Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
By: John Galluzzo

It's easy enough to hop on a whale watch boat and just enjoy the fun, trusting in the captain to bring you to the right place. There's no real need to know exactly where one is when the whales arrive, right? After all, it's all just water.

Isn't it?

Well, actually, there's some underwater biogeographic magic at work. If you're leaving from Plymouth Harbor by boat, you will most likely visit one of the top ten whale watching destinations in the world, Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Stellwagen Bank is an underwater plateau, a place where deep water currents  push nutrient-rich waters to the surface. Small fish, like sand lance, gather by the hundreds of thousands attracting myriad other links in the food chain. Terns, small coastal dwelling birds, join the many species of gulls that frequent the New England coast, in the feast. So do the whales. While many different whale species  feed near the bank, it's the humpback whales that steal the show. Once hunted extensively, humpback whales have gone from prey to entertainer.

The transformation took place in the 1970s when Massachusetts boat owners gambled that people would be willing to board their vessels for the chance to just see whales in their natural habitat. That hunch spawned a multi-million dollar industry. The timing coincided with the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Marine Sanctuary system. Think of them as seaborne National Parks, America’s ocean treasures with protections not given elsewhere, preserving wildlife and archaeological sites for future generations.

The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary’s designation by Congress in 1992 officially recognized this special place off our coast for its research potential, industry (the fish populations also thrive in the special conditions of Stellwagen Bank) and recreation. It's 842 square miles in size, and just loaded with seals, basking sharks, fin and minke whales, bluefin tuna, Wilson's storm-petrels and more. It is teeming with life on the wing and in the water.

But the fun of Stellwagen Bank sanctuary doesn't end when one steps back on the pier at Plymouth. Sanctuary staff creates and runs education and outreach programs throughout the year, and has recently created the "Fathom That!" audio tour and QR tag trail, reaching from Gloucester to Provincetown; check out the South Shore YMCA in Hanover or the South Shore Natural Science Center in Norwell for examples (bring your smart phone, if you have one).

Stellwagen Bank sanctuary's tale is told in shipwrecks and flukes, in swarms of shearwaters and schools of cod, and it's rewritten every day.

Best accessed by private boat or one of the many whale watches leaving Plymouth Harbor

For more information:
Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary
Fathom That! Audio tour #: 781.304.1013
Fathom That! Mobile website: http://bycell.mobi/wap/site/stellwagen



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