#23: The Rain Never Bothered Us Anyway (Roseway Basin)

After a two-day Shelburne respite from the open ocean, we ventured back out onto Roseway Basin on September 12th.  We surveyed the eastern side and it was very gray and overcast the whole day, without much to see.  Then, on the final watch of the day, Moe and Marianna spotted a whale blow and a shallow fluking dive: our first right whale on Roseway Basin this season!  It was a pretty big deal on the boat and immediately lifted the mood. Unfortunately the sun was setting when we first found the whale, so we lost daylight very quickly and eventually had to let the whale go without having shot the perfect photo series.  The important thing is that we were later able to identify the whale as Catalog #2350, an at least 24 year-old male last sighted in Cape Cod Bay in 2013.

Our very first right whale on Roseway Basin: #2350.  Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
Encouraged by our small victory, the following day found us starting in the same place where we left off the previous night, in hopes that our single sighting was not a fluke (no pun intended) and that more whales might be in the vicinity. And FINALLY some good luck kicked in and we found right whales almost immediately.  Our first right whale of the day was identified on the spot by Marianna as Catalog #2201, a 23 year-old male, who we documented last year in August in the Bay of Fundy (BOF). This whale is the last known calf of Fermata, #1001, the very first North Atlantic right whale to be cataloged. Fermata was last seen in BOF in 1992 with her fifth calf (#2201).  A week later, #2201 was seen without his mom, and sadly she has not been seen since.

The right flank scar helped identify this whale as #2201.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom
As we were working Catalog #2201, we saw multiple blows and right whale flukes nearby. Unfortunately, squalls were lining up on the horizon and our sea state dipped from manageable to sloppy. But after a slow season hampered by bad weather, we were not going to be distracted or intimidated from doing what we came there to do. We briefly photographed #3191 (a male at least 15 years of age) before another whale popped up with a severe fluke injury.

The horrifying remnants of this whale's fluke.  Photo credit: Hilary Moors-Murphy
It was right around this time that the first rain storm hit. But now, with only two photos of a probably lethally wounded whale, we would not be deterred! The key is to stick the camera inside your float coat to stay dry and then whip it out just in time to photograph a surfacing whale. Yet no matter how hard we tried, we ended up losing the injured whale in the rain. We hope that we'll be able to identify this individual based on small scars on the peduncle, and that this whale is seen again so that the injury and body condition of the animal can be better documented.

The squall passed soon enough and there were other whales in the area to photograph: Catalog #2018 (Dalmation), #3701 (Eros), #2790, and #3934.  Dalmation, named for the white spots on his lower jaw, is a 25 year-old male seen earlier this year off southern New England.  Eros, an 8 year-old male, seen last year out on Roseway Basin, is named after the mythological son of the Greek goddess Aphrodite, the namesake of his mother #1701.

Eros surfacing close to the boat.  Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
Catalog #2790 is a calving female at least 18 years old, who was last seen in the southeast with a calf this past winter. It was slightly unsettling for us to not see or photograph her calf (since most calves are not fully weaned by this time), but it should be taken into account that our sighting of her was less than one minute long and the weather conditions were poor.

Recent mother, #2790, seen briefly for a single surfacing.  Photo credit: Hilary Moors-Murphy
Catalog #3934, a 6 year-old male, is the eighth of nine calves born to #1334. His mother has a very interesting sighting history: with the exception of three sightings, #1334 only frequents the southeast calving grounds every few years when she gives birth to a calf.  This sighting history implies that she must go somewhere other than the Gulf of Maine region to feed.  However, it is interesting to note that her son has a more robust sighting history, including a handful of sightings in Cape Cod Bay and Roseway Basin.

#3934 raising his flukes high for a dive.  Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
All in all, we photographed a total of eight individual right whales that morning amidst several rain squalls and a rough sea state, but we all agreed that there were a couple more whales in the area that remained unphotographed.

Later on in the afternoon, we had two more right whales, both old males and familiar faces to this project. Catalog #1306 (Velcro) is an at least 32 year-old male with an extensive Bay of Fundy sighting history, and #1327 (Scoop) is an older male (at least 33 years old) seen last year in BOF.

Scoop (top) and Velcro photographed together.  Photo credit: Jen Gatzke

Scoop, lifting his ventral, left fluke lobe. The blunt, white fluke tip is a matchable feature. Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
As we were photographing these two whales, the fog rolled in. However, after reviewing photos inside the wheelhouse of the Shelagh, we noticed a small green line exiting the left side of Velcro's mouth. Fishing entanglements can be very serious and greatly impact the health and longevity of a whale, so we immediately went back to our previous position to try to relocate him for better documentation.

Notice the small green line exiting the left side of Velcro's mouth.  Photo credit: Jen Gatzke
Unfortunately, while the Shelagh is equipped with disentanglement gear, we learned from a disentanglement attempt back in 2013 that she is not the best platform to work from--she is too large and slow. Our colleagues up and down the East Coast usually use a small inflatable boat for this sort of work, so the most we could do in this situation was get more photos and video of the entanglement (similar to our documentation of an entangled right whale in 2014), especially since it was not a previously known entanglement case. Luckily, as we made our way back to where we had last seen the pair, one of them breached in the fog.

