Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under NOAA Permit #932-1489
Fog in our survey area kept us on the ground for all of yesterday. Our plane does not have the specialized equipment necessary for flying in foggy areas.
Today, both the Aquarium and FWC aerial survey teams are in the air hoping to find the 2007 calf of 1701. The research vessel Orion is also on the water and ready for action.
There were four of us on the boat; Clay and Mark Dodd from GDNR and Stephanie Grassia from the Wildlife Trust-Georgia (WT/GA) aerial survey team. We headed out of St. Simons on GDNR's research vessel Hurricane around 9:30 a.m. and made our way east through the channel. All of the survey planes were in the air that day so we were hoping to get a lot of hydrophone recordings of mom/calf pairs. Little did we know that we weren't going to be doing any recording!
We were about 5 minutes out of the St. Simons channel when we first saw the twin otter, WT/GA's aerial survey plane. They immediately broke from their survey line and began to circle over who we would soon find out to be Eg #3294 (the entangled whale our team saw on Dec. 8). We got the confirmation from the WT/GA team via VHF radio that it was in fact Eg #3294. I immediately became excited by this news because we hadn't seen this whale for over a week but primarily because I knew this was going to be much more exciting than obtaining hydrophone recordings! Clay and Mark went into 'disentanglement mode' and began the extensive protocols involved with an entangled whale.
Although disentangling a whale can be very dangerous, Clay and Mark have had extensive training and are authorized by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) to work with entangled whales. However, Stephanie and I had not had any previous disentanglement experience so we were assigned less involved jobs taking photographs of the whale and filming the disentanglement effort. After about 1/2 an hour of preparing gear and consulting other disentanglement experts from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), Clay and Mark formulated a plan to attach a satellite telemetry buoy to a portion of the 300 feet of trailing line. The telemetry buoy will track the animal via satellite and VHF and will potentially allow for future disentanglement efforts of this whale.
In order to attach a buoy, we first had to grapple the trailing line and bring as much of the line along side the boat so that the buoy can be attached approximately 2 body lengths behind the whale. The WT/GA team was critical to making this a successful disentanglement effort. Communicating via VHF, they alerted us to the position of the whale and the behavior of the trailing line (they circled over the whale for over 4.5 hours!). With Clay at the helm and Mark on the bow of the boat with the grapple, we approached the whale and waited for the WT/GA team to tell us the best time to throw the grapple. Mark's first throw was right on and we began to haul the grapple line toward the boat. My job was to pull the trailing line that was aft of the grapple into the boat and to cut the line after Mark attached the telemetry buoy. The first attachment was a success and we managed to initially remove about 200 feet of trailing line.
As we continued to monitor the buoy we realized it was not breaking the surface of the water (the buoy must break the surface of the water in order to transmit a signal) so we organized another approach to attach the buoy farther forward and to remove additional trailing line. Mark made another successful throw with the grapple and we began to work our way up the line, and closer to the whale! At that point, I could almost see all of the line running to the whale but the line seemed to disappear as it trailed beneath the whale. The down force of the line was incredible and was quite difficult to hold when the whale would dive, but Clay was able to position the boat behind the whale in such a way that reduced the tension and made it easier for Mark and I to handle the lines. We managed to reattach the telemetry buoy, along with an additional buoy to help keep the telemetry buoy above the water line, approximately 1.5 body lengths behind the whale. In total, we removed about 500 feet of trailing line from the whale. We had done as much as we could for the animal so by 4:00 p.m. we headed back to GDNR where the disentanglement photos that Stephanie took could be uploaded and shared with experts to further evaluate the entanglement.
Friday morning, we were informed by the PCCS that the telemetry buoy had radically changed its position (indicating that the buoy had become adrift) around 6:00pm Thursday night. Initially, I was disappointed because I thought that our efforts had been for nothing and we would be unable to relocate the whale, eliminating the possibility of future disentanglement attempts. But after GDNR recovered the adrift buoy at noon on Friday they recovered approximately 250 feet of additional line that was attached to the buoy! Although, it is unclear what gear may remain on the whale, it is encouraging to know that additional line has been removed from the whale. Further assessment of any remaining entangling gear will be dependent on future re-sightings of the animal so wish us luck and we'll keep you updated on Eg #3294!
