#31: Three Days In A Row!

Thanks to an extended good-weather window, we were able to get out on the water three days in a row- Sept. 23-25! Although working three 14 hour days in a row was exhausting, the data collected made it well worth it. We sighted more than 40 whales each day we were out.

We are now processing the data collected and identifying the whales we photographed in the bay these past few days. As of right now, we have identified over a dozen whales that were seen for the first time this season. Some of the whales have not been seen since 2006.

The white water and bustle of a surface active group.

Many of the whales we saw were engaging in Surface Active Groups (SAG). On both Sept. 23 & 24, we came across SAGs comprised of more than a dozen right whales! With the exception of Meridian (Eg #1403) most of the whales in one SAG were not in the other.

There are currently a lot of right whales in the Bay of Fundy (more than 130 identified so far). The past three days allowed us to document that, but we know there are more whales in the bay that we have yet to photograph - some we have seen in the distance but have no photographs to prove it. This is frustrating given that the remnants of hurricane Kyle are at our doorstep and coming in without an invitation. We are all hoping that Kyle's rain and strong winds will be short lived and we will be able to get a few more days on the water before our season ends in early October.

Video of a 12 animal SAG on Sept. 24th. The whale with the wrapping entanglement scar around its head is Meridian.



#30: Two days in a row!

We finally had two great days in a row on the water. The R/V Nereid went out the 20th and 21st and our other vessel, the R/V Callisto, also went out on the 20th. The result of this effort was a fairly comprehensive picture of right whales in the Bay of Fundy. They are spread out over a very large area with at least two different aggregations--one to the northeast and another to the southwest. Yesterday, we started the day with a small SAG off Swallowtail Light House within a stones throw of Grand Manan Island.

With such good coverage, we learned that there has been an influx of quite a few new animals into the Bay and many of them are big, adult males. These animals seem frequently to be on the edges of the distribution, often performing acoustic displays known as gunshots--loud, percussive underwater sounds. Towards the end of the day yesterday, we had several old males exhibiting typical gunshot behavior (lifting their heads out of the water and then pushing them down forcefully) way to the south in the middle of the outbound shipping lane. One of them was "Starry Night," an old favorite that we have been watching since 1980.

We don't know why animals segregate in the Bay, but that doesn't keep us from having fun speculating. For example, why would adult males stay on the fringes? Are they setting up acoustic territories advertising to females with the gunshot sound (Here's a little more about right whale acoustics)? Since many of the big males were on the southern edge of the distribution, someone joked that they are serving as the "gate keepers" to the Bay of Fundy. That joke got me thinking--could that be possible?

Nothing described about this species' social structure would indicate that they coordinate in such a way, and yet there is much we don't know about these animals. Could they patrol the edges of the right whale distribution forming a protective perimeter like male musk ox in a circle with the females and young in the middle? What would they be protecting them from? Killer whales are their only possible predators and they are relatively rare in these waters.

I include this wild speculation to show the fun part of science--exploring ideas. If we found any evidence of this behavior in other similar species, then we could formulate a formal hypothesis and then test it with the appropriate data. The small yet exciting steps of science.

- Philip

1- SAG in front of Swallowtail Light, Grand Manan (Yan Guilbault)
2- Bottom photo: Starry Night (Moe Brown)


#28 A short window....

Almost a full week had gone by before we were able to get back out on the water. After hearing reports of right whales near the northern end of Campobello Island, we began our morning by searching for right whales as we passed East Quoddy light. Although we didn't find any right whales at this northern latitude, we came across the first humpback whales of the season! (The New England Aquarium Whale Watch back in Boston also sees a lot of humpback whales!)

Like right whales, humpback whales raise their flukes when they dive, but they have distinctive patterns on the ventral side of their flukes while the flukes of a right whale are completely black. Humpback whale researchers use the pattern on the ventral side of the fluke, along with the shape of the dorsal fin to identify individuals. (Try this game to see if you can identify right whales using their individual callosity markings!)

Continuing our survey into the Bay, we found that the right whales had moved a few miles to the east. Throughout the day we found that most of the whales were solitary even though they were spatially very close to each other. We photographed over 35 individuals including 12 engaged in a SAG! The whales in the middle of the SAG rolled slowly around the female, stroking her with their flippers. (For more on this behavior, check out these other posts about SAGs.) Other whales who weren't positioned next to the female patrolled the edges of the SAG, as if waiting for the perfect opportunity to slip in next to her.