Either Scoop or Velcro breaching in the fog. Photo credit: Kelsey Howe
We attempted to better photo-document Velcro, but it was not long before the fog became too thick and unworkable. We had to call it a day and head for land, where we would spend the next two days at Cape Sable Island waiting for storms to pass.

We were so excited to finally be able to work whales and do what we had come all this way to do. There IS life on Roseway Basin and right whales still use this habitat, which is very gratifying and comforting. In total, we photographed 11 individual right whales in this two-day period, many of which were interesting and/or troubling sightings. It is never fun to find an entangled or wounded whale, but it is very important to document them because they exist out there, whether or not we know about it. The more we know, the better we can attempt to help and prevent these occurrences...or at least, that is the goal. And that is why we sometimes photograph through rainstorms.



#22: The Final Fundy Push

Early on September 22 as we were surveying the Bay of Fundy, we spotted the flukes of a large, diving whale and soon realized there was more than one whale in the area. We found two humpbacks and photographed them. As we were working them, we spotted a right whale close by, identified as Glacier (Catalog #1402).

Glacier's back scar is visible where the water starts to wash over his back. Photo: Samantha Emmert

Glacier is a 31-year old male last sighted in 2013 off the Northern Florida coast. He is named for a large white scar on his back that looks like melting glacier. When we first found him, he was fluking in a unique way that resembled tail slashing, and he also lobtailed briefly. We followed Glacier and soon found a second right whale, Comet (#1514). The two surfaced near each other at one point, but did not seem to be associated.

Comet took a minute to rest at the surface. Photo: Johanna Anderson

Comet is at least 30 years old and was last seen in 2014. He also has a distinctive scar on his back, from which he derives his name. By the end of the day these were the only right whales we found, but we did see a total of 202 harbor porpoise, as well as a few other humpback and minke whales.

The wind unexpectedly died down on the morning of September 25, so we decided to head out for our last afternoon on the Bay of Fundy. A team of six went out on the Nereid to survey North and East, and a team of two joined Chris on his boat, Jupiter, to survey South and West.

On the Nereid, we saw very few animals during our first few hours on the water. Then, Kelsey saw some whitewater in a seaweed patch, which typically indicates of the presence of an animal. We slowed down to identify the creature, and it turned out to be a right whale! It was behaving strangely, waving the tip of its fluke back and forth just above the water, then sinking for long periods of time without fluking.

We have a potential ID for this younger whale, but as of yet, the ID is not confirmed. Photo: Kelsey Howe

We had a difficult time getting ID-able photographs during this encounter and ended up staying with the whale for about an hour, without much success. We also saw a second right whale fluke a bit further away and photographed it from a distance, but were unable to relocate it. Even though these two sightings were frustrating and hard to work, we were excited that there were whales in the Bay! After leaving the whales, we continued our survey but did not see much more than harbor porpoise, puffins, and a basking shark breaching in the distance.

The Jupiter surveyed some new areas for the season and made a pit stop to check out the historic lighthouse on Gannet Rock (built in 1831!). Though they didn't have any luck in finding right whales, they did get some close looks at a pair of humpbacks, one of which lobtailed several times!

This humpback picked the perfect setting to lobtail. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

While crossing the Grand Manan Channel, we all were treated to arguably the most spectacular sunset of the season.

And it only got better.... Photo: Brigid McKenna

The wind looks like it will be blowing hard for the rest of the week, so sadly, the 25th really was our last day out on the water. The Nereid will be hauled out of the water and the field station will be packed up this week. The whales were few and far between this season, but we did our best to find the ones that did venture into the Bay of Fundy.



#21: Here We Go Again...Roseway Basin

After enduring a myriad of issues on our August Roseway Basin trip, including battling the fog monster and a broken generator, we placed all of our hope for whales on the September trip. Things could only get better…right? 

We had a slightly different crew this time around: Hilary Moors-Murphy from Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Jen Gatzke from Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), and Jerry Conway from Canadian Whale Institute (CWI) joined Captain Joe, Moe, Marianna, and me. We loaded the Shelagh and departed Campobello Island late in the afternoon on September 7th and headed southeast. 

Leaving Campobello Island and East Quoddy Lighthouse behind.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.

The plan was to steam through the night, arrive at Roseway Basin at dawn the following morning and begin surveying from there. The two takeaways from that first night: the Shelagh can handle some rough seas, and that eating lasagna for dinner will come back to haunt you in a Beaufort 6.

The seas slowly improved as we worked the southern part of the Basin on our first survey day.  We had a few dolphins, but besides that, it was relatively quiet out there above the surface of the water.  As the sun set, we decided to take a listen under the water.  Hilary, who specializes in acoustics, brought along a hydrophone array for us to listen to underwater ocean noise (and right whales vocalizing) in real time.

The hydrophone.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom

Essentially, she tossed the hydrophone over the side of the boat and slowly let out meters of cable.  From specialized acoustic software on her computer, she was able to record and actively scan for a variety of species-specific whale calls.