Piper was entangled twice, in 1993 and 2002, but has been gear free since 2005. Although Piper has been seen in the Southeast waters of the U.S. since 1993, she was not seen with a calf until 2006. If you want to learn more about Piper and support right whale research, click here to see our sponsorship program.
Piper on December 15th 2008.
Our official cut-off for environmental conditions is a wind speed of 17 knots. However, ideally we would like to be surveying in a Beaufort less than 4. The Beaufort is a scale of wind speed and describes sea state, 4 being a moderate breeze with between 11 to 16 knots of wind and 4 foot waves. However, this varies dramatically depending on which direction the wind is blowing from. If it is an easterly wind, coming from offshore, it has a high fetch, which is the length of water over which wind blows unobstructed. With a westerly wind coming off the land, we may have a low sea state close to shore but as we get to the end of our lines it starts to get choppier, this is because the land is acting as a barrier, but as the wind blows across the water it gradually causes the waves to build.
I wake up at 0645 every morning and open the various marine and aviation web sites that give me an insight into observed and forecast conditions. I check NOAA's national data buoy center for the two buoys that best describe our survey area; Grays Reef and St. Augustine, which update every hour. I call Fernandina Beach Municipal airport to get an automated weather observation telling me how high the ceiling is. We fly at 1000 feet so we need the cloud cover to be at least at 1200 feet or else we will be flying in and out of the clouds. Fog and haze greatly reduce our visibility, and we need a minimum of 2 miles visibility whilst flying our transect lines. 'Patchy' fog is not ideal but can be OK, we just need to go off watch when visibility is reduced to 1nm or less, but could still get a majority of the survey flown in good conditions.
On Dec. 15th, the period of high winds finally ceased, bringing a new issue to contend with. It was foggy in the morning (see picture) and from our field station, conveniently located on the beach, we couldn't even see the pier which is 2 miles to the south. The forecast was for the fog to get worse later in the day, so we seized the moment and took off at 1000. Surprisingly, when the plane got up, they reported back over the marine radio that they had 4 nautical miles of visibility, the seas were flat calm and there was no glare due to the overcast skies - ideal conditions for finding and photographing whales. We had three sightings during the survey flight, including a few favorites, Piper and Picasso, spotted a mile and a half southeast of the St Mary's sea buoy. We also had a very special new mom, Mavynne! Get more information on her by searching for EG #1151 in the Right Whale Catalog. She must have given birth to her sixth calf some time between December 6 (seen alone) and December 15. (Keep reading blogs for history and updates on Mavynne). The day turned out to be long, but very worthwhile.
Yesterday, we were confounded by yet another fog bank, this time we couldn't even see past the surf on the beach - 'sea fog'. This is a type of advection fog that is caused from warm air traveling over colder water, resulting in cooling of the lower layer of air that hangs over the water as fog. When the temperature doesn't rise significantly, and there's no wind, this will linger. By midday it appeared to clear slightly so we quickly jumped into action, and were shortly in the sky only to see a layer of fog stretching out to the horizon. So we had to count our losses, turn around and head back for the airport. Today is calling for more of the same, so we sit, fogged in and frustrated, at this festive Fernandina field site! But it's not all bad, we have caught up on photo analysis, and we are all keeping spirits high since we know we should make the most of this down time. We will be well prepared for when January comes around and we don't have time to catch our breath. So we wait and we wait ...
1) View from our back porch on a clear day.
2) Aerial photo of a Beaufort sea state 2 - ideal conditions for survey.
3) Aerial photo of a Beaufort sea state 6 - we should not be flying!
4) View from our back porch on a foggy day.
See what its like when the aerial survey team takes off from McGill airport in a cessna skymaster 337 and heads for the Atlantic in search of right whales. Zach is seated in the right seat behind Ken and Holly. When we find whales Holly will open the window and Zach will photograph while circling above the whales at 1000 feet!