The SAG held a surprise for us although. One of the whales had a dorsal fin! Somehow a humpback whale had ended up in the middle of the SAG! The humpback only remained with the SAG briefly though. As the SAG broke up for a few minutes and then reformed three hundred meters away, the humpback whale headed in the opposite direction. As the afternoon progressed, the tide turned to become poised against the low winds. We turned west and spent the rest of the day photographing whales that we passed on our way back to Lubec.

Top photo: Flukes of a humpback whale. Photographer: Philip Hamilton, NEAq
Bottom photo: Two right whales engaged in a SAG. Photographer: Moira Brown, NEAq

- Cyndi


#27 Announcement

Over the past two years we have had the pleasure of working with National Geographic writer Douglas Chadwick and photographer Brian Skerry as they prepared an article on right whales for National Geographic magazine. Doug and Brian have put hours into learning about the plight of the North Atlantic right whale and their article was just released in the October issue of National Geographic. We would like to applaud Doug and Brian for using their talents to teach the world about these magnificent creatures and their struggle for survival.

Check out their featured article and photographs on the National Geographic website!

- Cyndi


#26: Lubec, our home away from home

Since the weather is keeping us on land, we thought we could take this opportunity to tell you a bit about the area we call home for 2 months a year.

Lubec, Maine, is the easternmost town in the United States and literally a stone's throw from Canada (Campobello Island, New Brunswick). It sits atop a hill overlooking Passamaquoddy Bay, and has stunning views in every direction. The natural beauty of the area--rocky coastlines, misty islands, and rolling hills covered with blueberries--never fail to wow first-time visitors. The woodlands are lush and mysterious, thick with moss and lichens. Bald eagles frequently soar overhead and seals frolic in the Lubec Narrows (the channel between Campobello Island and Lubec that turns into a rushing river of salt water at the peak of the incoming or outgoing tide).

Named for a town in Germany, Lubec, Maine, is sleepy now (Pop: 1200), but it was once a bustling city --the sardine capitol of the world. Not only were there 48 sardine canning factories, but the town boasted herring smokehouses, movie theaters, hotels, four post offices, steamship service from Boston and a ferry to Eastport, Maine. The peak of Lubec's economic prosperity came during WWII when demand for herring and sardines was high and foreign imports were few. But in the years following the war, foreign competition increased, American tastes began to change (when was the last time you had smoked herring?), and fish stocks became depleted. With those three factors came a long economic decline.

One by one the various factories went out of business. The McGurdy Fish Company was the last operating commercial smokehouse in the U.S. when it finally closed its doors in 1992 (it is now a historical interpretive site open to the public). All the sardine canneries have shut down, with one exception--Peacock's-- but instead of sardine canning, they now raise urchins and sea cucumbers for foreign markets, and extract salt for "Quoddy Mist" sea salt. The steamship and ferry service stopped decades ago. The closest big city (and big airport) is Bangor, a two hour drive inland, and the nearest movie theaters are in Calais (pronounced Cal'is) or Milbridge, both an hour away.

But Lubec still has a lot to offer. There are restaurants and coffee shops, a good library, a few B&B's ... and two chocolate shops! There's also a popular music school called SummerKeys that brings musicians to the town and offers wonderful concerts during July and August.

To see more photos of the town, take a look at the 'Lubec' album in our online photo gallery of images from the season. And for more information about Lubec and the surrounding area check out: http://www.visitlubecmaine.com/


1 - Lubec at sunrise (Marilyn Marx)
2 - Overlook from the Boot Cove Trail (Marilyn Marx)
3 - McGurdy's Smokehouse with Mulholland Light on Campobello in the background (Jonathan Cunha)


#24: Intromission in the Bay

We were able to get on the water on Friday, Sept. 5, before the effects of hurricane Hanna reached the Bay of Fundy. It was the first time we had been on the water in a week and it was well worth the wait! We spent two hours of our day photographing a Surface Active Group (SAG) of about 20 whales! It was truly one of the most incredible sights I have ever seen!

An example of a surface active group

From over a mile away, we spotted a few whales rolling at the surface of the water causing a lot of commotion. As we headed toward the whales, our approach was accompanied by 6 other whales all traveling in sync with one another. They raced towards the forming SAG, all breathing and diving in unison. We arrived to find that the SAG now included 20 whales! The amount of activity there was astonishing. The whales were all cavorting around the focal female, caressing her with their flippers, and rolling and lobtailing as they jostled each other to get closer to her. More then once a penis was observed and we even witnessed intromission! All this was accompanied by the potent smell of whale defecation.

