#18: A Feeling of Emptiness

We had a stretch of good weather forecast for last Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.  We were all excited for multiple boats on the water, good weather, long days, and lots of whales.  On Sunday we surveyed the western side of  the Grand Manan Basin with the  R/V Nereid.  On Monday, both the R/V Nereid and the R/V Selkie were on the water and completed an extensive survey of the basin in excellent sighting conditions.  Teams on both boats did get the opportunity to see a sperm whale  and a large (200 plus) pod of Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins. On Tuesday the R/V Callisto joined the survey effort and between all three teams we searched far and wide for right whales.  The Callisto crew and Selkie  crew went south of Grand Manan to an area called Grand Manan Banks. The Nereid surveyed far north and east (beyond the Bay of Fundy shipping lanes).  While the two boat teams on Grand Manan Banks sighted great numbers of humpback whales (30+) the Nereid team was faced with an almost empty feeling Bay of Fundy.  However, the crew was treated to an exciting sighting of approximately 30 white-beaked dolphins.
White-Beaked Dolphins swimming of the bow of the R/V Nereid were the highlight of our survey effort last week.
 Photo: Monica Zani/New England Aquarium

Update on our offshore team: The Shelagh and the offshore crew were tied up for a couple of days in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia  but departed Yarmouth in the early morning hours of Wednesday.  They surveyed Roseway in a 3-6 foot rolling ground swell and reported no large whales of any kind.  They will continue survey effort through Thursday (I will report details of that survey soon) and then head to Cape Sable Island for fuel and rest.  The weekend looks unfavorable for any survey effort both in the Bay of Fundy and offshore on Roseway Basin.



#17: Two New Entanglement Cases

On September 5th, the Nereid crew sighted an entangled 4 year old male, #4001, 2010 calf of Aphrodite, #1701. This animal had a single wrap of heavy rope over the top of the head and through the mouth. No trailing gear was detected (although the higher sea state precluded a careful look) and it is not known if the flippers are also entangled.

The Campobello Whale Rescue Team was notified and came out to the location but despite a lot of searching, relocation of this animal after it dove proved challenging - all the animals seen that day were on long dives and travelling far distances. Therefore, no disentanglement efforts were carried out. And this animal has not been seen since despite a lot of survey effort in the Bay.

#4001 sighted entangled in the Bay of Fundy
We are concerned about the fate of this animal as at only 4 years old, he is still growing and the line could become embedded and potentially lethal, a pattern we have seen with other right whales with rostrum wraps. To top off this unfortunate news, we learned that on September 4th, a Canadian patrol aircraft sighted a dead, entangled right whale south of Newfoundland well offshore and unable to be retrieved. The carcass was fairly decomposed and will probably not be able to be matched to the catalog.

Both of these events highlight the fact that entanglements are now the biggest concern for this small population (vessel strikes have been much reduced due to effective regulations - see paper link below). These two entanglement cases are the tip of the iceberg for this species - we know that 83% of the population has evidence of entanglement interaction based on scars and many of these animals have been entangled more than once (two animals as many as seven times!). We also know that injuries have become more severe in recent years perhaps a result of changes in fishing distribution and an increase in rope strength. There are likely many more right whales dying from entanglement than are documented and these events occur all along the eastern seaboard where ever fixed fishing gear occurs. There clearly is much more work to be done to better understand and find ways to mitigate entanglements to help this species endure.

To read more about entanglements and vessel strikes, here are two papers that NEAq team members have been involved in:


Ship strikes


#16: Roseway Basin- the last leg

After working so hard, the team felt lucky to have a full day off on Cape Sable Island. A local friend of the project, Wanda, was kind enough to take some of us grocery shopping for some essentials (eg: potato chips and chocolate bars). Since a few of us had never ventured beyond the dock at Daniel's Head, Wanda took us on a mini tour of the area, making stops at two of the shipyards where impressively large fishing vessels are built, a house where a fin whale skeleton was laid out to decorate the front yard, and of course, Tim Horton's for coffee and donuts! Some of the team attended a boat race later in the day, while others hung back to get some quiet reading time in. It was great to feel slightly more rested before tackling the last leg of our trip.

Fin whale skeleton- a different kind of lawn ornament.

We left Daniel's Head at the crack of dawn the next day on August 24 to steam south towards the eastern edge of Roseway Basin. This day held few right whale sightings for us- strong winds and a swell obscured animals at the surface, making them difficult to track and collect photos. Two of the four whales we photographed were very familiar to us- Aphrodite (Catalog #1701) and Caterpillar (#3503).

Caterpillar, not exactly crawling away. Photo: Philip Hamilton

The seas calmed overnight, and we woke on August 25 to a beautiful sea state 1. As soon as Philip and Marianna got on watch, blows were sighted and the rest of the crew were woken up to help with documentation. We had about five whales in close proximity all traveling in the same direction, but each surfacing at different times. Our photographers and whale watcher were kept on their toes- it was almost like playing that whac-a-mole arcade game! As we continued westerly on our survey, sightings became less frequent, and the rest of the day was pretty quiet.

Catalog #1304 fluking. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Our final day on the western edge of Roseway Basin would also be a quiet one- only one right whale was seen! This young whale was also travelling, but we were able to collect photographs before he/she disappeared.

