Baldy Brings the Calf Count to 11!

Sometimes, the right whale calves seen in the Southeast US (aka SEUS, the only known calving ground) account for all the calves born that year- what you see down there is what the population gets! And sometimes, that number is added to well after the whales have migrated northward- maybe because observers weren't out surveying when those moms and calves were in the area, or those whales were outside of typical habitat or survey zones. Whatever the reason, a post-season increase is fine by us, and that's why we were excited to get word of a sighting of a new mom and calf pair for the year! This sighting brings the 2014 calf count from 10 up to 11!

Baldy has minimal callosity on her head. Photo: Yan Guilbrault, NEAq

The mom is Catalog #1240, named "Baldy" for her sparse callosity which makes her look bald in comparison to other right whales. The first sighting of her with this new calf was made during an aerial survey over the Great South Channel, an area east of Cape Cod.

May 8, 2014. Baldy skim feeding with her 9th calf in the Great South Channel. Images collected under MMPA Research Permit Number 1058-1733-01. Photo: NOAA/NEFSC/Peter Duley.

On board the flight was Allison Henry, a Fishery Biologist with NMFS' Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), who has been an aerial observer since 2003! Allison shares her description of this day over the water with us:

"After a lack of right whale sightings in the Great South Channel for the last few years, May 8, 2014 seemed to be the day the whales came “back”! The weather conditions were perfect and there were so many whales we had to land, refuel, and head back out to make sure we photographed as many as we could while it was still light out. Despite that we still ran out of light and time!

It doesn’t get much better than flying in late afternoon light over flat calm waters with 60+ right whales skim feeding everywhere you look. Unless you add in two mother and calf pairs… and notice that one of them is not one you recognize from the list of known mothers for the year! Luckily, Baldy has such a distinctive callosity pattern, we had a strong hunch it was her before we even landed and sent the photos to the New England Aquarium for confirmation. This is not the first time the NEFSC survey team has seen a mom of the year that was not seen in the SEUS. Though it doesn’t happen often, it’s an extra little thrill to know that our effort has helped add one more whale to a slowly growing list. That’s why all the aerial survey teams fly, and for all the sad and frustrating things we see, such as entanglements or carcasses, these sightings of new calves are a huge boost to morale.

Oh, and another cherry on our whale sundae was seeing the bowhead whale [previously sighted in Cape Cod Bay] skim feeding just a few miles from Baldy and her calf. Certainly one of the best flights we’ve had in a long time!"

April 12, 1974. A photo from the first sighting ever of Baldy, with her calf! Photo: Bill Watkins, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Baldy is one of the older Cataloged whales, which automatically makes her really cool in my book. She was first sighted on April 12,1974- that's just over 40 years ago!! The photo above is from that first sighting. Since the mean age of a female's first calving is 10 years and she had a calf in 1974, she could be 50 years old at the very least (we have no record of her prior to 1974, so we don't know how old she actually is). She is also a great-grandmother, and this 2014 calf is her 9th known calf!

Baldy's family tree is quite impressive!  Circles indicate females, squares indicate males, triangles indicate unknown sex. This diagram was created by two Calvineers, Meredith Houghton and Meredith Butler- students at The Adams School in Castine, Maine.

She often travels to the Bay of Fundy in the summer, so we're hoping that our upcoming field season allows us a sighting of this amazing, important member of the population with her newest offspring in tow!

- Marianna

*Special thanks to Allison Henry, Michael Moore, Bill Watkins, Meredith Houghton, Meredith Butler, The Calvineers, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for all their various contributions to this blog post!


Happy 20th Birthday, Shackleton!

For more than 30 years, researchers with the New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Program have been studying the North Atlantic right whale population closely, examining various aspects of their lives including behavior, movements, reproduction, and interactions with humans, including fishing and shipping activities. It is a privilege to study such a small population and to become intimately familiar with individual animals. A real treat for researchers is when we have the opportunity to bear witness to and celebrate milestones in their lives.

To that end, we would like to wish Shackleton, Catalog #2440, a very happy 20th birthday! Born in 1994 to right whale "Wart" #1140, Shackleton caused quite a commotion as a young juvenile when he swam up the Delaware River and was hit by a tugboat. Thankfully, Shackleton survived the ordeal. In recognition of his grand adventure and his ability to survive in the face of danger, he was named "Shackleton" after the great Antarctic explorer who survived his own ordeal in exploration.

What better way to celebrate his big milestone than to sponsor Shackleton through our Right Whale Sponsorship Program! A right whale sponsorship makes a great gift for holidays, birthdays, weddings, or any special occasion. For more information on sponsoring Shackleton, visit the NEAq Right Whale Sponsorship page.


What’s in a Name—New England Aquarium President is Honored

Among the many notable achievements in his career, New England Aquarium president, Howard “Bud” Ris,  probably never imagined he would have a North Atlantic right whale named after him! But after nine years at the helm, the Right Whale Team decided to name a whale "Bud" to commemorate his vital contribution to the Aquarium and his deep commitment to right whale research. When Bud attended his final board meeting as acting president and CEO of the organization last week, Dr. Scott Kraus, V.P. of Research, presented him with a plaque displaying the whale's photo and new name-- an honor that has only been bestowed on a few humans over the past 30 years.