The whale watcher, Marylin Marx, quickly identified the focal female as Sonnet (Eg #1123), a mother this year, and found her calf mingling in the aggregation. All other whales that were identified were males, Meridian (Eg #1403), Gemini (Eg #1150), Glidden (Eg #1428), and Manta (Eg #1507) to name a few. You can find photos and sighting history for each of these whales in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.

Social aggregations of this size have only been seen in Roseway Basin (South of Nova Scotia) and the Bay of Fundy.



#23: The many hats we wear....

On the boat there are several jobs that we rotate through during the course of a long day at work. While we always have a licensed captain on board, we all are experienced at piloting the research vessel. This is an important skill as the U.S. permit we work under allows us to approach these highly endangered whales.

The first position is the data recorder, located safe from spray behind the windshield. This person is responsible for recording each right whale sighted and photographed in both the computer's database and on paper. The computer continuously tracks our GPS position, allowing us to obtain data on the number of miles surveyed in a day as well as giving a GPS position to each whale sighting. On paper we record behaviors, associations and the numbers of all photographs corresponding to each individual whale. Back at the field house, it is much easier to work with the hundreds of photographs that we take each day if the recorder is diligent in the field.

Three researchers then work from the bow of the research vessel. Two stand with cameras ready to photograph each right whale while the third is our "whale watcher." Having two photographers is very important when working large groups of whales. As you can imagine, photographing 40 whales in a SAG (see previous post on surface active groups) can be extremely difficult as the whales dive and twist around each other.

But never fear, the "whale watcher" is there to clear up the confusion. The "whale watcher" is responsible for knowing which whales we have seen in a day (to minimize photographing duplicates) and which whale the photographers are currently photographing. To organize whales within a day we letter them from A to Z and you will hear the researchers yelling letters back and forth as they try to track which whales they are photographing while working a large SAG. Many times the "whale watcher" will recognize the whales on sight and record their catalog number while in the field. Several of the researchers on our team have worked with this population for over 20 years and recognize many of the whales on sight.

These five positions are always filled while we work whales here in the Bay of Fundy. There are many other tasks that pop up throughout the day such as collecting biological samples or matching whales with our field matching book. Everyone on our team is trained to work in each role and we take turns wearing these different hats!

1- Cyndi pilots the research vessel Nereid.
2- Data sheet used to record whale sightings, behaviors, associations and frame numbers.
3- Jon and Amy stand ready to photograph the next whale.
4- Yan uses his binoculars to identify the whale currently being photographed.
5- Some of the equiptment that is used throughout the day. The open book is the field matching book that we use to assist us in matching whales in the field.

- Cyndi


#22: Watch Researchers at Work

Watch researchers as they photograph a mother with her calf. Listen to hear the whale watcher, Monica, inform the photographers, Dan and Cyndi, of the different body parts that need to be photographed.
*video taken by Jonathan



#21: Protecting right whales from ship strikes in the U.S. - one step closer?

Right whales have been in the news in the past week - The Washington Post, Cape Cod Times, New York Times, National Geographic News to name a few have picked up the story that on Monday, August 25, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) filed their Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) [PDF] for the Ship Strike Reduction rule.

What does this all mean? Well, for many years (nearly a decade), the New England Aquarium, members of the shipping industry, maritime law experts, conservation groups, and the federal government (NMFS) have been working to formulate a strategy to reduce the level of vessel strikes of right whales, the leading known cause of mortality for this small population.

In 2001, a suite of recommended measures was submitted to NMFS after years of useful dialog within this group. NMFS conducted further analyses on economic impacts, as well as all other possible options that could be considered, and initiated a rulemaking process to implement several measures including speed restrictions of 10 knots or less along the eastern U.S. seaboard within 30 nautical miles (nm) of port entrances for all vessels over 65 feet in length.

This aspect of the federal rulemaking process started in June 2004 with an Advanced Notice of Proposed Rulemaking [PDF]. A Proposed Rule [PDF] was published in June 2006 and a Final Rule [PDF] was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget for their approval in February 2007, a process that typically takes 90 days. It has now been more than 540 days.

The longer-than-usual process has not been without hurdles and frustrations along the way, further complicated by political meddling and a twisting of the democratic process. This fact was most recently captured in by articles in the Washington Post and the Cape Cod Times. As a result of this meddling by Vice President Cheney's office and strong opposition from the World Shipping Council, the Office of Management and Budget stalled the rulemaking process for a year and a half.

