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Here in New England the coast varies from a southerly sandy beach to a rocky northern beach. The state of Rhode Island is quite rocky along its coast and north of Boston it is pretty much all exposed rock. South of Boston there is a great deal of glacial sand that forms both the substrate of the ground and the soft, sandy, and malleable, stuff of the beaches, all the way past the Carolinas to Florida – excepting the Rhode Island shoreline. This sand moves easily with storm-driven waves, the pummeling by rain drops, and the twice daily energy of the rising and ebbing tides. The olden days glaciers came down from the north and ended for the most part somewhere near a line from Boston to Albany, an east-west boundary that marks the lower edge of the icy invasion. Out on the eastern end of that line is now Cape Cod; a seventy mile long arm of glacial deposited and sifted sand reaching east and then north and finishing with a curled hand out at Provincetown. Just to the south of the Cape are the Islands of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.
The very shape of this sand bar presents a protective barrier to the populated coast line and also serves as a trap for marine creatures that don’t carry Google-Earth maps. We get a lot of wind from the northeast; much of our weather driven catastrophes are northeasters. These winds drive water into the bended arm of the Cape and deposit all sorts of birds, reptiles and mammals for us to be amazed by. A northeaster will have bird watchers out in the storm looking for sea birds driven to land and into Cape Cod Bay; birds that fly in a big loop looking to exit this constraining land. This is when murres, guillemots, razorbills, jaegers, puffins, and a few others are likely to be seen from shore. At the same time sea turtles that have been feeding along the Gulf Stream and following warm patches of water in all directions can be driven in along the beaches. In late fall we see dozens and dozens of Kemps Ridley, Green and an occasional Leatherback forced up onto the cold beach.
The marine mammals we see in this area (Harbor and Gray Seals; Atlantic White-sided and Short-beaked Dolphins; Fin, Humpback, Minke, Atlantic Right, and the occasional Sei Whales) are all good swimmers and not directly impacted by the movements of the ocean’s surface water. However, the water does move, the prey often travels with the water, many of these mammals are migratory and arrive here coincidentally with a burgeoning food supply. It is the migratory ones that get trapped inside the reach of Cape Cod. They might be headed down the coast, past Boston Harbor and Minot Light and then unknowingly into Cape Cod Bay. They hit the southerly end and I suppose many turn around and swim out, but many follow shallow water and get isolated on sand bars as the tide drops, especially within another hook that reaches westward from the eastern edge of Cape Cod Bay in Wellfleet kind of a fish-hook like barb within Cape Cod Bay. In much of this area you can be standing on quartz sand at low tide and have about eight feet of water at high tide. Maybe the term migratory isn’t quite appropriate for some marine mammals – the dolphins move a lot following food. The whales we see are really migratory as they head south in the fall and return in the spring. They are predictable where the dolphins are not.
Below are a few of the dolphin types that I have encountered and a story or two about Cape Cod dolphins – maybe whales and sea turtles will follow. The image at the head of this post shows a Short-beaked Common Dolphin with the letters IFAW painted on its side. IFAW stands for the International Fund for Animal Welfare. It is a truly international organization with a string of wonderful successes in the conservation/wildlife arena. It may be marine mammals in Cape Cod but it is also elephants in Uganda, and habitat in Kenya, and tigers, penguins, seals, and more and more elephants. Here on the Cape where we may have 400 strandings in a year IFAW is ever alert to get the animals safely back into the water away from sand bars and shallows.