#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.




  1. Wondering why you choose that particular type of aircraft. I understand 2 engines for safety, but the in-line engine configuration is unusual.

    Sweetwater Tom

  2. Tom,

    Marine mammal surveys have used this type of aircraft for many years now. They are a nice stable platform that has the capability of flying fairly slow and still be maneuverable. Obviously a high wing aircraft is critical in order to allow the observers the ability to look out the windows and see the ocean. Some of the other aircraft typically used are: DeHavilland Twin Otter and the Partenavia P-68 observer edition.