In order for anything to move forward, NMFS had to back off from their initial intent and reduce the 30-mile buffer to 20 miles--a significant reduction in protection for right whales.

Yet, this watered down rule will still mean more protection to right whales than no rule at all. So we are cautiously optimistic that the process will continue without additional delays. The FEIS has a 30-day comment period [PDF] after which a Final Rule can be promulgated. Implementation of the Final Rule then occurs 60 days after it is filed however no one knows how long it might take for this last step to happen.

Right whales are at a critical junction. The level of reproduction has increased over the last 8 years, so the whales are doing their part. It is essential that the youngsters are given the space the mature and reproduce. Measures to reduce ship strikes have been implemented in the portion of their summer and fall range that includes habitats in eastern Canada.

Implementation of the Final Rule in US waters means that right whales will have greater protection from vessel strikes throughout their range along the eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada. If the U.S. measure is implemented, right whales may be able to migrate along the urbanized U.S. coastline this winter en route to their calving ground off the southeast U.S. coast in greater safety than they have ever experienced in their lives. That would be a monumental step forward for this struggling species. Stay tuned as this story unfolds over the next several months!

Please consider submitting comments on the Final Environmental Impact Statement. You can find the information you need on the NMFS ship strike page.

Top Photo: This one year old male, #3522, was struck by an unknown vessel off the southeastern U.S. coast in March 2006. We have not seen this animal since and are not sure it has survived after this severe injury.

Bottom Photo: Taken by
Jonathan this season in the Bay of Fundy.



#20: Calvineers Visit: The Rescue

The Eagle Is Down, But Not For Long
While the Calvineers were on the Island Cruises Whale Watch from Campobello Island, NB, they witnessed the rescue of an eagle that was stranded in Cobscook Bay. See the previous entry, # 17, Calvineers Visit, Day 2, for a detailed account of the whale watch that day. The following is an account of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team's (CWRT) efforts to rescue a distressed bald eagle:

The news of an eagle that was in the water and unable to fly off came to Mackie Green, captain of the whale watch boat, Mister Matthew, over his VHS radio from another whale watch boat. They had unsuccessfully tried to help the eagle and knew that Mackie was part of the CWRT. Mackie took us to the struggling eagle and he and Robert tried to get a large life ring under the bird. Each time the eagle insisted on jumping off the life ring. After three tries they tried one of Meredith Houghton's suggestions, which was to tow a large log floating in the debris to the eagle so it could get on something natural. Good idea but the eagle would have nothing to do with it.

Meredith Olivari explained the event, "When we saw the poor eagle in the water I became sad, I felt so bad for it; trying to lift it's tired wings out of the water and swim back to the far-off shore. Meredith and I had some great ideas about how we could save the eagle and we were a little annoyed that the crew wasn't trying our ideas. Finally they tried one but it did not work."

Meredith Houghton gives an account of the rescue: "...we were lucky enough to witness something that hardly ever happens to a whale watch group! We heard over the radio that a bald eagle was stranded in the water, its feather's waterlogged and couldn't fly! We named it Perry, and it was trying desperately to swim to shore, but with the strong current, the eagle wasn't making much headway. Captain Mackie sped over to see what we could do to help the distressed animal. After trying many different methods, including a life ring, a log and a winter jacket, the CWRT came over to help. They got the eagle out of the water and ended up putting him on a beach where they could keep an eye on him until he flew away. It was so amazing to see the scientists and rescue crew at work, and it was such a good feeling when they saved the eagle, because we knew that it would be safe now."

As the eagle was rejecting the log the CWRT rescue zodiac came into view. When it was close enough to see the driver Meredith Houghton exclaimed, "Look! It's Moe Brown from the Whale House!" Moira (Moe) Brown is trained in all sorts of marine rescues and handles a boat expertly. As soon as Moe maneuvered the boat alongside the eagle her two colleagues put a bag over the eagle's head to calm it down and then carefully hoisted the disheveled animal into the rescue boat. Everyone cheered and there were a couple of tears noticeable also. The eagle did not have any broken bones and seemed quite vigorous. It was let go on a deserted beach where it walked up to some ferns and spread its wings to dry. The student scientists experienced yet another event that showed them how exciting being a scientist could be. Not only that, they were learning that woman scientists are very good at what they do. There is absolutely no reason why they, too, could not become a scientist who does great work in the field as well as the office.

Photo Captions:

1) Struggling Eagle
2) First Rescue Attempt
3) Moe and the CWRT Rescue Team

All Photos taken by Bill McWeeny