Video taken by Jess from the left seat of the plane.
Our team sighted an entangled right whale yesterday afternoon in our sighting area (30 26N -081 11W). The whale was later identified as Catalog #3294 (Find out more by searching for that whale on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog).
Kara and I were flying the southern part of our survey when, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a whale about one mile north of us. We broke from our track line and headed for the whale. As we approached, we noticed a very long piece of fishing line (approx. 350 ft) trailing behind the whale. Our team reacted quickly; Kara grabbed the camera and began photographing the whale and the trailing fishing line; I took a position of the whale and immediately called our ground contact, Jess; our pilots, Ken and Holly, kept an eye on the whale and circled overhead while keeping an eye out for other aircraft.
I gave Jess all the information I could about the whale, the time and location, what the entanglement looked like, the color of the line, the whale's behavior, the weather conditions (in case a disentanglement effort was launched), our endurance...etc. Kara reviewed her images to get a better idea of what the line was doing on the whales body. Our images show there is line wrapping around the whale's head and body and there appears to be fresh peduncle scars that may be from this entanglement. Jess was busy. She now had to call a list of people including the state and federal right whale coordinators.
The whale moved almost true north 4 miles while we photographed it! The whale was racing diving - A forceful and fast dive in which the flukes are typically lifted out of the water at a shallow angle. Racing dives are often observed in a quick series with each dive being performed after a single respiration. Photographing proved to be arduous, but that did not stop Kara. She managed to photograph every part of the whale that was visible and even the 350+ ft of line that was trailing behind it! Kara's images allowed entanglement specialist to get a better idea of the entanglement and its severity.
This week was spent reviewing and troubleshooting our equipment and the protocol for when we find something of interest, especially a whale. Oh, and getting used to our new camera, it is a bit heavier than our last one, but it is worth it; the viewing screen is really big and you can zoom in great to review your images in the plane to make sure you got an ID'able shot! Our team has seen some whales in our survey area, including the third known mother/calf pair of the season, and some whales not in our survey area.
Photo caption: Morse and her calf seen at dust on Dec. 3rd. This images was lighted to show the whale. The original image is much darker. You can imagine how difficult it is to sight a black whale in these conditions.
During the winter months, the New England Aquarium's aerial survey team shacks up in Fernandina Beach, Fl. Fernandina Beach is located on Amelia island off the Northeast coast of Florida. The airport our aerial survey team deploys from, McGill airport, is also located in Fernandina Beach.
For the past two years our team has called this beach house home. The house is transformed from a lovely vacation home into a field research station (many thanks to our landlord for allowing us to make these necessary modifications). We install a radio antenna on the back porch of our house which allows us to keep in contact with the plane throughout our survey area. We set up computer stations on the mezzanine balcony (commonly referred to as the 'control tower') and in the dinning room area. The clutter of laptops on the kitchen table more closely resembles a workstation than a place where we would gather to eat. As in most field stations there are more computers than there are people!
Contrary to popular belief, we do not live on the beach to work on our tans (although that is an advantage!). There are many other advantages for our team to be stationed on the water's edge. Our house is located in the middle latitude of our survey area. Our survey is weather dependant and where we are allows us to make weather calls from our back porch. We can walk out in the morning, look north, east and south to determine whether conditions are suitable for us to fly. Our survey is conducted from an altitude of 1000 ft. Sometimes we have what is known as a low ceiling - which can be fog or low clouds that inhibit us from seeing the ocean from survey altitude.
Weather conditions can change drastically from ocean to land. The combination of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) weather buoy readings and visual assessments from the beach allow us to make the best assessment of weather conditions in our survey area.
1) Front of the field research station.
2) Rear of the field research station.
3) The kitchen table cluttered with laptops.
4) View from the kitchen table looking up at the 'control tower'.
