1988 (NOAA Fisheries, 2015). Necropsies revealed signs of this disease through skin lesions and various infections. A lot of UME’s that have occurred in the past have had causes made evident through necropsy such as disease, but the derivative of a UME is much more often left undiscovered.

Currently, as of April 24th 2017, twenty of the forty-two whales that have died have been examined. As for ten of those examined whales, the cause of death has been determined; necropsies have shown obvious signs of pre-mortem vessel strikes and propellor wounds. These vessel strikes are not uncommon, but the rate at which they have been happening recently is quite alarming. Vessel strikes can happen for a variety of reasons; the noises and vibrations ships give off from their engines is sometimes mistaken for another whale, and therefore a whale may approach it closely, or the noise pollution may disorient it (NOAA, 2015). Baleen whales do not have the ability to echolocate like Odontocete whales do, and therefore it is difficult for them to know where they are in relation to a vessel. The Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center participates with a program known as Whale SENSE, where all of our captains, naturalists and interns are trained in the respectful and responsible viewing techniques for our marine mammals. We understand that we are viewing these animals in their natural habitat and strive to give them the utmost courtesy and respect. The Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center’s 2015-2016 baleen whale sightings are displayed in Fig. 3 with the major shipping lanes off the coast of New Jersey and Delaware. Our sightings begin to stray within the lines of what is commonly referred to as ‘Tugboat Alley’; a shipping lane that is typically populated with tugboats hauling oil dredges and other barges. Offshore pelagic trips display whale sightings occurring within the traffic separation scheme. The migration routes of these animals intersect with these major shipping lanes, increasing the possibility vessel strikes.

Fig. 3) 2015 and 2016 Baleen whale sightings (M.n., B.a., B.p.) by Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center with overlay NOAA Nautical Chart 12214 (Updated 04/2017) created with Tableau by Melissa Laurino.

The most compelling theory that researchers are exploring is that these vessel strikes could be linked to ecological factors and changes (EcoWatch, 2017). Our oceans are currently rising and warming (whether our current government agrees or not!) which is inevitably causing a shift in the ecosystem as organisms try to adapt. Large baleen whales have a great deal of blubber that insulates them and allows them to spend their lives in cooler waters. As our oceans gradually warm, they will gradually adapt and shift their migration routes further north. More importantly, the ecological changes are affecting baleen whale’s prey and their location as well. NOAA Fisheries spokesperson, Jennifer Goebel, stated, “There may be changes in prey distribution that may be affecting where the whales are, and that may be contributing to a change in the whales’ distribution” (Fox News, 2017). Greg Silber, whale recovery coordinator at NOAA Fisheries adds, “It’s probably linked to resources. Humpback whales follow where the prey is.” (EcoWatch, 2017). Climate change not only affects these whales but all aquatic organisms. For example, Dr. Kawaguchi, a biologist in Australia who has been studying krill for twenty-five years, has come to the alarming discovery in 2015 that when exposed to carbon dioxide, krill eggs do not hatch. This will significantly reduce the krill population, the paramount organism that whales feed on. The abundance of krill will then vary depending on the area and water temperature and the whales will follow to where the krill is plentiful, which may lead them into and expose them to shipping traffic. These factors (climate change, prey distribution, alteration of migratory patterns) are all viewed as likely possibilities when it comes to the reason behind a spike in vessel strikes. Again, the team of scientists analyzing the UME is considering these factors throughout the investigation.

While those ten necropsied whales had an evident cause of death, the cause of death of the other whales has yet to be determined. So far, none have shown obvious reason regarding their demise, and they have yet to necropsy the twenty-two others. There has been speculation among scientists, as Goebel and Silber demonstrated,about what may have brought on this unfortunate series of events other than vessel strikes, such as lack of resources, bacterial or viral infections, other effects of climate change, and direct or indirect effects from humans. Direct or indirect effects from humans may consist of entanglement in marine debris, microplastics affecting the food chain, and harassment.

