#10 Sometimes the Whales Come to Us

In a unique (but not extraordinary) circumstance, Jess received a call from our pilot Ryan a few evenings ago after the two observers for the day, Suzie and Karen, had already returned to the house to write up their survey data. Ryan told Jess that after flying the EWS right whale survey, he had gone up on a recreational flight with a friend and had spotted two North Atlantic right whales just off American Beach on Amelia Island, a mere five miles down the beach from our observer house. Trying to beat the quickly approaching darkness, Jess grabbed the survey camera and headed down to the spot where Ryan had seen the whales. Since I was out and about picking up groceries I met up with Jess at the beach, who was trying to take the best photographs possible in the waning light.
Jess snaps photographs of the calf, half of who's fluke and flipper is visible farther offshore.

Once on the beach, the whales were not hard to spot. They were only one to two hundred yards from where the waves crashed onto shore, and one of them, a small calf, was rolling and splashing, bringing its already enormous paddle-shaped flippers out of the water and smacking them on the surface and also posturing, a common right whale behavior in which the whale's tail and head are out of the water at the same time as the whale does a bit of a back arch. After Jess had taken all the pictures she could, we stayed for some minutes more and watched the calf splash around, surrounded by a swarm of dolphins. The whales we see here on the calving grounds are often accompanied by bottlenose dolphins, so we didn't find this to be unusual. The only thing a tad unusual, in fact, was that we hadn't seen much of the mother, and before we departed the beach, Jess and I were hoping for some kind of assurance that the calf hadn't been abandoned. But eventually, as we stood there squinting into the dusky ocean, we saw the spanning back and humungous spout of an adult. Comforted, we returned to our cars.

Despite what people might logically assume, there's no cause for alarm when right whales are this close to the beach. Right whales are commonly seen with mud on their rostrums, and it's possible that this mother and calf were rolling around in the sand and resting in the shallows. The entirety of the main calving area off Georgia and Florida is fairly shallow, and we think shallow waters must be part of what attracts the whales to this particular area. North Atlantic right whales historically stay close to shore, a rather unfortunate characteristic of this particular species that severely endangers them to shipping traffic and fishing gear.




#9 A 'First' We Would Like to Avoid

One of the great aspects of being new to right whale aerial surveys is that everything I am seeing down here is novel for me, especially this early in the season. And so, I was pretty excited to spot the first mother-calf pair of the season in our area during our December 22nd survey. Jess estimated the calf to be about 2 or 3 days old, based on it's size, lack of cyamid coverage and light grey coloration.

The coastal waters of Florida and Georgia are the only known calving grounds for the North Atlantic right whale and as such, this area has been designated as a Critical Habitat Area by NOAA. This area is also busy with vessel traffic, including freighters, tankers, dredges, naval ships and LOTS of recreational boats. Thus, as we circled the mother-calf pair so Jess could photograph the pair for identification purposes, we all kept a look-out on three nearby recreational boats.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Jessica Taylor
Taken under a Scientific Research Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA.

Two of these boats were stationary and well beyond the 500 yards mandatory approach limit established by NOAA in 1997, but the third vessel was underway and had changed course a number of times. All attempts to hail this vessel on marine channel 16 to warn them of the nearby whales failed and we watched with increasing dismay as the vessel headed straight toward the pair! Fortunately, the recreational boat did not hit either mother or calf, but they were definitely too close for comfort. NOAA has established several regulations to reduce ship strikes in this area, one of which is that vessels 65 ft or longer must travel at 10 knots or less. However, it is strongly recommended that smaller boats also slow down and post a look out while traveling through the calving grounds. Also, if they monitored VHF Ch 16 then perhaps we could avert future violations of the 500 yard closest approach rule - it sure is a 'first experience' I would prefer never to witness!




#8 Keeping track of Injuries

On December 15th, during one of the few aerial surveys the teams in the southeast US have been able to fly this December (inclement weather has been a problem), observers with Wildlife Trust came across a group of 6 right whales in a SAG off the coast of Georgia. Tricia Naessig, the team leader, noticed one whale with two series of propeller cuts on its left flank (pictured below). She sent images along to the New England Aquarium so that we could both evaluate the severity of the cuts and also match the animal to the catalog to determine when it was last seen.

We have been able to match the animal to #3745, a three year old male. This animal was last seen on February 26, 2009 also in the southeast U.S. The propeller cuts do not appear to be fresh. There are orange cyamids in the wounds and some grey skin in the vicinity of the cuts. Both of these features would take at least a couple of weeks to appear so we have no idea when or where this animal may have been struck.

