#42: End of Season Wrap Up

It has been an extremely positive calving season for right whales on many counts, from the new ship strike reduction rule, to the record number of calves born to the population. On December 9, all vessels over 65 feet were subject to mandatory speed restrictions (pdf) of 10 knots or less in one of many seasonal management areas along the east coast during times when right whales are likely to be present.

One of the moms from this season, Baldy (Eg#1240) has proven to show some interesting patterns of travel within the season. She was first sighted on 2nd December, by the Wildlife Trust aerial survey team off the coast of South Carolina with another pregnant female. The first time she was sighted with her calf was when she was seen in the rare sighting by Virginia Aquarium whale watchers off the coast of Virginia on the January 9. But she did not stop her expeditions there, and traveled back down south, being sighted multiple times by teams in the southeast throughout the season. Baldy's grand-daughter, Boomerang was also a mom this season, and also appears to have a taste for adventure. In 2005, she took her newborn calf on a trek up the Corpus Christi River, Texas. I wonder if these future generations will follow in the fluke prints of their maternal lineage. Another fairly unusual first mom calf pair sighting was that of Calvin (Eg#2223) who was sighted by the University of North Carolina, Wilmington aerial survey team off the coast of North Carolina and then never again by teams further south. Calvin is one of the whales you can sponsor in the North Atlantic Right Whale Sponsorship Program and she is the inspiration for the Calvineers, a group of young whale conservationists.

One interesting visitor to the calving grounds was the Eg#3760 (2007 calf of Derecha -Eg#2360). Derecha's calf has an unusual patch of callosity on its right flank. We were able to get some excellent images of this random patch of callosity and monitor its growth. You can search for these sighting photos for all the right whale individuals on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.

Unfortunately, there were some fatalities witnessed during the season. Two of these showed up in North Carolina. Early in the season, a neonate calf live stranded on the beach; the calf appeared to have complications at birth which may have lead to it death. One two-year old male stranded alive on the shallow shoals just south of Cape Lookout National Seashore, in extremely poor health, and was being pecked at by birds. It was hard for veterinarians to access these sand bars but the whale (Eg#3710) was eventually euthanized. A calf carcass, severely predated upon by sharks was discovered by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission aerial survey team east of St. Augustine, FL. Following the necropsy of this animal, it is thought that this calf could also have been a victim of birth complications although this is not verified. One previously sighted mom calf pair (Gannet, Eg#2660 and calf) was later sighted without her calf and has not been sighted since.

Other shocking events of the season were the number of entanglements discovered. There were a total of five entanglements, most of which have been described in previous blog entries as events unfolded. Eg#3311 was a severely entangled whale, which veterinarians were able to successfully sedate in order to cut extensive gear wrapped around the whale's rostrum, mouth and flipper. The nature of remaining gear is unknown for three of the entanglement cases (Eg#3311, Eg#3420 and 2007 Calf of Eg#2614), although one has been sighted in Cape Cod Bay since disentanglement efforts which were made off the coast of Georgia, but it is unclear as to whether any line remains on the animal. Two whales, (Eg#3294 and 2007 Calf of Eg#1701), were successfully disentangled and have been seen gear-free multiple times in relatively good health. Efforts to free the whales of gear were performed by multi-agencies, (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Georgia Department of Natural Resources, Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission, Wildlife Trust), working in collaboration under extraordinary circumstances, and without the cooperation and dedication of all involved, such successes would not have been possible.

All in all the season has been healthily exhausting. From our fist flight on December 3, 2008 through to March 31, 2009, the New England Aquarium aerial survey team has taken to the air on 71 days, and on only five of these days no whales were found in our survey area. Our survey team has witnessed 430 separate sightings, and recorded 864 whales throughout the season (this includes duplicates of individuals sighted at different times). Our calf count of 39 exceeds the maximum calves born in any previously recorded calving season. Prior to this year, the record number was 31 calves born in 2001.

It seems so fresh in my memory when we arrived at our Fernandina Beach field station setting up equipment and establishing our new address. Now, as we dismantle antennas, wipe down equipment and take down charts, it is really hitting home that the season is over. And as I write this article, recalling the many occurrences and efforts from such a variety of people involved in a common passion, I am proud to have had a contribution, and yet, I am still in disbelief that four months have flown by in what seems like a blink of an eye.

Thank you everyone for following our aerial survey blog. We will keep you updated on right whale events as they happen and look forward to sharing our adventures during our summer field season in the Bay of Fundy, coming in August.

Photo Caption:
1) Baldy with her calf
2) Derecha's calf; look closely and you can see the grey markings on the right flank.
3) Our team in front of our plane; From left, Jonathan, Zach, Jess, and Kara.

-Jess, Kara, Zach, Jonathan


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