 In this picture from 2012, Right Whale Catalog #1301 ("Half Note") on the left and Catalog #1158 ("Bud") on the right are seen associated with each other.

All North Atlantic right whales receive a four digit Catalog number which is used to refer to the whale in the field and in the Catalog database.  The Catalog number is essentially a way to track and organize all the sightings and life history of an individual whale.  In the early years (the 1980’s) of the Aquarium’s Right Whale Research Program, a few whales that were most commonly seen or that had a distinct physical feature were given names. Perhaps a scar looked like a Piper Cub airplane (Catalog #2320, "Piper"), or  two callosity islands were fused together to form a perfect heart (Catalog #1701 "Aphrodite").  Over the years more and more whales have been named.  In fact, the process of naming whales now is very official and democratic among the members of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, with an annual nomination and voting process.  The original ideals of what constitutes a good name still hold true: a name should represent a distinct physical feature that can be easily seen and distinguished in the field.

But in a few very rare cases, a whale has been named for a person who showed extreme dedication and support to the right whale cause, and this is definitely the reason we have named Catalog #1158, "Bud". She (yes, Bud is a female--the whale, not the human!) has a long history of being a good “bud” or “buddy” to another right whale, "Half Note", (Catalog #1301).  The two female whales have a long history of being sighted together and actually have the longest documented association of two individual North Atlantic right whales.  In fact, Aquarium researcher Philip Hamilton’s Master’s Thesis on right whale association highlighted this unique relationship between Half Note and Bud.

NEAq President Bud Ris holding his certificate of honor which names right whale #1158 "Bud."

You can see and learn more about Bud and other right whales by searching the online right whale catalog.



Endangered Species Day

Today (May 16) is Endangered Species Day. According to the Center for Biological Diversity we have lost approximately 1,000 known species in the past 500 years to extinction. As shocking as that number might seem, it doesn't take into account the thousands of  possible species that have gone extinct before ever being discovered.

Our favorite endangered species.

Can we say "Happy Endangered Species Day!"- or is that an oxymoron? I'm not happy that we have endangered species, but I am happy that we can take the time (even if it's just one day) to recognize all the hard work by the many people who help endangered species. I think today is a good day to reflect on all the things we can do to help endangered species both locally and worldwide. I know I can do more. Can you?

North Atlantic right whales are endangered, with a current population estimate of about 500 individuals. Please enjoy this video about some of the challenges, defeats and accomplishments of the Right Whale Research Program here at the New England Aquarium. If you're feeling inspired, consider sponsoring a right whale or subscribing to our print newsletter- 100% of the proceeds go towards our research.


Mothers That Amaze

We all know that it takes a lot of work to be a good parent, and Mother's Day serves as a reminder for us to reflect on the women who nurtured us into being. Here in the research office, Mother's Day not only gets us thinking about our own moms, but about our beloved right whales who have given birth this year. When the end of November approaches (signaling the start of the calving season), everyone begins to wonder who will be the first mother sighted. Since this population is so small, every birth matters and each sighting of a new calf is celebrated. We love when a female gives birth for the first time, and we love when a female gives birth for the fifth time!

Phoenix and her 2007 calf in the Southeast. Photo: Jessica Taylor

For the mother, giving birth to her 13-16 ft calf of 1,540-2,200 lbs is just the first step. Being born in the relatively warm waters of the Southeast US allows the calf to be comfortable while nursing itself into a blubbery babe, but there's no food in those waters for the adults. Mom will fast for months as her layer of fat sustains her while she nurses her offspring. Once the calf is large enough and waters warm with the spring season, mom will lead the calf northward along the east coast. This journey must be stressful for both, as young whales are susceptible to vessel strikes and entanglement in fishing gear. Miraculously, these pairs will reach the spring feeding grounds in the Northeast, where mom will start to replenish her blubber store. By the time the calf is fully weaned, she will have nursed for nearly 11 months and watched her calf grow into a 29-33 ft whale weighing 26,400 lbs or more. Mom will take at least one year to regain enough fat before even thinking about mating again!

Equator and her 2013 calf in Cape Cod Bay. Photo: Amy Knowlton

During this 2013-2014 calving season, ten mom and calf pairs were sighted! A few of them have been seen in New England waters already, and we hope to find some in the Bay of Fundy during our surveys this summer. The money raised by our sponsorship program helps fund our surveys and research, so if you're looking for a gift for your Mom this Mother's Day, consider a right whale sponsorship! Phoenix (Catalog #1705), Calvin (Catalog #2223) and Piper (Catalog #2320) are whales in our sponsorship program who have all successfully raised calves. Honor your mom with a gift that honors a mother of a different species! You will be helping to support the research and conservation efforts that attempt to make right whale mothers' jobs as easy as they can be in this urban ocean. 

Click here to sponsor a right whale for Mother's Day!