A unique look at a right whale swimming beneath a glassy sea. Photo: Kelsey Howe

After long hours of survey with very few sightings to record, a small Kemp's Ridley turtle was spotted amongst some seaweed close to the Shelagh. Concerned due to its lack of movement, we turned around to check it out. It looked as though this turtle had been taste-tested, as teeth marks were seen on the carapice- we're guessing this is why the turtle appeared to be in poor health. Troubled but unable to help, we sadly had to leave this endangered turtle behind.

Injured Kemp's Ridley sea turtle. Photo: Kelsey Howe

A wall of fog met us as we wrapped up our Roseway surveys, and soon we were travelling home under a starlit night. Captain Joe manned the helm round-the-clock as each of us took turns keeping watch with him. Arriving back at port on Campobello Island in the morning, the crew organized gear, inventoried non-perishables and packed our belongings. It would only be a matter of days before the second offshore journey would begin and the Shelagh would be surveying Roseway Basin once again...

The Shelagh crew celebrates the end the first offshore expedition. Photo: Jerry Conway



#15: Roseway Basin - Part 3

We began the following day with an early deployment of our second acoustic buoy.  By this point we were a well-oiled machine, so it was quickly and successfully deployed before we hopped back on track to continue searching for whales.

The morning deployment.  Photo by Marianna Hagbloom.

After a brief fog interlude, we emerged to find our first whales of the day in the northern central area of Roseway Basin. The whales tended to be spread out in small aggregations and were only at the surface for short periods of time. In other words, they kept us very busy and made it as difficult as possible for us to work them. We did identify a handful of the whales as familiar faces from the Bay the previous week, including Aphrodite (Catalog#1701)- whose son we had seen on Roseway a few days prior!

A familiar face from the Bay of Fundy and a regular resight throughout our two weeks on Roseway: Aphrodite (Catalog#1701).  Photo by Kelsey Howe. 

Some other old friends were also around: Starboard (Catalog#3603) named for its missing right fluke, Marble (Catalog#2602) who was one of the handful of right whales documented in the Bay last season, and Skittle (Catalog#3260) named for its bowling pin/"skittle"-looking callosity.

Marble (Catalog#2602) preparing to dive.  Notice his white chin through the water.  Photo by Kelsey Howe.

For most of the day, there was shallow feed on the depth sounder (between 10-20 fathoms) and several whales were photographed with their mouth open, which suggests that they are finding some sustenance out on Roseway.

Open mouth behavior that suggests feeding is occurring.  Photo by Kelsey Howe.

Our busy and colorful depth sounder.  Photo by Philip Hamilton.

On our next offshore trip in September, we are planning to tow for plankton to find out specifically what all this feed in the water column actually is. We ended up with over 40 individual whales for the day and worked them until dusk, so our mac & cheese dinner that night felt particularly well-earned.

Our next two days out on the Shelagh were relatively quiet, but we did photograph a handful of humpback whales early one morning, as well as several right whales, including: Phantom (Catalog#3803), who was seen earlier this season in the Bay, and Fundy-frequent Morse (Catalog#1608).

Just one of a handful of humpback flukes we photographed that morning.  Photo by Kelsey Howe. 

By the afternoon on Day #4, the weather conditions had picked up to "sea state terrible," so we opted to head for our temporary home port at Cape Sable Island. Overall, it was an encouraging second leg to our Roseway adventure, as well as incredibly productive. Check back soon for an update on our final set of days out in the Basin...

Sunset from our dock at Cape Sable.  Photo by Kari Signor.

- Kelsey


#14: Roseway Basin - Part Deux

After receiving two pop-up acoustic buoys from JASCO Applied Sciences and a much needed respite on Cape Sable Island from rough seas, we set out at a reasonable time on the 19th to begin our second leg of surveying Roseway Basin. A few hours into our transit to our northern track line, our eagle-eyed team on watch spotted a distant blow and flukes. It took a few more surfacings, but then our first Roseway right whale of the season popped up right off our port side! The whale was quickly identified as Eros (Catalog #3701), whose mom Aphrodite (#1701) had been seen the previous week in the Bay of Fundy.

Eros (Catalog#3701) became our first official Roseway right whale of the season!  Photo by Kelsey Howe.

After that, whale blows appeared to multiply on the horizon, so we happily had our hands full for the rest of the afternoon with numerous whales including: Catalog #3120 who graced us with his presence last September on Roseway; Contrail (#3512), named for a scar on its left fluke that looks like a rocket contrail; and Catalog #1716, an old male first sighted back in 1982!

Contrail's (Catalog #3512) namesake fluke scar.  Photo by Kari Signor.

By early evening, we decided to end the survey to begin our steam to the first pop-up acoustic buoy drop point. Since field work is anything but predictable, several right whales appeared close by, and because whale biologists have no self-control when it comes to photographing or documenting whales, we naturally went back to work. After another hour of working whales and a quick bite to eat, we started setting up for our first acoustic buoy deployment (more details to come in a later blog). Captain Joe and Philip provided most of the muscle to get the heavy anchor and buoy over the side of the boat, while the rest of us documented the event, scribbled down coordinates, relayed (yelled) info into the cabin, and smoothly drove the boat down seas.

The Shelagh men getting mentally prepared for their heavy lifting task.  Photo by Marianna Hagbloom.

All in all, it went off without a hitch just before 10pm and our slight reservations were assuaged when the buoy successfully pinged us back from the bottom of the ocean. The current plan is to retrieve both buoys at the end of our second Roseway trip in late September, so fingers crossed for crazy amounts of whale calls being recorded over the next month or so.

- Kelsey