#22: Stranded Right Whale

On Wednesday, a live stranded right whale was discovered on the shoals off Cape Lookout in North Carolina. The whale was identified by the New England Aquarium as the 2007 calf of Eg#2460, a two year old male.

On Thursday, a team of scientist arrived to the scene to assess the health of the whale. It was determined the 2 year old male was in poor condition and suffering. The atmospheric pressure and heating sun beating on the whale's 30 ft massive body made it exigent that team acted quickly to humanely euthanize the whale. A necropsy was performed to determine the cause of this sad and unusual travesty. Several samples were obtained and are currently being analysed.

To see photos of the stranded whale and watch a news video from WNC local news click here.

Photo Caption:
2007 calf of 2460 in the Bay of Fundy in 2007.




#21: Contingency Plans

A typical survey for our team (pink section of map) is to start at 30 50.0N (southeast Georgia) and fly east from the shoreline to 080 47.0W, then fly 3 nautical miles (nm) south and turn west back to the shore. We fly this transect pattern (red horizontal lines on map) until we reach 030 17.0N (Jacksonville, FL). Each time we fly this survey pattern, we fly a distance of 406 nm and cover over 1000 sq.nm. However, when Wildlife Trust-Georgia (WT/GA) and/or Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (Florida FWC) aerial teams cannot fly their survey areas, for mechanical reasons, then the survey effort is modified to either a two-plane or a one-plane contingency plan to ensure that as much of the critical habitat area is surveyed as possible.

On Thursday (01/22) and Friday (01/23), there was a large, multi-agency disentanglement effort to free Bridle (Eg#3311/2003 Calf of Eg#1711), of entangling fishing line. Aerial support was provided by Florida FWC to provide vital information to the boat crews about the behavior of the whale and location of the line (as mentioned in past disentanglement blogs) and therefore, were unable to fly the southern section of the right whale critical habitat area. Coincidentally, the WT/GA survey team was also unable to fly the northern section of the critical habitat area from Wednesday through Friday because their plane required its 100 hour scheduled maintenance. Fortunately, we are prepared for situations when one or two teams are unable to fly their surveys.

Click on the lines to identify different contingency plans.

On Wednesday (01/21), Kara and I flew the two-plane contingency plan starting at 31 14.0N (northern most transect line in SE critical habitat area) south to 30 41.0N. This area represents the southern section of WT/GA survey area and our northern section. Florida FWC covered our southern survey area and a portion of their northern section. In order to cover this additional area in one day, we reduce the survey effort to the east (081 00.0W) which allows us to focus areas more heavily trafficked by both whales and ships.

On Thursday and Friday, we flew the one-plane contingency plan, starting at 31 14.0N and flew south to 30 11.0N. The one-plane contingency plan stretches our survey area 24 nm north and 6 nm south. Because we're covering more of the right whale habitat area, the past two days have been very busy. Thursday, Jess and I sighted 24 whales; and Friday, Jess and Kara sighted 19 whales (12 of those were mom/calf pairs!). We hope to give you an updated report to entangled whale Bridle (Eg#3311), soon but for now check out this press release for the most current news.
Photo Caption:
1) Map of EWS Suvey Area. The white solid line shows the right whale critical habitat. The black dotted line shows the Mandatory Ship Reporting (MSR) Area. The contingency plan fights cover two or all three of the color shaded areas depending on the plan.


#20: Our House

You can find out more about the research station from this previous post.
Here's a slideshow of some additional house shots:




#19: Weather can change so much in a day!

Tuesday, January 19, we woke up and the forecast was different than predicted the night before. The forecast had changed to 10-15 kts all day and there was a bit of unexpected fog that rolled in. So we waited about an hour for the fog to clear and took off at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m.

As we started our survey the sea was a bit rougher than we thought it would be with the forecasted winds. We started south and as we continued surveying towards the north. The seas calmed down quite a bit.

By the time we were on our last survey line, around 4:00-ish, the seas had laid down so much that there were no whitecaps at all. Take a look at this picture (above left) of Eg#2660- Gannet (named for the scar on her head that looks like a diving gannet)- that we sighted at 4:30 p.m. Notice the calm water around her. About 6 minutes later Jess sighted a whale to the north of our transect line, Eg#1012- Pediddle (photo below). Pediddle was named for the white scar on her head that reminded researchers of a car with only one headlight.

