#41: Other species

During the course of our flights this year, we didn't just see right whales.

We saw many different types of animals, including schools of cownose rays, humpback whales, loggerhead sea turtles, ocean sunfish (a.k.a. Mola molas), pilot whales, manta rays, tons of dolphins (often these are with right whales), and just a few weeks ago a white shark.

- Kara



#40: The Calving Ground

The North Atlantic right whale calving ground off the coast of Georgia and northeast Florida was known to fisherman long before researchers discovered it. Historic whaling records show numerous mother and calf pairs hunted in the now critical habitat. In January 1935, local fisherman off the coast of St. Augustine, FL spotted and hunted a mother and calf. After a six-hour stand off, the calf's injuries proved too much and it succumbed to the trauma. The mother managed to elude the whalers, but suffered multiple gunshot wounds (read more about this story here). Following this event, a moratorium was put on hunting right whales in U.S. waters.

Almost 50 years later in 1984, researchers at the New England Aquarium, with the help of Delta Airlines pilot David Mattingly and a group of volunteer Delta Airlines pilots, decided to fly aerial surveys in this historic habitat. The results were momentous and would change the way coastal waters were used along the eastern U.S. Researchers discovered the only known calving ground for the North Atlantic right whale, later designated one of three critical habitats in U.S. waters.

These southeastern U.S. waters provide a winter habitat for more than just pregnant females; juveniles, non-pregnant females and some adult males are also seen here. The migration is no easy undertaking; these whales must travel over 1,200 miles, evading clusters of fixed and ghost fishing gear while crossing major shipping lanes into Boston, New York, New Jersey and Charleston. Once in the habitat, the threats are not diminished; the ports of Brunswick, St. Mary and Jacksonville are all within the critical habitat.

Birthing females, or cows, give birth to a single calf at a minimum rate of 1 every 3 years, presuming the calf survives long enough to be weaned from the mother. The calving season spans from December through March with a peak in calving events between January and February. Nearly all cows appear to use the calving ground regardless of where they spend their time the rest of the year. Through extensive survey effort, it is known that not all cows bring their calves to the main summer feeding grounds in the Bay of Fundy. Some go to other feeding areas in the Gulf of Maine, Gulf of St. Lawrence, and likely other summer feeding habitats that have yet to be discovered.

Zooplankton productivity in the calving ground is low and right whale's preferred prey species, Calanus finmarchicus, in not available. This means that all right whales in the calving ground, those not nursing milk from their mother, are metabolically converting lipid storages into a useable energy source. Through the cost of lactation and providing enough energy for herself, birthing mothers can lose up to 1/3 of their total body weight during the calf's first year of life.

Nearly all sightings of mother and calf pairs in the calving grounds are in cool water, with temperatures below 20 C, with a few sightings in warmer waters. Temperatures during summer in the Gulf of Maine feeding grounds are 21.8 C, similar to the warmer water sightings in the southeast calving grounds. To many, this suggests an upper thermal limit for right whales. If the prevailing determinant for the selectivity of a calving ground is temperature, then it is possible that rising ocean temperature may cause a shift in the right whale calving ground. Only time, and a watchful eye, will tell.




#39: What is it like to be an aerial observer?

On a day that we are scheduled to fly, we wake up around 7:30 a.m. and check the board to see what the verdict for the day is; either fly, no fly, or standby. Jess wakes up before us to check all the weather reports and make the decision, see the environmental conditions post.

On a fly day, we get dressed in our flight suits, eat breakfast and pack a lunch in time to leave by 8:25 a.m. We wear flight suits because they are made of Nomex which is fire resistant and one of the many safety precautions we take (see team photo). We bring with us four things, a big black case with our digital camera and video camera in it; a backpack with our computer, binoculars, and clipboard with whale sighting sheets to take notes of what we see; a yellow case with our satellite phone to communicate with our ground contact; and an orange case with our GPS navigation system so the pilots can keep track of where we are and keep track of oncoming weather.

At the airport we load the equipment into the plane, put our lunch in the fridge, and use the restroom one last time before climbing into our small plane for hours; and no, there is no option for restrooms throughout our flight, so this is one of the most important aspects of our pre-flight preparations! The last thing we do before stepping into the plane is put on our life vests; another safety precaution.