The effort, communication, technology and awareness of the EWS have evolved greatly over the past sixteen years yet the primary goal remains the same. Today the EWS is an extremely large network which attempts to prevent ship collisions with right whales by providing real time detection to commercial mariners, U. S. Navy, ACOE, US Coast Guard, harbor pilots, port authorities and recreational boaters The EWS consists of three survey teams from Wildlife Trust, Florida Conservation Commission and New England Aquarium.
northeast Florida on every good weather day. In addition to the EWS, surveys are also conducted in South Carolina by Wildlife Trust. Each winter pregnant females migrate from the cold north Atlantic waters of the Bay of Fundy and New England to the temperate waters of the SEUS to give birth. In addition to mothers with their newborn calves the SEUS is highly utilized by numerous juveniles. The aerial survey teams can often document more than 100 individuals in a winter! The data collected from the EWS surveys helps researchers better understand the temporal occurrence, behavior and habitat use of this area in addition to contributing hundreds of sightings and thousands of images to the north Atlantic right whale catalog.
On Sunday, 11/30, all the aerial survey teams gathered in Fernandina Beach, FL to meet and discuss plans and protocols for the season. Then on December 1, our team joined Ken Person and Holly Friedman, two of our pilots, at our plane on the grounds of McGill Airport. Ken and Holly prepared us for any situation we might have to deal with while in flight, including aircraft fire safety, ditching procedures and general small plane etiquette. Ken and Holly spoke to us about what it is like being a pilot for such a specialized operation and how important overall communication is in the aircraft.
"If you see or smell something that you don't think is right, pipe up ... We are in different parts of the plane so you may see or smell something that we cannot." Ken said.
Now we are ready to fly, find right whales and have a safe, fun season! Tune in throughout the season to learn more about right whales and what it's like to fly aerial surveys for right whales!
Photo Caption: A mother and her calf interacting with a pod of dolphins in the southeast U.S. Photo taken by Gabriel Munoz.
Although much of what has been learned about the life history of right whales is through photo identification studies, comprehensive genetic analyses and integration of the two research techniques have yielded information on right whale biology and conservation that serves as a model for studying small but persistent populations. All that is needed is a small piece of skin, about the size of a pencil eraser, collected from a right whale at sea, to get access to DNA and a means to examine maternity, paternity, identify individuals and genealogical relationships, genetic diversity, effective population size, and reproductive success.
The small bits of skin are collected by biopsy sampling - the collection of living tissue from a live specimen; in our case it is skin and sometime a bit of blubber as well. There is a strict protocol to follow to biopsy dart a right whale. Since we conduct research in both the USA and Canada, the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Ocean must issue a specialized permit to a researcher who has shown to have the qualifications and training necessary to safely sample a right whale.
Researchers use a crossbow equipped with a modified arrow designed to bounce off the whale on impact, taking with it a one inch sample of skin and blubber. The tip of the arrow has a hollow cylinder with three backward facing prongs inside it, backed by foam core to prevent deep penetration. The edge of the tip pierces the skin of the whale while the prongs grip the skin and blubber removing it as the foam backing rebounds off the whale. The process is minimally invasive and when done correctly elicits little or no reaction from the whale.
In addition to the DNA studies, the skin is also analyzed by epidemiologists to investigate disease and by a toxicologist trying to understand the effect the urban environment has on the population.
There is a collaborative effort of researchers from the United States and Canada to obtain a biopsy sample of every right whale in the population. Researchers from National Marine Fisheries Services and Georgia Department of Natural Resources work together to collect biopsy samples from calves born in the Southeast United States (Revisit our Aerial Survey Blog from 2008 for more on this aspect of right whale research.).
Because the unique callosities patterns do not develop on calves for several months, the only way to distinguish one from another early on is by the association with the mother. Some of the calves in the southeast will not be seen anywhere in the northeast and a genetic identification from the calving ground will be the only link we have to its lineage. During the first 6 months of a calf's life it does not stray far from the mother. Then, in summer and fall, the pair slowly begins to spend more time apart until the calf is fully weaned at the end of its first year. By collecting biopsy samples during the first 12 months researchers can track the mother and calf lineage.
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- #12: Entangled Whale Update
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