NOAA Fisheries is now determining the next steps for the investigation, and states that it will most likely take months or years of data collection and analysis. NOAA encourages to report a stranded or floating whale by calling the Greater Atlantic Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline (866-755-6622), the Southeast Marine Mammal Stranding Hotline (877-433-8299), or contact the U.S. Coast Guard on VHF Channel 16. It is also encouraged to donate to the Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Event Contingency Fund in order to help fund their research so they may determine the cause of the UME, and help save our beloved Humpback whale population.

Alayna Robertson

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Harriton High School / College of Charleston

Coauthor: Melissa Laurino

“2013-2015 Bottlenose Dolphin Unusual Mortality Event” NOAA Fisheries. 03 Sept. 2013. Web. 15 May 2017. <>.
“2016-2017 Humpback Whale Unusual Mortality Event.” NOAA Fisheries. 25 Apr. 2017. Web. 15 May 2017. <>.
Other References:

Changing Sea Surface Temperature and Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) abundance and its effect on the abundance of the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Cape May, New Jersey


As the fall progresses in Cape May New Jersey the sea surface temperatures in the waters surrounding the southern tip of New Jersey begin to drop steadily. Beginning at around 70 degrees in September and dropping to around 40 degrees in December. Many fish species are year round residents in the area and are not affected by this drop in temperature. However there is one species of fish that cannot sustain itself in the colder waters of winter and must migrate in order to survive and that fish is the Atlantic Menhaden. Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a schooling species of fish that is distributed from the Maritime Provinces of Canada to the east coast of Florida. Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) lives in estuaries, coastal embayments, and shelf coast habitats, where is is one of the most abundant species (Lozano 2012). As larval, Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) feed primarily on zooplankton. As they begin to grow, juveniles form gill rakers which allow them to filter feed. Adult Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) filter feed on small particles such as phytoplankton (Lynch 2007). Adult Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) migrate seasonally along the eastern coast of the United States, moving northward in the spring and southward in the fall (Lozano 2012).


The two main marine mammals that are found in the area around Cape May, New Jersey is the Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), and the Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). These two marine mammals feed primarily on Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) while in the waters around Cape May. Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) fall under the category of cetacean. Cetaceans are high trophic level marine predators that have their movement and habitat preferences related to that of their prey. Small cetaceans such as Atlantic Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) seasonally move inshore or offshore along regionally scaled coastlines (Henderson 2014). Cape May, New Jersey, and the southern portion on New Jersey, is a nursery location for Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) to raise their young. Mother Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) care for their offspring for the first three to four years of their life (Hill 2007). Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) use the shallow water around Cape May, New Jersey as a nursery site to raise their young, and are able to use the Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) as a main food source for their young.


Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) falls under the category of Baleen Whale, which means it has baleen plates in its mouth instead of teeth. All Baleen Species including the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) feed by swallowing both water and prey into their mouth and then filtering the prey from the water by pushing it through keratinized baleen plates that hang from the rostrum of the whale (Goldbogen 2013). This allows baleen whales to feed on large quantities of prey at once, and is considered one most energy efficient feeding methods in the animal kingdom (Goldbogen 2013). Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) spend the majority of the summer in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in the North Atlantic, and can also be found in the Gulf of Maine, Eastern Canada and Western Greenland. While in the Gulf of St. Lawrence Humpbacks feed on a variety of zooplankton and various species of schooling fish (Ramp 2015). The Gulf of Maine Population of Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) breed in the West Indies during the winter months (Ramp 2015).

Specific Aims:

  1. I will observe the abundance of Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) and its effect on the abundance of Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus) and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).
  2. I will observe the changing sea surface temperatures, and its effect on the abundance of Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus).