During our flight, us aerial observers stare out the windows; focusing our eyes just under the horizon and scanning for whales. If we focused on the water closer to us, we would miss things that are farther away. During our flight we try so hard not to take our eyes off the water, it only takes a second to miss a whale! This season we have had some really far sightings (some 6 or 7 miles from our track line) and there have also been times on our survey line that we flew directly over whales. When we think we see a whale, we use our binoculars to verify and then we tell the pilots to either break track left or right, depending on which side of the plane the whale is on. Our primary responsibility is reporting these whales into the Early Warning System so we fly directly over the whales to get an exact position and closer look at each sighting to determine how many whales are there. Sometimes this is easy and in one pass we can determine the number and sometimes it takes a few passes, especially in the case of a Surface Active Group(SAG) where there may be a lot of rolling, and it can be difficult to figure out the exact number of whales right away. Each observer also has secondary roles; the observer on the right side will photograph whales, while the observer on the left side is responsible for taking data on each of the whales sighted. During each sighting this person is responsible for making sure there are no vessels posing an immediate threat to the whales, see Vessels use in the SEUS. Also this person is responsible for calling in our sightings to our ground contact via the satellite phone and also recording data on changing environmental conditions and anything else of interest during the flight.

In order to keep our eyes on the water as much as possible we take a position in the computer which is hooked up to the GPS using a mouse and then use a voice recorder, whose time is synced to the GPS time, to say what that data point is. At lunch we typically will switch seats so that we can face a different direction to stare out at the water (giving our necks a break) and also to share the different roles.

When our flight is over, our day isn't. When we get home we charge the satellite phone and camera battery, download images and review images and translate our voice recordings into our table with the GPS positions. We also write down a detailed summary of our day so that someone could look at the folder for the day and have a full idea of where we flew, what the weather was like, how many whales we saw, etc. We usually don't fully process our images, or do photo-analysis, on the days that we fly, because flying a full survey and processing just our data ends up being quite a full day. We will wait until a day where we are not flying or have a day off.

In addition to the roles mentioned above, we have one more job role; many times when we are not in the air we are our team's Ground Contact. This person is responsible for knowing where the plane is at all times (we watch the plane on an Automated Flight Following program) and paging out sightings of whales when the plane calls in the sightings to the entire EWS system. The sighting come across on emails, pagers, and cell phones to a wide variety of entities in near-realtime in the following format : "29MAR2009, 11:09(L), 30 47.4N 081 13.6W, 1 ADULT, 1 CALF, HDG N" with the subject line giving relative distance to the nearest sea buoy.
On some days, we can also do some photo-analysis (process our above mentioned collected data) while being ground contact, sometimes there are so many whale sightings all you do is talk to the plane, page out sightings, check on where the plane is, get a phone call, page out a sighting, check on the plane, and repeat until the plane lands. No matter what role we have for the day, our job definitely keeps us busy and can be very rewarding!




#38: Plane Take off Video

After our group photo I was able to stick around and get video of our team taking off after lunch. Zach and Jess were in the plane with pilots Ken Pearson and Holly Freedman. The plane is a Cessna 337 Skymaster. Check out the video below.

There's video of what take off is like from inside the plane in this earlier post.




#37: Team Photo

Jess and Zach flew today and Kara and I went to meet them at the airport when they landed to refuel to take our annual team photo in front of the plane. Event though we all fly so much, it is very rare for us all to be at the airport at the same time. We made our photo shoot quick so Jess and Zach could get back in the air and find some whales. So far they have had 11 whale, including 3 mother and calf pairs. We are happy that we are still finding whales when we fly; but, there is only a few weeks left before we all head back north and none of us like the idea of leaving with the notion that there are still whales in the area.

Photo Caption: From Left- Jess, Kara, Zach, Jonathan




#36: Right Whales in the New York Times

Today's New York Times science section carries an in-depth look at right whale conservation measures, including a slide show of images and a fantastic map (left) co-created by Aquarium GIS expert Kerry Lagueux detailing whale population density and shipping lane modification. The article features information Aquarium Senior Scientist Dr. Moria Brown:

"Dr. Brown said the United States was taking a first step in this direction with regulations going into effect this spring. She said discussions were under way with fishing authorities in Canada. Meanwhile, researchers continue efforts to discover as much as they can about where the animals spend their time, what they eat and what natural factors may affect their health."

Read the whole article here.



