Canal Closed For Four Hours After Whales Sighted

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By: Michael J. Rausch
Published: 01/06/12

Traffic came to a standstill in Bourne for several hours Monday to accommodate the arrival of a couple of rare visitors.

The traffic was marine traffic, and the visitors were a pair of right whales who swam into the Cape Cod Canal. Someone living at the east end of the canal called the Army Corps of Engineers just before 8 AM and said they thought they saw a whale in the waterway.

The Marine Traffic Control Center at the Army Corps of Engineers on Academy Drive immediately closed the canal to boat traffic.

Cape Cod Canal Visitor Center Park Ranger Samantha A. Gray said the control center monitors the traffic of all vessels 65 feet and longer that moves through the canal.

“When something like a whale does come into the canal,” Ms. Gray said, “any large traffic requesting to come in would not be allowed in. We have to coordinate all that to ensure safety.”

Right whales are relatively friendly, often swimming right up to the side of a boat, and they swim within sight of shore, making them easy to spot. They were hunted to near extinction during the height of the whaling industry.

At present, there are fewer than 500 right whales in the North Atlantic, making them one of the rarest of marine mammals and placing them on the endangered species list. Three sightings were reported in Cape Cod Bay on December 15, and more than a hundred were sighted in Cape Cod Bay in a single day back in April.

Right whales are easily identified by the spout from their blowhole.

“They are unique in that when they exhale, their spout is a V-shape,” Ms. Gray explained, which was how they could be differentiated from other species of whale.

Dennis A. Arsenault was on duty at the Marine Traffic Control Center on Monday when the whales arrived in the canal.

“It’s not uncommon, but it’s not a daily occurrence,” Mr. Arsenault said about whales entering the canal.

He said there is a maritime rule in effect that says one cannot come within 500 feet of a right whale.

“Obviously, if you’re in the canal, there’s no way you’re going to go by this thing without being within 500 feet, seeing as the canal’s only 480 feet wide,” he said.

Mr. Arsenault said the Marine Traffic Control Center does not take extraordinary measures to move whales through the canal, such as pushing them out with boats. He said right whales are not fast swimmers, so they came in with the tide, and when the tide changed, “they went out with the tide.” The whales made it as far as the high wires by the Bourndale Herring Run, and at that point, the tide shifted.

“They typically don’t swim against the tide,” he explained. “We witnessed them eastbound a couple of times by the Sagamore Bridge,” he said, before they disappeared.

The canal was shut down for a total of four hours, Mr. Arsenault said. Two and a half hours of that time was spent keeping an eye on the horizon after the last sighting of the whales to make sure they were, in fact, gone.

“Even if they were just floating, it wouldn’t take two and a half hours to go from the Sagamore Bridge to Scusset,” he said.
Mr. Arsenault said that the Coast Guard was contacted about the sightings.

He said the Coast Guard was on-site with their boat, and the Marine Traffic Control Center had a boat in the water, and a duty ranger was out on land, “so we had three sets of eyes to just kind of track them.”

Calls about “something” being in the waters of the canal are common, Mr. Arsenault said. He said the Marine Traffic Control Center gets daily calls about logs, seals, and sunfish.

On Monday, he said they sent a patrol boat out on the water, and a duty ranger on land, and each confirmed they were right whales by the spouts.

He said there was a tugboat with a barge already inside the canal at the east end that could not turn around, so they had to escort the tug and barge through the channel.

“As [the tugboat captain] went under the Sagamore Bridge, he saw a right whale at the same time our patrol boat saw one up by the herring run,” Mr. Arsenault said, explaining how they knew there were two whales in the canal. He said about two hours after the whales were sighted, a fishing boat, some barges and a Coast Guard cutter were held up from entering the canal until the all-clear signal was given sometime around noon.

Shutting down the canal is an even rarer occurrence than the appearance of a right whale, Mr. Arsenault said. He said it is usually at the discretion of the mariner, the type of vessel that is being piloted, as well as what the conditions are when they want to go through, whether or not to traverse the canal.

“We’re open during a hurricane,” he said. “Fog, rain, snow, we’re open.”

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