A few weeks ago, a small pod of right whales was spotted off the southern shore of the Vineyard. Since there are only about 450 Northern Atlantic right whales left in the world, this was a pretty rare (and pretty awesome, in the literal sense of the word) sight. Pete wrote a story about the sighting, and while making his calls, got in touch with the Provincetown Center for Costal Studies, who offered to give him a spot on one of their research trips.

So yesterday we drove up to Provincetown, which is at the very tip of Cape Cod, and spent four hours offshore as the PCCS researchers photographed whales (for IDing later) and collected copepod samples. I know we all learn in elementary school how baleen whales eat zooplankton, but seeing the samples of teeny copepods and thinking about how a many-tonned animal could possibly survive on those along was just mind-boggling.

It was also a little surreal just to see whales. I’ve never seen what I consider “real” whales–whales in the wild; the closest I’ve come were belugas and orcas at zoos and aquariums. And to see three species on my first trip out—there were also fin whales and minke whales in the same feeding grounds—was incredible. The right whales were a little smaller than I expected them to be, but fin whales are about 80 (!!!!) feet long. When they submerged, their bodies just kept going—no wonder people used to think they were sea monsters.

I watermarked these because it’s against the law to be within 500 feet of a right whale (they’re federally protected) unless you have a permit (which we did).

The dark blot in the background is a whale.

But they came a lot closer to the boat.

The white stuff is sea lice living in the calcifications on the whale’s head and body. I remain a little icked out by that fact.

Dolphins swimming around a submerging fin whale. It’s, um, big.

I wrote earlier that the whales were smaller than I expected. I didn’t get a sense for their actual size until I saw them breaching.

All in all, a very excellent assignment. It might be time to go re-watch Blue Planet…