The nature of the cuts; the distance apart, the length, and the apparent depth, indicate this was not a big vessel. Although it is difficult to pinpoint a propeller diameter and associated vessel length with precision, especially when accurate measurements of the cuts are not possible, there are several studies that have been done to evaluate propeller cuts on marine mammals, especially manatees. Yet, in this case, the best I can do is give an impression of vessel size based on the size of cuts I have seen in the past on right whales from known vessel sizes and the studies done by others. My impression is that the whale was struck by a twin engine vessel resulting in the two series of cuts and that this vessel was perhaps 30-40 feet long. Although the cuts are not parallel to one another as we would expect, it may be that during the strike, the whale was flexed. Or perhaps the propeller shaft for one of the engines got bent during the strike.

Photo Credit: Wildlife Trust
Vessel strikes by recreational vessels continue to be a problem for right whales. Typically these boats are moving fast and do not see the whale if it is submerged. The whale can't always respond quickly enough to avoid these fast moving vessels. Although these strikes by smaller vessels are not typically fatal, these animals can succumb to infection or effects of stress even months or years down the road. Efforts to educate recreational vessel operators all along the eastern seaboard about operating prudently around whales, especially during right whale migration and in seasonal use areas, continue to be paramount.



#7 NASA training might have been helpful...

The great news is that we are beginning to see more and more North Atlantic right whales here on the calving grounds off of Florida and Georgia. More whales mean more challenges for us researchers; we're now able to put our thorough training and reviewing into practice in the plane and on the ground. In a position with such variegated responsibilities as this one, practice truly does make perfect, and two days ago I learned the hard way that no matter how many times I lift the research camera, fuss with the settings, and practice shooting from the ground, there's no way to prepare for photographing right whales from the air other than actually doing it.

As we survey for whales each day, the main responsibilities in the plane are divided between the two team members who are flying that day. The person next to the right window of the Cessna is responsible for photographing the whales in each sighting, while the person in the left is responsible for assessing the area and ensuring there is no potential vessel traffic heading on course for the whales. Vessel and whale data is recorded both by hand on data sheets, by computer, and verbally into a voice recorder.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Kelly Slivka.
Taken under a Scientific Research Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA.

Two days ago I was in the right seat manning the camera when we had our fist Surface Active Group (also known as a SAG) of the season. It was a relatively small group, containing only six individuals. However, the part of the sighting I found truly difficult was not keeping track of the whales, but simply managing to photograph something-- anything-- from 1,000 feet in the air as the plane spins in a circle as if it's winding up to go into orbit, jostled by the blustering, icy winds that shove through the open window, finding the most stable way to prop the 7-pound camera so it faces down toward the water's surface, then fighting the constant centrifugal forces in order to manage 20 seconds of stability so that I can aim, focus, and shoot the whales diving and rolling beneath us in that slight window of time allowed as the plane swings into position over them-- clickclickclick-- before the whales are gone behind the overhanging wing. Though I was, in the end, able to capture identification shots for the individuals in this SAG (one of my shots is above), I certainly left myself a lot of room for personal improvement and have fostered a weighty respect for the more seasoned aerial photographers on the team.




#6 In the hands of Mother Nature

One of the most over-ruling facets of field work is weather. A lot of people could probably go days without looking at a weather forecast-- save making plans for a picnic or a day at the beach. But here in our field house we check the weather incessantly, waiting for every hourly update of the sea conditions in our survey area and obsessing over the swirl of colors on the radar as they fluctuate and surge.

In fact, the first thing our team leader Jess does in the wee hours of the morning is mull over the weather reports-- weather at the airport we depart from, the height of the clouds, visibility, winds, rain, how these factors change the farther we get out to sea and how they change north and south along the coast. The main reason we are preoccupied by weather is that it can affect our ability to sight whales from the plane. As I displayed two posts ago, whales can be hard to spot when the sea is glassy as a lake; with increasing winds and waves, our ability to spot whales from one thousand feet in the air decreases enormously, so flying would be futile.

We have been having a rough December as of yet, hampered by strong Northeasterly winds punctuated by bouts of enveloping fog (exemplified in the accompanying photographs taken off Fernandina Beach). It's certainly a unique and atavistic situation to be thus ruled by the whims of winter weather patterns. Hopefully our fortunes will change here very shortly so that we can get out and better protect area right whales, undoubtedly gathering at this moment in the local waters, rain or shine.




