Sponsor a Right Whale: Shackleton

Sponsoring a right whale through the New England Aquarium supports the critical research we're doing to protect this endangered species. This holiday season, give a sponsorship! It's a gift that gives back to our blue planet. Today's post introduces one of the whales available for sponsorship: Shackleton

Shackleton the right whale (Catalog #2440) was named after the Antarctic explorer, Sir Ernest Shackleton. There's a good reason why: when Shackleton was just a one year-old, he swam up the Delaware River and made it as far north as Camden, NJ!

Shackleton in the Bay of Fundy. Photo: New England Aquarium

His adventure lasted for days, during which he was hit by a tug boat (it did not result in any serious injury). Fear of another vessel strike remained constant, and concerns for his health grew as he swam further upriver, since the makeup of the water was becoming more fresh (right whales are made for the salty sea!). The news footage below is from a recording (remember VHS?) from this ordeal:

Luckily, Shackleton found his way back to the Atlantic Ocean, where he faces other sorts of threats. He survived a second vessel strike, which was more significant and left a line of propeller marks on his body. He has also been through at least three different entanglements in fishing gear. Since he's overcome quite a few obstacles, we had to celebrate this year's milestone: Shackleton turned 20 years old!

Healed propeller cuts left substantial scars on Shackleton's body. Photo: New England Aquarium

- Marianna


Sponsor a Right Whale: Piper

Sponsoring a right whale through the New England Aquarium supports the critical research we're doing to protect this endangered species. This holiday season, give a sponsorship! It's a gift that gives back to our blue planet. Today's post introduces one of the whales available for sponsorship: Piper.
Piper is named for a small scar on her left flank. With some imagination the scar looks like a small airplane- a Piper Cub.  Unfortunately, she is now easily recognized in the field not for the little "Piper Cub" scar but more for her extensive scars, divots and marks left by multiple entanglement events (and a tagging event).
Piper (Catalog #2320) is named for one of her many scars.  On her left flank is her "Piper Cub".
Piper is an adult female that is at least 21 years old.  We don't actually know how old she is because she was never seen as a calf. Today Piper is successful reproductive female but there were times when researchers thought Piper's future was grim.

Shortly after being added to the Right Whale Catalog as # 2320, Piper was spotted entangled. The year was 1994 and only a single year had pasted since Piper was first documented by researchers. Her entanglement trailed out of the left side of her mouth. Was it just a short piece of line stuck in her baleen, was there a large chunk of gear in her mouth, or worse, had she ingested gear?  The entanglement persisted through much of 1995, but thankfully at some point late that year she became gear free. Things were looking up for the young female. She was documented in the spring feeding grounds of the Great South Channel and Cape Cod Bay, and in the summer habitats of the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin. She was even seen a number of times in the wintering/calving grounds of the Southeastern U.S, although she had yet to be documented with a calf.  

Piper in 2004, Roseway Basin. Photo: Lindsay (Hall) Cooper-New England Aquarium

August 2, 2002 was a normal day for the research team on the R/V Neried in the Bay of Fundy. The team photographed many right whales that day and amongst them was Piper! As a young female she was important to the small, recovering population.  Researchers hoped that Piper would grow to be a successful reproductive female for the population.

However, just two days later a call came in from a Nova Scotian whale watch boat to report that they had sighted an entangled right whale. It was Piper!

Piper in the Great South Channel (east of Cape Cod, MA) in 2004. Photo: Monica Zani - New England Aquarium. Photo taken under scientific permit issued by NOAA.  Permit #655-1652.
This time the entanglement was worse; it was more complex and again it involved the mouth. Over the next couple of years, Piper would be documented in her normal habitats. She also became the subject of several unsuccessful disentanglement attempts. As her entanglement persisted, researchers worried about her as there was cause for concern for her long-term health. In the spring of 2005 there was a small glimmer of hope when Piper was photographed in Cape Cod Bay. The images were of poor quality and researchers could not determine if the entangling gear was present.  Could she be gear free?

Researchers would have to wait a long nine months before the answer was clear. In January of 2006, a New England Aquarium aerial survey of the wintering/calving grounds of Georgia and Florida photographed Piper. Our photographs confirmed it—Piper was gear free AND she was with a calf! 

 Piper is seen here in 2009 with her second calf .  Photo: Monica Zani - New England Aquarium.  Photo taken under scientific permit from NOAA. Permit #655-1652-01.
Piper became one of the team's Sponsorship whales because she truly has a story of survival. She is one of the team's favorites whales and she is known to travel to all five of the known right whale habitats, which allows us to provide numerous updates on her.  Piper has survived two entanglements and has contributed three calves (2006, 2009 and 2013) to the population in her relativity short life! She is perhaps as strong as the little airplane she was named for.

 Photo: Kara Mahoney-Robinson - New England Aquarium.  Photo taken under scientific permit from NOAA. Permit #655-1652-01.
- Monica


Sponsor a Right Whale: Calvin

Sponsoring a right whale through the New England Aquarium supports the critical research we're doing to protect this endangered species. This holiday season, give a sponsorship! It's a gift that gives back to our blue planet. Today's post introduces one of the whales available for sponsorship: Calvin.