Pediddle was breaching and tail slapping so we could find her much easier! Peddidle is one of our now 23 mothers down here. We did not see her calf with her; however, the behavior that she was exhibiting is something we have seen before with mothers whose calves wonder off a bit. The mother will breach or tail slap and then all of sudden the calf will come out of nowhere and the mother will stop this behavior. It's as if she is calling the calf back to her.

After we finished photographing Pediddle, we continued on our track line; then I saw a whale that was tail slapping about 2 miles to our south. When we broke from our track line to find the whale I lost the spot where I saw it; I wonder if this was Pediddle's calf (hmmm?!?)

Yesterday, we were grounded due to high winds. This morning the winds are pretty high, but scheduled to drop, so we are standing by waiting for the wind. Luckily the rest of the week looks great for flying and finding whales!

Photo caption:

1) Photo of Gannet (Eg#2660) in calm Beaufort sea state.
2) Photo of Peddidle (Eg#1012) in rough Beaufort sea state just a few miles east of Gannet.

~ Kara



#18: Entanglement Update

Update on the previously mentioned entanglement case.

The telemetry buoy attachment was a success and the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) was able to monitor the entangled whale (2003 calf of 1711) as it swam from Brunswick, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida Wednesday night. The PCCS sent the latest know position for the whale, which was in our survey area. We launched into action, flying south to the whale's last known position at latitude 30 18N and longitude 81 00W. The winds were blowing between 10-20 knots, which made sighting conditions difficult.

The entangled whale's last known position
We were getting frustrated that we couldn't find the whale despite the fact that the affixed telemetry buoy was telling us its exact position. Our frustration was relieved when the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission aerial survey team called us on the radio to tell us they had a visual on the whale 3 nautical miles south in their survey area.

The weather was not suitable to launch a full disentanglement effort, but both research vessels, Hurricane, Orion, were launched to survey. The r/v Orion went to the 2003 Calf of Eg#1711 to get better photographs of the entanglement and assess the whale's behavior. The r/v Hurricane stayed in our survey area to test their equipment for the acoustic and tagging research later this season. The new photographs taken by r/v Orion will help experts formulate the best plan of action for disentangling the whale. Now all we need is a weather window.




#17: New Entanglement Case

The Wildlife Trust/Georgia aerial survey team found an entangled whale today off the Georgia coast. The team was able to stay with the whale until the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) research vessel Hurricane arrived on scene. The Georgia DNR vessel was able to attach a telemetry buoy and remove some of the fishing line trailing back from the whale.

Photographs taken by the Wildlife Trust team were sent to specialist to review severity of the entanglement. Experts at the New England Aquarium believe the whale to be the 2003 calf of Eg#1711. (You can search for more information on this individual on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.)

With winds blowing between 15-20 knots, the next few days do not look good enough to launch a disentanglement effort. We are hoping a window will open up and the telemetry buoy will stay attached to the whale long enough to relocate and launch a full scale disentanglement effort.

Photo Caption: The 2003 calf of Eg #1711 seen before it was entangled by the New England Aquarium. Photo taken February 2008 by Gabriella Munoz.




#16: 21 Mother/calf pairs!

The calving season is in full swing in the Southeast U.S.! As of January 12, 21 mother/calf pairs have been documented by aerial survey teams ranging from St. Augustine, Florida to as far north as North Carolina. To put this in perspective, the largest recorded calving season, 31 calves, yielded 18 calves by the end of January 2001. We are already at 21 calves and we aren't even half way through the season! Needless to say the 2009 right whale calving season is turning out to be very exciting one; it seems that each day the survey teams fly more new mothers with calves are being found!

Morse (Eg#1608) logging at the surface while her calf swims close by.
Notice the distinctive V-shaped blow from the calf. Photo Taken by Jessica Taylor.

We are so lucky to witness the first months between a mother and her calf. It's a pretty amazing feat for a mother right whale. She travels down here from Northern Atlantic waters off the New England coast, approximately 1500 miles. She fasts the entire time she is in this area, during which she gives birth to an approximate 12 foot, 2,000 pound calf and then starts nursing the calf, which will gain hundreds of pounds weekly! Amazingly she will nurse the calf for the next year or so. What a huge expenditure of energy; no wonder most of the time we see mother/calf pairs the mother appears to be resting!

