#12: Entangled Whale Update

After affixing the telemetry buoy to the remaining fishing line attached to Eg #1701's 2007 calf the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission research vessel Orion called it a day. On Sunday, the information received from the telemetry buoy lead researchers to believe that the buoy had become adrift of the whale. The last updated position of the buoy was in our survey area. Kara and I located the buoy, which was attached to approximately 100 feet of fishing line, and reported the position to the r/v Orion. The r/v Orion was already receiving the signal from the VHF signal emitted from the telemetry buoy, but now had a definite position to head for. They successfully recovered the telemetry buoy and approximately 100 ft of line attached to it. The 2007 Calf of #1701 has not been sighted since the telemetry buoy was attached, but it is suspected that the gear that remained on the animal when the buoy was attached shed along with the buoy. The story made the local news and was in the Washington Post.


Photo: Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission under NOAA Permit #932-1489



#11: Newly Entangled Whale Sighting

Yesterday, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) sighted an entangled whale in their survey area just south of Jacksonville Beach, FL. The New England Aquarium identified the whale as the 2007 calf of 1701. The FWC launched their research vessel Orion to assess the whale's entanglement and attach a telemetry buoy. Zach's previous experience assisting in the disentanglement attempt on Eg#3294 made him a hot commodity for disentanglement events. He was contacted within the first hour the entanglement case was reported to assist in the new entanglement case. The team successfully attached a telemetry buoy and cut hundreds of feet of line trailing behind the whale.

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.




#10: Re-sighting of entangled whale Eg #3294

Thursday morning (Dec. 18), Clay George, a wildlife biologist with Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) Wildlife Resources Division, called to ask if anyone was available for the day to help obtain hydrophone recordings of right whale mom/calf pairs. Fortunately, I had the day off so I immediately jumped at the opportunity to get out on the water. Clay said they planned to launch the boat out of St. Simons Island, GA at 9:15 a.m. (1.5 hours N of Fernandina Beach, FL) and it was 8:00 a.m. when I got off the phone with him. I grabbed my survival suit, packed a quick lunch and rushed out the door. I made it to the St. Simons public boat landing by 9:14!

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!

- Zach



#9: Piper sighted in Florida waters!

Piper, an adult female, was sighted on December 15th off the coast of Florida. Piper was first seen in 1993 by the NEAq aerial survey team off the coast of Florida. She was named Piper after a scar on her flank that resembles the airplane Piper Cub. (You can find out more about her by visiting the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog and searching for Catalog #2320.)

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.

Photo Caption:
Piper on December 15th 2008.




#8: Entangled Whale Update

The entangled whale, Eg #3294, was sighted this morning off the coast of Georgia by the Wildlife trust Georgia aerial survey team. The Georgia DNR Research Vessel Hurricane responded and was able to attach a temeletry buoy to the trailing line behind the whale. The buoy sends a signal allowing researchers to track the whale. This will make future disentanglement attempts much easier to locate the whale. Zach was onboard the R/V Hurricane and looks forward to sharing his story!




#7: Environmental Conditions

There are a lot of different dynamics to this job that I was unaware of in previous years. For the three years I flew as an observer, I would wake up on my scheduled fly days and await the all clear from Monica that the weather was suitable. Often we would go on standby and wait for the fog to clear, the wind to drop or the rain to stop. We are half way through December of the 2009 calving season and are on our eighth 'No Fly' day due to inclement weather. It has been hard to stay on the ground, especially since we know that whales are already in the area. We are all anxious to fly so that we can alert mariners by paging the whales' positions out through the early warning system, and see which whales have made the long journey south for the winter.

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 ...

Photo caption:
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.




#6: Take Off!

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.




#5: Meet a Researcher

My name is Zach Swaim and this is my first season flying right whale surveys with the New England Aquarium. I've been working with right whales for the past four years at the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) on Grand Manan Island, New Brunswick, Canada.

Grand Manan is an incredible island, rich in maritime culture and surrounded by an abundance of marine life. The island is located at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and is an ideal location for scientists to research the animals that aggregate in these highly productive waters during the summer months. The GMWSRS studies many different marine species including, harbour porpoises, shearwaters, Atlantic herring, basking sharks and right whales. During my first summer (2005) at the GMWSRS, I became more aware of the problems facing right whales and the incredible effort by researchers to protect this species. By the end of my first summer on Grand Manan, I knew I wanted to continue working with right whales.

