Blog #5: Just a Bit About Photo ID

March 31, 2008
Fernandina Beach, Fl

Hi again, Kara Mahoney here. As I had mentioned in my first blog that this is my second season here as a right whale aerial observer. This year has been different for me than last year. Besides from a new house and a new team, there have been new whales! This year I have noticed that I recognize a lot more whales than I did last year. I think last year, being my first year exposed to right whales, it was a lot to take in. It was a good thing that I could ID a few whales in the field! This year I found it much easier to take a quick glance through the binoculars or a quick review of images in the camera and be able to describe the whale's callosity to the other observer, and also remember if I had seen that whale before. (For more information about individually identifying right whales, visit the online right whale catalog website.)

The mother whales are the easiest for me to remember. Not only do we see them often (this is the calving grounds after all, and they don't tend to move much day to day) but we also start to ID them in the plane in order to provide some aerial support to the scientists on the water looking to biopsy dart each calf. Biopsy samples provide scientists with important genetic information that can help determine the calf's sex and paternity. In right whales, maternity from DNA is difficult, it is helpful to link all calves to their mother while it is still nursing and associated its mother. DNA sampling can help scientists learn more about the population.

Since we are working in the only known calving ground the majority of calves born will be documented in this area with their mothers and therefore it is ideal to biopsy dart calves here. In fact while the biopsy team was here they were able to get a biopsy sample from all the calves except for one, whale #3020's calf. Hopefully this calf will be seen again in the Bay of Fundy with its mother where it can be darted. Not all mothers take their calves into the Bay of Fundy (it's still a mystery where some of them go in the late summer months). If #3020 does not bring her calf up to the Bay of Fundy, and next year her calf comes down here (as many one year olds do) without its mother, now it is a juvenile who will need to be darted.

This year I have found that not only did I learn all 18 moms pretty well, but I was also able to learn a number of juveniles (one to eight years of age) that spent about a month (in some cases more, in some cases less) in our survey area. I also learned the hard way that with this population one of the first things we should do is a quick scan for fresh wounds and entanglements.

In one day, January 29, Jon Cunha and I spotted two right whales, #3530 and #3333. Right whale #3530 was seen in the morning with what turned out to be fresh wounds all over its body from probably some sort of entanglement and #3333 was seen in the afternoon with a line of fishing gear through its mouth (see the above image). In our first photo pass over #3333 we didn't even notice the gear, I was photographing and I was trying to get a good head shot for photo ID that I didn't notice the entanglement. On our second pass however I did notice it, there were already two biopsy boats on the water, so we called them and unfortunately the whale was very elusive and they were not able to find this whale. The whale was seen a few days later up off Sapelo Island, GA and has not been seen since. Hopefully this whale will be sighted up north so that a highly trained disentanglement team will have the opportunity to try to disentangle this whale

This job has provided me with such a wonderful opportunity to observe and learn about this population. Our mission down here has been ship mitigation, and it has been rewarding when we have been able to find whales in harm's way of a vessel and we are able to alert them, so the whales are safe. The research aspect, including photo identifying individual whales has been equally rewarding. It is interesting to learn the sighting history of each individual which leads to learning the life history of each whale in this struggling population. The more we know about this endangered species the more we are able to help these majestic animals fight extinction.

~ Kara Mahoney

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