Blog #2: Latest Mother and Calf Sightings

19 March 2008
From Fernandina Beach, FL

My name is Jonathan. This is my first year working as an aerial observer on the New England Aquarium's right whale research project. I came to the Aquarium over a year ago as an intern and was able to get my feet wet last August when I worked on the Bay of Fundy project - which you will be able to read about in our Blog coming this summer! The aerial survey project is very different from the Bay of Fundy project. For starters, we are in a plane instead of on a boat.

As you can see from our photo, the plane is not very large. It seats four people, two pilots and two observers. The observers each have specific responsibilities depending on which seat they sit in, right or left. The observer in the right seat is the photographer, because we always circle clockwise. The observer in the left seat is the data recorder and the liaison between the plane and the ground contact. This is sometimes deemed a challenge, especially on days when we have 44 whales! Both observers usually share the radio responsibilities.

As Monica mentioned, this blog is new to us and took longer than expected to get it up and running. During the month of February, we were really busy documenting as much as 44 whales in our survey area in one day! You can imagine with such a large amount of whales cavorting in such a small, high traffic area that we had our work cut out for us.

February was not our only busy month. So far, March has also been exciting and edifying. I can remember on the first of March, Kara Mahoney and I sighted our 18th known mother with her calf for the first time this season. The mom is an eight-year-old female, known in the right whale catalog as Eg #3020. It is often times difficult to identify whales from the plane because we are circling around them at an altitude of 1,000 feet and a speed of 100 knots; as you can imagine it can be a little bumpy. We originally thought #3020 was an already known mother this season (Eg #2040), but were skeptical once we saw how small her calf looked from the photos that Kara took.

While we were circling over #3020, we saw a disturbance in the water that we call "funny whale water" (When right whales disrupt the surface tension of the water they agitate the water in such a way that can be seen with a trained eye). We left the area and circled over the "funny whale water". While we were circling, I noticed an integrated tug and barge heading right towards where we sighted #3020. Knowing how critical the timing is in these situations I asked the pilots to put me on marine band radio. Using Automated Information Systems (AIS), I was able to get the name of the tug and barge and immediately radioed the captain. By this time the pilots took action, returning to #3020's location and were circling overhead. The captain responded promptly and in one lengthy breath, I informed him that there were two right whales two nautical miles off his bow and he was in a direct route towards them. He acknowledged the position and altered his course without hesitation. The timely response from both the tug and barge and the aerial survey team is a prime example of how commercial operators and researchers can work together to help preserve a critically endangered species.

Till next time,
Jonathan Cunha

1 comment:

  1. This is some really great information and it will help me very much with my group project on saving the whales from boat collisions. I think that it is so great what you are doing and i hope to hear more!