Hilary deploying the hydrophone off the stern.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.
Kelsey and Hilary looking for right whale calls.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.

Hilary deployed the hydrophone occasionally throughout the entire trip, but unfortunately the most we ever heard was a distant sperm whale and a few dolphin clicks and whistles. Nevertheless, it was great to have an alternative searching tool, especially when the fog rolled in on September 9th, eventually forcing us to head for the town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia for a few days.

The adorable town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia.  We appreciated getting to explore a different port of call this time around.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom

Shelagh at the dock in Shelburne.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.

Tune back in to find out what Roseway had in store for us on the second leg of our trip! Trust me, it is worth it.



#20 Bay of Warmth (Part 5): GSL Right Whales!

This is Part Five of a series of posts about surveys taking place in the Baie de Chaleur in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Click on the links to read Part One, Part TwoPart Three and Part Four!

After a beautiful afternoon with near ideal survey conditions we began our long trek from Bonaventure Island back to the Stonehaven dock. We encountered the (presumably) same fin whales again in the same area and continued our return in relatively quiet conditions. That is, until about 5:30 PM. We were traveling along the Quebec side of the bay and spotted a blow off the bow followed by a fluking dive. It was what we all had been waiting for: a North Atlantic right whale! This being the GSL team’s first sighting and all the excitement aboard the R/V Callisto was palpable. We quickly went into action exchanging our binoculars for cameras, recording time and coordinates, and keeping watch for it to reappear. We did not have to wait long for it to resurface and the rest of the sighting consisted of it curiously approaching our boat and diving at short intervals. We discussed the familiarity of its scars and callosity and concluded quickly that we recognized this individual: Catalog #1278.

Dorsal fluke scars of Catalog #1278 Photo Credit: Brigid McKenna

First seen in the Great South Channel in 1980, this adult male has an extensive sightings history in every known habitat over the last 35 years. One of the most interesting realization we had was that he was photographed about 4 miles from this site close to a year before, and had been seen a few times prior in the Gulf of St Lawrence. With no dedicated right whale effort in the Bay of Chaleur it is possible that this and other whales visit this area more frequently than documented and that this habitat could be more used than we thought.

Catalog #1278 off the stern of the R/V Callisto. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

We had one more survey day the following Thursday before returning to Lubec, and had our second whale of the trip encountered another old male very close to our first sighting (~6 miles), identified as Catalog #1307.

Catalog #1307 travelling west into the bay. Photo Credit: Brigid McKenna

This individual was first seen in 1974, and also has been observed in every known habitat over its 40 year sightings history. He actively avoided our boat, which may shed some light as to why he bears far fewer scars than #1278.

Fluking dive of Catalog #1307 off of the Quebec coast. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

Unfortunately high winds on Friday and Saturday prevented us from another survey prior to leaving. Given that both whales we observed were swimming into the Bay of Chaleur it is quite possible that more whales arrived after we departed. Hopefully with more effort and data collection we can figure out the significance and usage of this bay to North Atlantic right whales. 



#19 Bay of Warmth (Part 4): Gannets Everywhere

This is Part Four of a series of posts about surveys taking place in the Baie de Chaleur in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Click on the links to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three!

While hauling the R/V Callisto, Alex noticed an adult northern gannet with limited movement at the boat ramp. Upon approach he saw that there was a hook stuck in its wing with line originating from its mouth; the line wrapped the wing in such a way that it could not extend it and who knows how long it had been entangled like this. We knew that we had to do something to help this individual.

The injured gannet at the boat ramp. Photo Credit: Alex Loer
We promptly devised a plan to safely secure the bird and gathered the appropriate tools (gloves, wire cutters, towel and sunglasses as safety goggles) to remove the hook and monofilament line. Alex blocked its access to the harbor and distracted it so Monica and I could carefully capture it.

Monica assessing the hook in the gannet's wing. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

We successfully cut the hook and removed as much line as we could, and were happy to see the gannet flee to the water with its wings lifted. 

The newly freed northern gannet hastening away from our team. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

On Tuesday, August 25th, we had a great forecast so decided to travel to the northern opening of the Bay of Chaleur in an attempt to make it as close to the Gaspé Peninsula as time and weather would allow. We encountered some fin and minke whales, but other than that the survey was relatively quiet. We reached Percé in the afternoon and stopped for a quick lunch break and to take in the beautiful views.

Percé Rock off the Quebec coast. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

Here we got to watch northern gannets on Bonaventure Island, the largest colony in North America.
Males are competitive for prime nesting sites and are the principal nest builders using mud, grass, seaweed, and feathers. Northern gannets are monogamous and long term pairs often use the same nest for years and potentially mate for life. Both parents incubate the single egg and are active in feeding the chick.

Gannets nesting on the cliffs of Bonaventure Island. Photo Credit: Alex Loer
It was amazing to see the white bodies crowding the cliffside and the active scene on the island and in the air. As we watched the gannets on and around Bonaventure we pondered (and hoped) that the one we had helped earlier in the trip was there and reunited with its mate. After this refreshing break we continued our tracklines back towards our dock and scanned the water for what we had come to find- a right whale.