In 2006, I began a masters degree with Dr. Heather Koopman at the University of North Carolina Wilmington where I was able to continue studying right whales in the Bay of Fundy. The objective of my study was to determine whether right whales were able to metabolize the lipids (or fats) of their prey (copepods). I did this by comparing the lipids of right whale fecal material to the lipids found in their copepod prey. It turns out that right whales were eating approximately 62,000 g of fat in one day (this is comparable to eating over 100 blocks of butter!) and were digesting 98% of this fat! This indicates that right whales are highly efficient at metabolizing the fats in their diet. My study can therefore be used to further refine models of habitat quality (in terms of the nutritional value of the prey) for right whales, and in turn aid in the creation of management strategies aimed at protecting critical habitat for these animals (Swaim et al. in press).

I love working with right whales in the Bay of Fundy and I am very excited to start working with these animals in a different habitat and to see them from a different perspective.




#4: Entangled Whale

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.

The weather conditions were too poor for a disentanglement effort to be launched yesterday. All the survey team are aware of the entangled whale and we are hoping to see it again when we can deploy a research vessel to attempt to disentangle the animal.

Photo caption:
1) Eg #3294. The body and head wrap visible.
2) Eg #3294. Head, body wraps and peduncle scars visible.
3) Eg #3294. Fresh peduncle scars.
4) The bitter end of the 350+ft long fishing line trailing the animal.



#3: The first week of the 2009 season

So, as the first week of the 2009 calving season is coming to a close, here is an update on how things have been going. Each of our five member team has flown in the plane a couple of times. We are all getting adjusted to the feeling of being crammed into the Cessna 337 Skymaster for hours on end, surrounded by computer and camera equipment.

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.

On our first full day flying, December 3, there was a bit of excitement when the Wildlife Trust-Georgia (WT/GA) team found the second mother/calf pair of the season and they were concerned that perhaps the mother's right pectoral (or side) flipper had some new scarring and perhaps some fishing gear on it. The WT/GA team relayed the information to the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) who was on the water and headed to the scene. The WT/GA team was told to head home so their images could be downloaded and reviewed by right whale entanglement experts. Our team was called and headed up to Georgia to relocate the mom/calf for the GDNR team on the water so that they could obtain boat images of the whales to further assess the situation.

The sun was setting, it was not easy to find the mother/calf pair in such low light, but at the last minute we found them! We were able to tell the boat on the water the position of the whales and then we headed for home. As it turned out, this whale was identified as #1608 "Morse" (find out more about this individual by searching the right whale catalog) and the scarring that the other survey plane had seen was not new, but from an entanglement event in 2003, it is not believed that she has any remaining gear on her. PHEW!!! An entanglement on a pectoral flipper can be very difficult to disentangle and even harder because no one wants to get between a mom and her calf, which they would probably have to do to approach her for an attempt to disentangle.

So at the conclusion of the first week, 3 mother/calf pairs and at least 17 other whales have been seen in the Southeast US. The 2009 calving season has officially started and I think we might be in for a busy season! On a personal note; it's amazing that after leaving a place and a job for 8 months, you come back and fall right into the same routine and after taking that first turn on my first survey track line of the year, it instantly felt like I never left. I am excited for this season and look forward to sharing it here on this blog!

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.



# 2: The Research Station

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.

Photo Caption:
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'.

- Jonathan



#1: Preparing for the Season

Each winter the New England Aquarium is part of a comprehensive aerial survey effort in the Southeastern United States (SEUS) called the Early Warning System (EWS). The EWS was developed in December 1993 to provide near real time locations of right whales to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) so that seasonal dredging operations did not interfere with right whales.

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.

Together the three survey teams cover the entire right whale critical habitat from Georgia to
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:
1) Map of EWS survey.
2) Ken talking with Zach and Kara on plane safety. From left: Ken, Zach and Kara
3) Holly and Jess examining the luggage compartment. From left: Holly and Jess