Last month, we got some good news for ocean enthusiasts here in New England!  

In a rare sighting, a New England Aquarium research team spotted two endangered blue whales during an aerial survey of one of our national treasures: the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts National Monument.  

Photo: Blue whale, courtesy of Orla O’Brien, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts is located roughly 130 miles southeast of Cape Cod. The monument, roughly the size of the state of Connecticut, features incredible geological features that support a vibrant marine environment. The three underwater ocean canyons and four extinct volcanoes are astoundingly large. The canyons are deeper in some places than the Grand Canyon, and the seamounts are taller than any mountain east of the Rockies. These geologically profound features create ocean currents that sweep nutrients up through the water column, allowing an astonishing variety of marine life to flourish.

Dubbed the“Serengeti of the Sea”, this incredible underwater wonder was designated a marine national monument by President Barack Obama in 2016 to ensure that everything from the seabed to the surface was protected. It is the first and only marine monument created in the U.S. Atlantic Ocean.

Since its designation, scientists have flocked to this area, intent on learning more about this now protected ecosystem. The research team from New England Aquarium that spotted the blue whales is part of this broader push to understand more about the animals which inhabit this biodiversity hotspot.

While researchers have seen thousands of marine mammals crisscrossing the canyons on previous surveys, conclusively spotting blue whales, which are our planet’s largest animal, was a huge moment for the researchers. Adult blue whales can weigh up to 200 tons (the equivalent of approximately 15 school buses) and can grow longer than a full size basketball court. Even newborn blue whales are about the size of a fully grown hippopotamus

Photo: Blue whale, courtesy of Orla O’Brien, Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life

These majestic creatures have had a long and tough road since becoming the target of hunters looking to harvest whale oil in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Blue whale populations plummeted, and only after protection came in the mid-1900s, did the numbers start to improve. Unfortunately, the blue whale remains endangered

A rare sighting like this demonstrates the need for increased research to determine what drew these magnificent creatures to the monument and how the conservation of the area might aid in the species’ recovery.

To understand that, we need to know more about the whole ecosystem. The blue whales, along with hundreds of other whales and dolphins that the researchers spotted over the past few years during these aerial surveys, represent only a fraction of the amazing ocean life that calls the monument home.

Photo: Retriever Seamount, courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research

Deep in the canyons are more than 73 species of deep-sea coral, which provide a foundation for a vast array of deep sea life. Crabs, octopus, sharks and more rely on the ecosystem that these slow-growing, long-life coral create along the steep cliffs of the canyons and the boulders of the seamounts. By limiting human activity in the area, these animals are able to thrive and provide valuable insights to marine researchers.

Photo: Bamboo Coral on Retriever Seamount, courtesy of NOAA Office of Exploration and Research

The sighting of these endangered whales is a keen reminder that the Northeast Canyons & Seamounts Marine National Monument is providing a haven for ocean life in increasingly dangerous seas. The whales and coral that rely on the area's unique currents currently enjoy strong protections. We need to keep it that way, so whales can continue to frolic and coral can continue their slow growth -- and so we can learn more about the amazing world just off our coasts.