#35: Right Whale Sedation

On March 6, a final disentanglement effort was launched to free Bridle (Eg#3311) from a severe entanglement in fishing gear (mentioned in this previous post). The effort was a novel and historic moment for researchers. It was the first time a large whale was successfully sedated in the wild. The disentanglement team was able to free 90% of the fishing line from Bridle. Science Daily published an amazing article that captures the essence of the efforts involved in this event. Below is the link to the article:

Photo Credit: Wildlife Trust

First Right Whale Sedation Enables Disentanglement Effort

ScienceDaily (2009-03-12) -- For the first time ever, rescuers used a new sedation delivery system to help free an entangled North Atlantic right whale. This is the first time in worldwide history a free-swimming large whale was successfully sedated in the wild. ... > read full article




#34: Interesting behaviors

For the past three months, almost every time we have seen Eg #2413 she has been with Eg #1968 (Check them out in the Right Whale Catalog). When this season began, we observed a number of adult female pairs that later became some of this year's mothers. In December, when we started seeing these two, we thought that maybe they could be pregnant females.

However, they prove to be an interesting pair as Eg #1968 has never been documented with a calf, and Eg#2413 is a potential mother as she gave birth 3 years ago. So now it is March, these two females have been together for 3 months and neither one has calved. It is not unusual for two adult females to be with each other for a few months like this and not calve; last year we observed the same thing. We have commonly called these adult female pairs "the ladies."

Just two days ago, "the ladies" were observed together. And then yesterday, we observed Eg #2413 by herself exhibiting a whole stretch of behaviors, check out the slide show below. In the first few images she is posturing with her mouth open; you can see the baleen hanging down from her top jaw as well as her large bottom jaw. She then proceeded to tail slap; notice all the white water around her tail stock. She then started flipper slapping; in these images she has her flipper in the air waiting to bring it down to hit the water.

It was quite a spectacle watching her! There are infinite possibilities as too why whales exhibit such behaviors. In her case, was she missing her companion, was she getting ready to give birth, or was she just perhaps enjoying life? We may never know. Our mission is to fly our Early Warning Systems and unless we think a whale is in distress, for instance from a ship strike or an entanglement, we are only onsite for a few minutes. In this case she seemed to calm down and so we moved on with the rest of our survey. It will be interesting to see where she is seen next and with whom; only time will tell.




#33: February Flights

As most every year, February was a busy month flying aerial surveys in the southeast US. Most of the moms have had their calves and typically males begin to show up in the region. In addition, we tend to see more social active groups (follow link to see footage from the Bay of Fundy) in February. With so many whales in the area, we were fortunate to have so many good weather days. Often we have to cancel or shorten a flight due to bad weather. However, we flew 20 of 28 days in February, of which 45 percent of the flights covered 100% of our survey area. Only 5 percent of the flights covered less than 50 percent of the survey area. We had a total of 216 sightings including 455 whales (most whales are re-sightings from previous days), with a season record of 49 whales in one day. We documented 5 new calves, and 1 entangled whale. We logged the longest flight days of the season with two 8.0 hr days. As much as I love sighting whales, I will be happy to see them start their migration north.

Photo Caption:
1) Photo of Eg#3101 with her calf during Feb. Taken by Jonathan
2) Photo of a SAG during Feb. Taken by Zach.




#32: Right Whale on NBC

Today, NBC Nightly News ran a story on the North Atlantic right whale. The NBC team came to our field station to interview our team on February 13. They videotaped everything, from Jess answering a call on the survey plane relaying sighting information for right whales to Monica discussing the importance of the EWS aerial surveys. The NBC team also accompanied a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) disentanglement effort. They did a great job showing how so many forces need to come together for effort to be completed safely and successfully. Below are the two videos, TV and Extended, respectively.

NBC Version

Extended Version




#31: Whale Behavior - Posturing

On February 26, we flew our normal survey area of 406 nm. We sighted 30 right whales and 1 humpback in our survey area. We saw a lot of whale behaviors typical for this area, SAGs, nursing and logging to name a few. One behavior that we saw I had never witness in the Southeast before; posturing.

Posturing is when a whale shows off it flexibility by arching its back, simultaneously lifting it head and flukes out of the water. Its hard to imaging such an enormous creature contorting its body in such a way, but it happens. The reason for this behavior is not known, but it is commonly seen after a whale has been resting at the surface, (logging), for extended periods of time. That did not appear to be the case for this whale, since it was interacting with a group of whale at the time the behavior was captured. Both the visual aesthetics and mystery behind this behavior make it a captivating experience to witness.

- Jonathan