#5 Meet a Researcher: Jessica Taylor

Marine science has always been a completely fascinating field to me. Growing up, I was impressed by everything to do with the ocean, from mysterious pictures of deep-water fish with strange biolumiscent fishing lures, to the sheer size of the great whales. Aboard a whale watch off the coast of Maine, I saw a humpback named Colt, staring up at the passengers onboard with his inquisitive eye, blurring the boundaries between people watching and whale watching. (See an example of this for yourself by watching this video)

I immersed myself in volunteer projects ranging from; scrubbing algae off seal rehabilitation enclosures in Cornwall, UK, to traipsing a beach in Crete, Greece reading tracks in the sand to locate loggerhead nests. Immediately after completing my Bachelors degree I started work as an intern for an expedition company in London, following which I attended a two-month long, marine impact assessment scuba survey in Fiji. The coral cays of the Mamanuca island chain were a world apart from where I learnt to dive in Cornwall. We performed a dive census twice daily, recording every species of fish, invertebrate, coral and algae that we encountered along a 10 metre transect. That was in 2003, and there have been many stepping stones along the way between there and where I am today.

Throughout my travels I have always been drawn to finding work in my field. I found myself diving to clean a shark tank at work in an aquarium of New Zealand's south island, and in Akaroa, NZ, I worked with a PhD student studying Hector's dolphins (pictured). The buffet lifestyle of a marine biologist can take you to some of the world's most breathtaking locations.

Whilst working with researchers studying humpbacks off Western Australia one summer, an opportunity arose to fly aerial surveys for them, and I was familiar with flying in twin engine Skymaster Cessna aircrafts from right whale surveys. Over the next few days I must have seen some of the most remote, awe-inspiring scenery that exists on earth (pictured).

On the return flight over the Kimberly region in the north of Western Australia, we flew over Mitchell Falls, a stunning multi-tiered waterfall.

I have been involved in such a diverse myriad of projects, that it is great to have the consistency of returning to right whale research for my fifth year. Over the years that I have been flying aerial surveys with the New England Aquarium, I have seen a white shark scavenging on a carcass, a right whale surfacing head first repeatedly in between the outstretched flippers of a shocked loggerhead turtle, and even been lucky enough to witness a live birth of a right whale calf.

Work is completely all-consuming in this field, seasons are short, but intense. Survey days are long; the coordination of field work, including data collection and processing is laborious. However, all the hard work and dedication pays off for those moments when you have your breath taken away by the stunning beauty, and intriguing mystery of nature.




#4: A Day of Firsts

Wednesday was a big day for me - I saw North Atlantic right whales for the first time! Two juvenile whales (calves of 2008) were rolling, touching and diving for extended periods together; in other words, they were displaying the behavior of a Surface Active Group (SAG). Unfortunately, the other first for me on this survey was not such a happy occasion. We encountered an entangled humpback whale.

I've seen dead whales before and have observed both killer and sperm whales up close predating on fish hauled up on fishing gear in the Gulf of Alaska, but never before have I seen an entangled whale. Despite my emotional turmoil over witnessing such a situation, I had the sense to be impressed by the consummate professionality of our Team Leader, Jess.

Calmly, patiently, and in great detail, she photographed the whale and described the various complicated aspects of the entanglement so that I could relay the information to our Ground Contact, Kelly, who then put the phone tree into motion. This phone tree refers to the various contacts from federal, state and non-profit agencies who decide the appropriate action plan for dealing with an entangled large whale.

In this case, the seas were too rough to attempt immediate disentanglement, or even to try attaching telemetry gear so that the whale could be tracked. But, at least, now all aerial surveys teams are on high alert, and thanks to Jess's awesome photo documentation (shown here), everyone has a good idea of what to expect . We are all hopeful that we'll re-sight this humpback soon so that the disentanglement crew can spring into action and help this magnificent animal!




#3: The Art of Aerial Spotting

During yesterday's aerial survey our team spotted its first North Atlantic right whale of the season--even though the weather has been trying to keep us down, we are finally rolling here on the calving grounds! I'm ecstatic that we will be seeing more and more whales on our surveys now, since long stretches of surveying without whales can be quite mind-numbing. In fact, there's a definite art to spotting whales over miles and miles of textured, churning water.

When looking for something that's not a whitecap or a wave, a buoy or a bird on the ocean's surface, we basically have to train our minds to detect an aberration. As we scan back and forth, we need to find that one patch of white-water that's unlike the others, or that one shadow rolling a tad unusually. It's definitely not simple, and it takes a lot of practice. I think a good comparison would be looking at a pointillist painting, like Georges Seurat's A Sunday on La Grande Jatte and trying to find the one dot that doesn't belong. The photo above is an example of just how subtle a right whale at the sea surface can be.




#2: Right Whale Festival

Unfortunately, the weather prevented us from flying a survey today. On the bright side, those of us scheduled to fly were able to check out the Right Whale Festival in Jacksonville Beach, Florida instead.

