Aerial Team Conducts Northeast Canyons Marine National Monument Survey

The successful survey documented multiple sightings of ocean sunfish, sharks, dolphins and whales.

By New England Aquarium on Thursday, November 16, 2017

See caption below
A group of eight Risso's dolphins (Grampus griseus). As they age, the grey, pale-bellied adult Risso’s dolphins accumulate scars from tussles with prey and other whales that can make them appear almost entirely white. Photo Credit: Ester Quintana/Anderson Cabot Center/NEAQ

The Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium aerial team conducted a survey in the Northeast Canyons Marine National Monument on November 12, 2017. The objective of the survey was to document all marine fauna visible at the surface and any human activity in this marine protected area.

The Northeast Canyons is part of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument—the first Blue Park in the U.S. North Atlantic. It was created in September 2016 and is located about 150 miles off the coast of Cape Cod.

Map of the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Credit: NOAA/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Roughly the size of Connecticut, the monument features three underwater canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and four seamounts (extinct volcanoes) that rival the Rocky Mountains in their size and majesty.

An aerial survey at the marine monument is an all-day endeavor. The team left Boston around 5:30 a.m. and drove to Plymouth, where the survey plane (a Cessna Skymaster) was located. The plane took off around 7:00 a.m. and headed to Nantucket to top off the fuel tanks. Given that the monument is 100 miles offshore, we like to have fuel reserves for the approximate seven-hour survey.

  • Two people sitting in a cockpit
    Pilots Chris Kluckhuhn and Brag Boogs getting the plane ready for takeoff. Photo credit: Ester Quintana/Anderson Cabot Center/NEAQ
  • Small plane on the ground
    Plane refueling at Nantucket Municipal Airport. Photo Credit: Chris Kluckhuhn.
  • View of a pond and forested residential area in the fall, taken from a plane
    Aerial view of Plymouth as the plane takes off. Photo Credit: Ester Quintana/Anderson Cabot Center/NEAQ


We took off from the Nantucket Municipal Airport at 8:18 a.m. It takes about an hour to reach the monument, so we started our survey work around 9 a.m. We fly at an altitude of 1,000 feet (305 m) and a groundspeed of 100 knots (185 km/h), and we use all the latest advances in safety, including a ground contact who tracks our progress throughout the flight. We had good conditions all day, including good visibility greater than 5 nautical miles, low wave heights, and calm winds.

View of the ocean with clear skies
Plane heading to the Northeast Canyons Marine National Monument. Photo credit: Ester Quintana/ACCOL/NEAq.

We made 27 observations of marine life during the approximate four-hour survey, an extraordinary number for such a small area. This included sightings of bottlenose dolphins (25), common dolphins (58), Risso’s dolphins (37), Cuvier’s beaked whales (11), finback whales (4), and one sperm whale. Several animals were observed feeding and—except for fin whales and the sperm whale—all other groups contained calves or juveniles (based on body size and coloration).

Map of Northeast Canyons Marine National Monument Survey
Cetacean sightings (red dots) recorded during an aerial survey conducted on November 12, 2017. Tracklines (black) are designed to cover the monument area evenly. BODO = Bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus); FIWH = Finback whales (Balaenoptera physalus); GOBW = Cuvier’s beaked whale (Ziphius cavirostris); GRAM = Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus); SADO = Common dolphins (Delphinus delphis); SPWH = Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus); UNDO = Unidentified dolphins; UNMW = Unidentified medium whales. See general map (above) to see position of the canyons in relationship to the Atlantic coastline.

This is an extraordinary collection of species, because it shows that animals in this area are feeding at many different trophic levels. For example, fin whales feed largely on schooling fish and krill, whereas sperm whales and beaked whales feed on squid in the very deep waters of the canyons.

A fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), a group of Risso’s dolphins (Grampus griseus) and a sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) swimming near the surface. Photo credits: Paul Nagelkirk and Ester Quintana, Anderson Cabot Center/NEAQ

Beaked whales also feed primarily on squid, and less frequently on fish in deep waters. Risso’s dolphins consume octopus, cuttlefish, squid, and krill. Bottlenose dolphins and common dolphins have a more diverse diet that is dominated by fish. All combined, the sightings within this small area showed an extraordinary abundance and diversity of cetaceans, all likely feeding on the full range of whale and dolphin prey.

Aerial team Ester Quintana (chief scientist) and Paul Nagelkirk (observer) Photo credit: Richard Jackson


We also saw ocean sunfish, sharks, fishing gear, debris, and cargo and fishing boats (5). The majority of the fishing gear and vessels were located near the boundaries of the monument. We finished our survey around 1 p.m., and the team back was back in Plymouth at 2:20 p.m.

It is exciting to realize that during a single day in the monument we saw so much. The survey results highlight the importance of this protected area as a hot spot for marine mammals. Like our last survey out here, we continued to see a very high percentage of young dolphins and whales with their moms, enough to make us wonder if it qualifies as nursery for the shelf edge cetaceans.

These survey results provide further evidence that the protection provided by monument designation will continue to improve ocean resilience in the face of climate change, and will help to sustain the ocean ecosystems in the region.


Research That Drives Action

The Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life is the Aquarium’s dedicated research arm that uses marine science to protect animals and help others use the ocean responsibly.