Experimental Design:

For this project I have developed a scale to determine the abundance of menhaden during a sighting of either bottlenose dolphin or humpback whale. When arriving upon a sighting the first two pieces of data that are recorded is the species that is being viewed and the geographic coordinates of the sighting. Then after recording the species an estimation is made of the amount of Bottlenose Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus), and Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) that is in the sighting. Often times when sighting a group of bottlenose dolphin there will be between 20 and 30 individuals. Once determining the size of the group the water temperature of the area is collected using a sensor on the boat. After all of these factors are determined the next piece of data that is focused on is the menhaden scale. There are two factors that are taken into account when recording the menhaden scale data the first is the abundance of menhaden on the surface. Menhaden when in the presence of a predator will often push towards the surface, and can be easily seen as a dark cloud moving through the water. Based on the size of the cloud and the amount in the area and estimation between one and ten is made. Then I look towards the depthfinder on the boat to determine the amount of menhaden that may be under the surface of the water, this is also an estimation between one and ten.

Expected Results:

Through this research I expect to see a positive correlation between the size of the group of marine mammals present in a sighting and the abundance of atlantic menhaden in the area. I also expect to see a negative correlation between sea surface temperature and abundance of Atlantic Menhaden, and marine mammals during a sighting. I also expect to  see an increase in the size of the groups of Atlantic Bottlenose dolphin (Tursiops truncates)  as the temperature drops and other species of baitfish begin their migration south. Leaving menhaden as their main source of food in the region.

-Zack Bellapigna

Endicott College, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center


Works Cited

Humpback Whale Washes Ashore In Sea Isle City, NJ; 09/16/16

On September 16th, a Humpback Whale washed ashore on 20th street beach in Sea Isle City NJ. The whale had been spotted earlier in the day off the coast of Strathmere, and eventually made its way down to Sea Isle City where it washed ashore. Crews responded immediately, and moved the whale further up the beach where it sat overnight. The following day, September 17th, a crew from the Marine Mammal Stranding Center arrived to perform a necropsy on the whale. While the whale was entangled in line, Bob Schoelkopf of the stranding center stated, “It’s really been dead to long to determine if being entangled in the line is what killed it”(2).  Through the necropsy, Schoelkopf was able to determine that the whale had been struck by a vessel, and believes that it may have happened after the whale had already died. The whale measured out at around 33 feet, and determined to be a young male(2).


Onlookers viewing the whale behind caution tape in Sea Isle City.

This was the second whale to wash ashore dead on the beaches of New Jersey this summer, so question is what caused these large creatures untimely death? There are several threats to Humpback’s that exist off the coast of New Jersey. One of the most prominent threats that exists is vessel strikes. While it could not be determined whether or not a vessel strike was the cause of death with this individual, there are several reported strikes of Humpbacks every year across the globe. The New Jersey coast is situated between two of the largest ports on the east coast, Philadelphia, and New York City. To allow for the transportation of goods between these two ports there are several shipping lanes situated relatively close to the shore off the coast of New Jersey. These deep water channels that are not manmade but naturally exist between 5 and 20 miles of the coast allow ships with deep hulls to navigate north and south safely. However these deepwater channels are also the preferred routes of travel when Humpback Whales migrate either north or south, as they allow for deeper dives.


These images demonstrate how both ships and whales use these lanes to travel.

In 2014 alone the port of New York/New Jersey handled 3,442,286 cargo containers, which was a 5% increase from 2013(1). With so much traffic moving back and forth through these shippings lanes, safe travel for Humpback’s is not possible.  Vessels such as Tugboats, Cargo  Container Vessels, and Oil ships, all pass through these channels and have been known to strike whales. The problem that exists before us is finding a way to protect these Humpback’s on their migration routes, and insure the safety of the species while still maintaining the shipping lanes that are crucial to or economic structure. We could find an alternative route for these vessels to travel upon that would have them keep a safe distance from the Humpback’s, however that will most likely place them in the path of other marine life. The truth of the matter is that we as a nation are going to continue to place whales and other marine life in harms way as we continue our industrial lifestyle, and we need to find a way to correct this.

-Zack Bellapigna, Endicott College,

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch & Research Center

Works Cited

“About The Port.” Port Of New York and New Jersey. N.p., n.d. Web (1)

Staff Report. “Young Humpback Whale Washes up In Sea Isle City.” Press of Atlantic City. N.p., 17 Sept. 2016. Web. 19 Sept. 2016. (2)