Monica, Kelly, and Kara manned the New England Aquarium's booth and did a great job providing information about right whales to festival-goers. Despite the rain and biting wind early in the day, people came out to show their support and interest in right whale issues. Overall the festival appeared to be a success!




#1: Getting Down to Business!

Each winter the New England Aquarium is part of a comprehensive aerial survey effort in the Southeastern United States called the Early Warning System (EWS). The EWS was developed in December 1993 to provide near real- time locations of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales to the Army Corps of Engineers (ACOE) so that seasonal dredging operations did not interfere with these vulnerable whales. (Read more about this in previous posts here and here.)

The effort, communication, technology and awareness of the EWS have evolved greatly over the past seventeen 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. (Learn more about the busy ports in the area from this post.)

The EWS consists of three survey teams working from north to south along roughly 100 miles of coastline (see map). These teams work every day it's possible to fly, even during the holidays, and consist of many dedicated observers from Wildlife Trust, the Florida Conservation Commission, and the New England Aquarium.

With many thanks to the team members, funding agencies, experts and all those that have contributed to and enforced this extraordinary operation, another North Atlantic right whale season is now underway on the southeastern calving grounds.

Since mid- to late-November, researchers have been gathering down south and setting up shop along the coast, preparing to meet the arriving right whales. North Atlantic right whales, a still very mysterious species, can generally be found feeding in Cape Cod Bay and the Great South Channel in spring. Come warm summer weather, many of the whales move up to the Bay of Fundy, between Maine and Nova Scotia, and continue to take in massive amounts of food before moving back down the coast for the wintertime. While some whales return to Massachusetts waters for their falls and winters, a sizable amount come down to the warmer waters off of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida before and/or after feeding near Massachusetts. The large majority of the whales we do see down in the southeast are pregnant females and females with brand new calves, so this close-to-shore southeastern area is known as the main calving ground for the species; in fact, it's the only calving ground for North Atlantic right whales known at all! (You can claim a plot of ocean in this area and pledge to protect it by living blue on the Aquarium's Live Blue Initiative.) As this species of whale continues to teeter near the edge of extinction, the EWS effort to survey the calving grounds is crucial, and the project draws observers and researchers from all over the world.

But getting down to business for the 2009-2010 season in particular--all the teams had arrived by the last days in November and met for the usual team meeting on November 29 in order to discuss new changes to research, particularly with photo identification (play a flash game explaining this here). As it turns out, EWS aerial surveys provide an excellent platform for researching right whales and keeping track of this precarious population, so as observers we collect data about the whales while reporting to concerned ships about the whales' locations. This makes the importance of our surveys twofold.

On November 30 many of the observers met in St. Augustine Florida to get some training on disentangling right whales from fishing gear that the whales tend to get wrapped up in, just in case any of us are needed in an emergency entanglement circumstance. (If you're wondering what on Earth this entanglement business is about, stay posted! There will surely be a better description later in the season. You can also read about past entanglements in these previous posts.) Anyone not involved in the disentanglement training was finishing up the preparation for flight--testing radios, wiring the survey airplanes, and solidifying the EWS network.

Starting mid-November, a few North Atlantic right whales were seen heading down the coast by researchers further north, which is a really early arrival. Special buoys planted in the ocean around the calving grounds have also been picking up right whale calls under water, meaning that whales have been in the immediate area. Because of these good signs, we were all ready to get going right away on December 1, the official first day of the seasonal surveys.

Unfortunately, with the first of the month came an onslaught of bad weather, and the seas were too rough to make surveys functional. Instead of surveying on December 1, we did some in-flight training, and I had my first ride in our small but sturdy survey plane, a Cessna Skymaster 337 (at left). The coast was beautiful from the airplane, and we tested our radios and took some practice photographs of marker buoys in order to cinch the routine for photographing whales. (More about photo-identification of right whales in many of the next posts!)

Most importantly, we got to know the New England Aquarium team mascot: Louie, the adorable pup of Ken, one of our pilots.

Weather was less than ideal again today, so we hunkered down at the house and went over a computer program named DIGITS, which we'll be using all season to upload our photographs and data about the right whales we see in order to help the Aquarium maintain the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Luckily, the weather looks better tomorrow, so we should be able to get in the air and finally see which right whales, if any, are hanging around the seas just off the southeastern coast.

Keep checking the blog in the next few days for more information as the season gets underway. We will have multiple updates per week about new mothers and calves and all the right whale action happening in the EWS area! Who knows: we might break last year's all-time calf record of 39 newborns and see many of those young whales return nice and healthy to the south.

One last thing ... If you happen to be local to the Jacksonville area, be sure to come explore this year's Right Whale Festival at Jacksonville Beach! The Festival is this Saturday, December 5, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.