Humpback Whales of Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary

By October 25, 2019 Uncategorized

In August of 2019, Mark and Rachel Rohr, with a conservation team on board SY Acadia, set sail with underwater photographer Keith Ellenbogen to explore the diversity of the marine wildlife just off the coast of Massachusetts. His project Space to Sea: A Photographic Journey into Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary focuses on using the art of underwater photography and environmental storytelling to raise awareness about what he describes as “one of the most extraordinary marine habitats the world.” This dynamic ecosystem includes apex predators such as great white sharks, mola mola (ocean sunfish), schools of mackerel, and an entire microscope ecosystem of planktonic creatures.

For the next three days, our assignment focused on photographing a variety of marine mammals such as humpback, fin and minke whales, and dolphins. Specifically, we were searching for a super group of humpback whales (over one hundred within a 2-3 nautical mile radius) actively feeding on schools of sandlance. Working alone or in smaller sub-groups (pods of 8-12) the humpback whales were “bubble feeding”. A process in which they descend beneath the surface, release bubbles like an underwater net to corral the fish. Then with their mouths wide open, they rise up to the surface, through the bubble-net feeding on plankton and small fish. It was one of the most extraordinary experiences — and it’s all off the coast of Boston and Cape Cod.


Sea conditions off the coast of New England are highly variable, making this project location, relative to others around the world, all the more challenging. Unfortunately, our trip was postponed by a day due to rough weather, followed by a clockwork curtain of fog. The fog would be present through the morning and each afternoon, demanding additional awareness of our navigation, with whales and busy shipping traffic along the coast. After a long day of searching with a 150-nautical-mile search area, our first glimpse of the humpback blows appeared, illuminated by the sun setting in a magnificent manner. The exhalations were accompanied by an echoing sound from the reverberation along the tips of the oceans waves.

Over the next two days, we were able to photograph large groups of humpback whales actively bubble feeding, with the occasional minke whale. At one time, we were surrounded by several pods of whales creating giant bubble nets across the vast open ocean. Between these feeding periods, we would observe playfulness, with whales breaching clear out of the water. In some cases, a few whales repeatedly breached up to ten times in a row, and others breached in unison, in which the sound of their body echoed across the ocean and their splash rose above the horizon.

During a dive expedition in the Galapagos with a focus on the remote Darwin and Wolf underwater world Keith Ellenbogen was brought into the Acadia team to help document the marine life throughout these two islands and the northern shores of Fernandina and Isabela. In a future plan to revisit in 2020 to promote the marine life and status of the Galapagos Islands, Mapelo, and potential coastal shark species of Panama.

Through discussion and presentations during that trip, a partnership formed and via invitation, Acadia had the privilege to assist with his photography in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary with a focus on the humpback whales and their tail-slapping bubble-feeding behavior.


Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is located 25 nautical miles east of Boston. The Sanctuary and the waters from Cape Cod south to Nantucket are vibrant and extraordinary areas of marine life, from the misunderstood great white shark, to ocean giants such as the humpback whale. This mind-blowing expedition alongside Keith’s educational presentations was nothing more than a great success, even with some challenges that included prolonged periods of fog grounded the spotter plane, preventing us from seeing the bow from the stern. We also had a slightly short ground swell from the east. Acadia and her owners valued the opportunity to view these animals, and more importantly, to join Keith in being part of the solution for this area. It was a great pleasure for us to assist Keith in the image making and story-telling process in his important project.

To learn more about his project visit

Acadia is a global voyaging private sailing yacht with a single goal: direct driven and passionate owners who wish for nothing more than healthier and more protected oceans. Acadia has a focus on conservation through providing the vessel as a platform for science and research, with access to remote locations as she sails the world’s oceans. With a focus on coral, ocean acidification, marine debris and shark conservation, she, her owners and crew work hard to also promote and make aware the status and the hard work of our partners. We are an expanding platform for all forms of research and conservation.
To discuss potential partnerships, funding or vessel time, email

Keith Ellenbogen is a celebrated underwater photographer, Assistant Professor of Photography at SUNY/FIT, Visiting Artist at MIT Sea Grant, and the recipient of a National Marine Foundation Ernest F. Hollings Ocean Awareness Award. Working with conservation- based organizations to showcase the visual complexity of the underwater environment, Space to Sea explores photography and environmental storytelling. Keith aims to spark imagination and transform the public perception about the surprising diversity of marine life off the coast of Massachusetts. Keith is also an adventurer, photographer and diver with his work as an underwater photographer for SY Acadia and her pacific itinerary.