When asked to talk about the challenges that North Atlantic right whales face, our team often brings up Catalog #2223, named Calvin, because her story encapsulates elements of threat and resilience that right whales experience. Sadly, it was when her mother's life ended that Calvin's story really began.

Calvin and Delilah (diving) in the Bay of Fundy, August 1992.

Calvin was born in 1992 to Delilah, a female first seen in 1981. During their first summer together in the Bay of Fundy, Delilah was struck by a large ship. Her death was not immediate, but the blunt force caused her to hemorrhage. A boater on the water that day photographed Delilah violently thrashing before she finally stopped breathing and became still. Delilah had died from ship strike with Calvin by her side. With no mother to guide her through the ocean and no milk to help her grow, researchers didn't think Calvin would survive—but amazingly she did.

Calvin, all grown up! 

Calvin showed resourcefulness and a surprisingly independent nature, and so she was named after the character in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes. Curating the Right Whale Catalog has allowed us to watch her become an adult and follow her exploits in various habitats. In 2000, she became entangled in fishing gear, but luckily was disentangled by the Center for Coastal Studies in 2001. She still bears the scars on her head, body and peduncle from that experience. Mind-bogglingly, based on our team's scar coding analysis, we know that wasn't Calvin's first entanglement—that occurred even before she arrived in the Bay of Fundy as an 8-month-old! We know that she's been through at least four other entanglement events as well. Unfortunately Calvin's multiple entanglements don't make her an anomaly, as 59% of the population have also been entangled more than once.

Fluking in the Bay of Fundy reveals entanglement scars on Calvin's peduncle.

Happier news arrived in December 2004 when Calvin became a mother for the first time (of course her calf was named Hobbes!) and she brought her calf to the Bay of Fundy, just as her mother had done 13 years earlier. She birthed her second calf in 2009, and perhaps she will give birth to her third calf this winter! Despite the sad circumstances in her life, she offers hope for the future of this species.

Calvin and her first calf in February, 2005.

How has our research benefited from studying Calvin, and how has Calvin benefited from our research? Our scientists were part of the team that necropsied Delilah to discover how she died, which later helped illustrate the troubling issue of ship strikes and influenced efforts to move the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy. Philip, Marilyn and Scott published a paper on right whale weaning age (which included Calvin's case), and expanded what the scientific community knew about the age a calf could successfully wean. Scarring analysis work teaches us that Calvin has been entangled six times, which opens our eyes to this growing problem, and our Catalog work reveals that she is due to have another calf, which gives us something to look forward to.

Please consider sponsoring Calvin! Your sponsorship donation directly funds our program and helps us advance our research so we can aid conservation efforts. Thank you!

- Marianna and Marilyn


#26: Night of the Living Dead Whale!

As the end of October approaches, many cultures around the world will be honoring their dead during observances like Allhallowtide and Dia de los Muertos. Although the North Atlantic right whale population offers us a large pool of deceased individuals to remember, this year we have reason to celebrate the opposite: Catalog #4160, who was thought likely dead, is indeed alive! *cue spooky music* Let me explain:

December 2010: Sea To Shore's aerial survey team discovers Gannet (#2660) with a new calf (#4160) off the coast of Georgia. About a month later, the healthy pair is seen by the Florida Fish & Wildlife aerial survey team- Gannet nurses her son and he grows larger.

Gannet lies on her back, cradling her new calf in the waters off Florida. Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Taken under NOAA Research Permit #549-1759.

April 2011: Gannet and her calf have migrated safely from the Southeast all the way to Cape Cod Bay, where they are seen together by the Center for Coastal Studies.

July 2011: The calf is seen in Cape Cod Bay again, but this time Gannet is nowhere to be found. A calf alone at seven months old does not bode well, as calves will often nurse for up to one year before weaning. The outlook for this young whale is made much worse by the fact that #4160 now has numerous large wounds from an entanglement in fishing gear. The entanglement event is a possible cause for the separation of Gannet and her son. This is the last sighting of #4160, and his survival seems unlikely.

Gannet's calf, #4160, alone and with raw entanglement wounds. Photo: Center for Coastal Studies. Taken under NOAA Permit #932-1905.

September 2011: Gannet is sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the Bay of Fundy during this month. She has not reunited with her calf. Gannet bears large entanglement wounds, new since the April sighting- it's possible that mom and calf experienced their entanglements at the same time. This is the last sighting of Gannet.

A sighting of Gannet in the Bay of Fundy proves that she, too, had recently suffered a severe entanglement. Photo: Tracy Montgomery, New England Aquarium.

Fast forward to August 2014: The Shelagh crew patiently tracks a whale that is traveling subsurface on Roseway Basin. After several attempts, photographs are finally collected before the whale disappears on another 18 minute dive. It's noted that the individual has entanglement scars and looks young.

