Blog #4: Right Whale Mothers

29 March 2008
Fernandina Beach
, FL

Hey blog readers, my name is Gabriela Munoz and this is my first season working as a right whale observer for the New England Aquarium. I've recently graduated from Bates College where I wrote my thesis on the effects of vessel traffic on bottlenose dolphins so the work I'm doing down here with right whale ship mitigation ties in nicely with my previous research.

Our current calf count is at 18. There have been a few interesting mothers this year. Most reproductively active mothers have calves on average every three years, i.e. a three-year calving interval. However, three of our mothers, Eg# 1802, 1243, 1301, have had two-year calving intervals after losing their 2006 calves. We have also had a handful of young first time mothers. Females are believed to reproductively mature at about 9 years of age but Eg# 3292 had her first calf this year at the age of six! Eg# 3130 and 3180 both had their first calves this year as well and they are 7 years old. Eg# 1243 has given birth to her fifth calf this year and has the largest number of offspring compared to the other mothers of this season.

Last year at this time, the calf count was at 18 but four more calves were bornafter the season ended bringing the calf count up to 22. This season we have seen two young females together, Eg # 3142 and 3240, consistently. This has been observed with other pairs of pregnant females this year who have been seen traveling down together or have paired upon their arrival to the Southeast calving grounds and then separate once they have given birth. There is no quantitative data at the moment to support this type of association with pregnant females but it might be worth looking at previous and future years to see if there are trends. I'm still holding out hope that this pair or other females might calve. We've had a bad stretch of weather this past week with high winds so we have been unable to locate any stragglers or any potential calving mothers. Despite the calving season winding down, I still have hopes that one or two more calves will be born. Every calf counts with this small critically endangered specie so fingers crossed for a couple more calves!


Blog #3: Right Whale Education

24 March 2008
Fernandina Beach, Fl

Hi, my name is Kara Mahoney. This is my second season working on this project here in Florida. When I am not down here I have a full time position in the Education Department at the New England Aquarium where I work with our school and family programs. I do a lot of teaching both at schools and onsite at the Aquarium. I have been working at the New England Aquarium since I graduated college in May 2002. I have spent my time at the Aquarium studying whales, teaching kids about whales and the ocean or all of the above!

I first started at the Aquarium as a college intern, first with the Harbor Discoveries camps program and second with the Whale Watch program. Upon graduating college, I began working on both the whale watch boat as well as the Science at Sea program, where we would take students out into Boston Harbor and educate them about the marine environment. In the winter months I started working in the Education Department traveling to schools and teaching mostly elementary age children. This led to my current fulltime position. This is the second time I have taken a winter break from the Education Department and been able to come down here and participate in this great project.

Just last week I was able to combine my two areas of work with the Aquarium; I went to Hilliard Elementary School in Hilliard, Florida and did four presentations to the entire 1st grade about right whales. I was asked to teach at this school because one of our pilot's wives is a teacher there. Unlike other presentations I have done back in Massachusetts, this one was solely focused on right whales and the fact that right whales are in their backyard. I encountered children who had seen a right whale from a boat (I think almost everyone in Florida goes fishing), some who have seen them from the beach, and some who I am sure didn't know that right whales (or any whales) frequent the waters right off northeast Florida.

The children were so receptive! They were grossed out by cyamids (whale lice that live on right whales heads and bodies), excited that right whales travel to their state to give birth, fascinated that they have so much fat (in the form of blubber) on their body, awestruck that such a large whale can eat such little food, and thought that right whales certainly are funny looking. What I thought was great about these children was that I felt that they really understood the problem of ship strikes that right whales can encounter. I showed them a map detailing the coast of the Southeast United States, highlighting the shipping channels and right whale sightings from the 2007 season. Many of the children commented that they have been to Jacksonville and seen all the large ships in the port; from the car carriers to the navy warships to the tug and barges to the container ships. One child took a look at the map and asked: "why can't boats just not go where the whales are?" What a great question to ask!

Unfortunately this area is unlike other habitats such as the Bay of Fundy or the Great South Channel (east of Cape Cod, Massachusetts) where right whales often tend to form persistent aggregations. Here the whales tend to move quite a bit and are spread out throughout the entire critical habitat (from Brunswick, GA to St. Augustine, FL) and beyond. Sometimes as far as Miami, FL, the Gulf of Mexico and even Texas!

When it comes to the right whale story, it is often very doom and gloom, filled with hunting to near extinction resulting in only about 400 individuals left. So I tried to emphasize with the children things that they could do to help this endangered species. One topic I emphasized was the 500-yard rule. It is illegal for anyone to intentionally approach a right whale within 500 yards, or 5 football fields (I thought that image might be an easy thing for them to remember). Because many of the children spend a lot of time on the water, I thought this was something that they could easily do to help this species. I also tried to emphasize that just by learning about right whales they are helping them. With children and people of all ages it really comes down to knowledge. If people know more about a certain topic they will hopefully share that information with the people around them thus leading to more awareness; and if anything is good for right whales, it is more awareness. The children were excited to know that they could go online at the right whale catalog to look at pictures and sighting histories of individual right whales. I mentioned that some whales have names and that got them excited too!

Hopefully the excitement that was generated that day will spread through the local community and that the children will continue to be fascinated by right whales. One of the classes sent me some fan mail after my visit (see the image above), which made me smile and showed me that each of them learned something new that day, which to me is the point of education.

I look forward to sharing some other stories about my experiences here in Fernandina Beach, Florida.

Thanks for reading,
~ Kara


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


Blog #1: 2008 Season Update

14 March 2008
From Fernandina Beach, FL.

My name is Monica Zani and I have been flying right whale aerial surveys for 8 years and managing the New England Aquarium's winter team for 5 of those years. We got a late start on this blog and have been in the field here in Fernandina Beach for 3 months. I will attempt to bring you up to speed on the developments of this years winter calving season.

This December proved to be a typical December with many days of flying and only a few sightings of whales. January was a month of so much wind, fog and rain that the survey team was unable to fly almost half of the month. We began February with high hopes of good weather and lots of whales, and February did not disappoint! We have flown almost every day in February and have had some amazing weather for sighting right whales.

When the team spots a whale it is reported directly from the plane to a ground contact via a satellite phone. The ground contact immediately goes to work entering the whale's position into a large email network that sends an alert across a system of pagers, email and as text messages on cell phones. The whale information is sent directly to some shipping companies, the Navy, the USCG, dredges working local channels and harbor pilots from Charleston to Cape Canaveral. Information is sent to the private boater via the USCG Broadcast Notice to Mariners every hour. The information is also entered into the Mandatory Ship Reporting System (MSR) so that all inbound shipping traffic will know the exact locations of all right whales sightings in the last 48 hours.

So far this season has been incredibly busy with many whales in the coastal waters of Georgia and northeast Florida. So far this season has produced 18 mother/calf pairs (calf production has ranged from a low of zero to a high of 31 over the past 25 years)! Unfortunately, we believe at least four calves have died so far this winter A number of whales (many of them juveniles) have kept the survey team busy on a day-to-day basis. Each morning we look forward to getting back in the air. We look forward to seeing whales and perhaps a new calf, but most importantly we hope that the long work hours are helping to protect right whales in our survey area. We hope to provide you with an update on our surveys and the activities of the right whales in the southeast critical habitat a few times a week. Please stay tuned and check back often for our updates.