This is the only known calving ground for this critically endangered species, so this is an incredibly important habitat for them. We are doing our best to keep their calving ground a safe place. When we find them we alert shipping and military interests of their locations so they can actively avoid the whales. Some mothers and calves stay in one place for days, while others have been known to travel several miles in a single day! Stay tuned for a future blog about mother/calf behavior.

Eg#2145 swims with her calf on December 27, 2008. Photo taken by Zach Swaim.

In addition to each mother looking different, the 21 mothers have a lot of diversity among them. Of the 21 mothers, there are 3 first time moms and 8 moms that have given birth to 5 or more calves, including this year. Just this weekend we documented Eg#1334 with her eighth known calf! The youngest mother so far this season is 8 years old, and many mothers are over 20 years old! Two of the mothers are whales that you can sponsor, Eg#2223 "Calvin" and Eg#2320 "Piper", as part of the North Atlantic Right Whale Sponsorship Program. You can search for individual whales and get their complete sighting history at the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.

In addition to these already documented mothers, there have been a number of whales seen in the Southeast U.S. that are potential mothers--they are of calving age and have not had a calf in three years- so stay tuned as this exciting season continues!

~ Kara



#15: Jordan Basin- a New Wintering Ground?

For years we have been curious about where most of the right whales are in the winter and where they mate. We see mating type behavior year round, but they mostly give birth from December to March (with a few exceptions!). Because their gestation is 12-13 months, this means they should be getting pregnant November through March. This is a tough time of the year to be out surveying for right whales!

We know mothers and calves and juveniles are off the southern coast of the United States and some others are seen in Cape Cod Bay, but where most of the adults are during the peak of the conception time has been unknown. In the last few years, NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center has been doing broad aerial surveys over the Gulf of Maine and have found a consistent aggregation of right whales near Jordan Basin (pdf), which is about 70 miles south of Bar Harbor, Maine.

Jordan Basin

Once we identify all these animals, we will be able to look at their reproductive histories and see whether there is any evidence that they are mating in this area as well.

Ironically, for years researchers have hunted for a missing wintering ground using invasive tags and analyzing data from satellites. Many thought a wintering ground would be further offshore. Although 70 miles at sea is a good distance, but in another view, it is in the middle of our back yard!




#14: Exciting right whale sighting in the Azores!

On January 5, 2009 at 16:40 a North Atlantic Right Whale was observed off the Azores by biologists from the University of the Azores Dept. of Oceanography and Fisheries (Monica Silva, Irma Cascão, Maria João Cruz, Rui Guedes, and Norberto Serpa), as well as a biologist from Whale Watch Azores (Lisa Steiner). The observers noted that this was the first confirmed sighting of a right whale in the Azores since 1888!

Whale #3270 seen south of Pico Island in the Azores. Photo by Lisa Steiner- Whale Watch Azores.

This was exciting news on its own, but it became more exciting when I was able to match the whale to one in the Catalog from the western North Atlantic. Before the match, we had no idea whether this would be an animal from our side of the ocean, or perhaps a remnant from a population that is believed to have last roamed the eastern Atlantic centuries ago.

Recent sightings of Catalog #3270

The whale is a female, Catalog #3270, that had last been seen by Aquarium researchers in the Bay of Fundy on the 24th of September 2008. She is relatively new to the catalog with a first sighting in 2002 (See the Catalog for details) and we will be interested to see when and if she has her first calf.

Its amazing how exciting this work can be - even when sitting in front of a computer all day!




#13: Good News!

It has been a while since our last post, but that's not to say nothing exciting has happened in the past week. As Jon mentioned in our last couple of posts (here and here), there is a newly entangled whale, 2007 Calf of Eg #1701.

Well, as suspected, it appears our disentanglement efforts were a success! On January 4th, the 2007 Calf of Eg #1701 was spotted gear free by Wildlife Trust-Georgia (WT/GA) aerial survey team! We were all very excited and relieved when we heard the news especially because only about 50 percent of disentanglement attempts are successful.

It has been very gratifying for us to participate in a successful disentanglement but we are all hoping this will be the last entangled whale of the year. Eg #3294--the first entangled whale of the season--has not been re-righted since our last disentanglement effort on December 18 but we are optimistic that the next time we see it it will be gear free. You can search for information and photos of these individual whales by their numbers on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.