#4160, photographed for the first time in three years. Not an easy target, either! Photo: Philip Hamilton, Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium.

It wouldn't be until we were back in the office that we would have time to work on figuring out who that young individual was- matching is tricky work when the last photos you have are of a calf from three years ago! But the callosity pattern was there, the right lip ridges matched, the entanglement wounds had healed but the scars lined up- we had seen #4160!

Images on the left were taken by Center for Coastal Studies in July 2011 (under NOAA Permit #932-1905). Images on the right were taken by Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium in August 2014. Looks like a match!

Though he isn't the healthiest looking animal, the fact that #4160 is alive amazes us! He represents a flicker of light during these past few months of darkness. Over the past six months three new entangled whale cases were discovered (with 12 cases currently open), and since July, four dead right whales have been found; while cause of death is unknown for two of the whales, the bodies of the other two were wrapped in fishing gear.

Gannet still has not been seen since September 2011, but now that we know #4160 is still kicking we are more optimistic that she may prove herself to really have nine lives (based on scarring history, we know that Gannet has been entangled at least four times). For now, we are content to focus on the fact that #4160 is alive- and there wasn't even a Dr. Frankenstein or a spell for resurrection involved (that we know of, anyway!).



#25: Return to Roseway Basin

After some time spent in Lubec after our first Roseway Basin voyage, the team prepared to depart for another two week trip offshore. On September 7, we pushed off the dock on Campobello Island and headed across the Bay of Fundy towards Yarmouth, N.S. During this transit we saw (but were unable to photograph) one right whale; we were disappointed but not surprised that we didn't see more, as the Nereid team had seen only a handful of whales during their last couple of surveys.

A rolling, flipper slapping humpack. Photo: Kelsey Howe

Nearing sunset, our observers spotted several playful humpback whales, and since we hadn't seen much action all day we steered the Shelagh towards them. We all had a blast photographing and watching them as they flipper slapped, lobtailed and interacted with each other. With flukes under the rising moon and sinking sun, it was a picturesque way to end our survey for the day.

One playful humpback! Photo: Kelsey Howe

We continued transiting towards Yarmouth- this destination was an important one because an AIS specialist lived there and our boat's AIS wasn't working properly. We tied up at the Yarmouth dock around 3:30 AM on Monday.

The Shelagh tied up in Yarmouth.

Once our AIS had been tinkered with and operating correctly, it was the weather that kept us ashore. We made the most of our time by doing boat chores and exploring downtown Yarmouth, which many of us were visiting for the first time.

Captain Joe reconfigures our AIS wiring while modeling our stylish Right Whale shirt!

We had high hopes as we left the Yarmouth dock on Wednesday morning, as the forecast was calling for light winds in the afternoon. As it often goes though, the light winds were not very light and we had a rough time at sea with very few sightings. Large swells continued the next day and made our time on Roseway Basin uncomfortable- the motion in the ocean was not favorable to our stomachs! With increasing high winds in the forecast, we found ourselves back in port late on Thursday night- this time at Cape Sable Island. Our local friend Wanda took us grocery shopping and introduced us to Dan's Ice Cream Shoppe in Barrington Passage (their ice cream is fantastic and officially "Right Whale Researcher Approved!"). In return, we attempted to take Wanda out to look for whales close to shore on Saturday, but the seas were not favorable and we didn't stay out very long.

The buoys (pictured on the right) snuggled safely back on the boat. 

At 4 AM on Monday, we departed Cape Sable and began surveying Roseway Basin when the sun rose. Along the way, we retrieved the two hydrophone buoys that we had deployed on our first Roseway expedition. The acoustic tracks that were recorded will be analyzed for whale vocalizations, so we're all curious to learn how many right whale calls were heard!

Sawtooth at the surface. Photo: Johanna Anderson.

Our first and only right whale on Roseway Basin was seen the following day. He was visible from a couple miles away because he was repeatedly breaching. The team was thrilled to have a right whale sighting, but we all laughed as soon as he fluked- we had a sighting of "Sawtooth" (Catalog #3714), named for his memorable sawtooth fluke edge. Sawtooth had already been seen a few times by the teams in the Bay of Fundy, so while we weren't documenting a new whale for the season, it was great to document the movement between the two habitats!

Notice the "sawtooth" fluke edge. Photo: Kari Signor.

Because there was a right whale in the area, we decided to do a plankton tow to see if there were any copepods in the water- copepods make up the majority of the right whale's diet. Spooning our sample into the storage container, it looked like there were some copepods, but the experts at Dalhousie University will inspect the sample thoroughly to determine what exactly was in the water column.

Moe and Kelsey handling the plankton tow sample.

Leaving Roseway Basin and transiting across the Bay of Fundy, we would come across another right whale. Sadly, this right whale would turn out to be severely entangled in fishing line. As of yet, Catalog #3279 has not been seen again. You can read about this encounter here. While it was a depressing way to end our voyage, all in all we had a successful trip- we collected a plankton sample, retrieved both hydrophones, and surveyed the most ground we could with the weather we were given.