#30: Mother lost her Calf

Gannet is a whale that we have been seeing throughout the season. She got her name from a white scar on the left side of her head that looks like a gannet in flight. Our survey team first saw Gannet in late December and then several times throughout January. We were very excited to sight Gannet with a calf on February 12.

Gannet with her Calf on Feb 12th. Notice the calf's fluke (enlarged below). Photo taken by Jonathan.
You can see more photos of Gannet on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Search for EG#2660.

This was an extremely busy day for the central Early Warning System (EWS) survey team. We saw 49 whales in our area, 22 separate sightings, including 15 mom calf pairs. It is always essential to cover the entire EWS area in order to get the whale alert positions out through the network. Other interesting species we saw that day were one humpback, two leatherbacks and five manta rays. We sighted Gannet with her new calf towards the end of the survey flight, at 2:20 p.m. Photographs serve a multitude of benefits in understanding the population as a whole, as well as keeping track of individuals for different reasons, such as monitoring health following the appearance of wounds. Gannet's scar first appeared in July 2000 as a large wound; it is not certain what caused it.

An enlarged view of the calf's fluke.
Photo taken by Jonathan.

Females are considered sexually reproductive when they reach 9 years of age; this is based on year of first calving being 10, assuming a one-year gestation period. Most females have their first calves at age ten to eleven. Age at first calving is highly variable in right whales, occurring as early as five, and as late as twenty-one years. Gannet was born in 1996, had her first calf at the age of 10, and it was therefore not a surprise to see her, as a potential mom down here in the calving grounds this season.

While downloading images from our initial sighting of Gannet with her newborn, we noticed that the calf was missing half of its fluke (See photo above). There was some speculation as to the reason for this. Was it a birth defect? Other species are born missing a digit, or with shortened limbs so it is a possibility. The edge where the fluke part was missing was not red raw, and no white scarring could be seen, but if it was a fresh cut, it may have been too early to see white scar tissue, and this also may have been hard to see from aerial photographs. Biopsy teams were on high alert, and ready to better document this calf from boat-based platforms in order to see better detail.

One of the last photos taken of Gannet with her calf.
Photo taken by Jonathan.

Unfortunately, the next sighting of Gannet was on the February 15, a day when we only flew short lines, partially covering our survey area, due to low lying clouds towards the end of our lines. However, we still were witness to two vessel whale interactions that day, communicating with vessels in order to avoid collisions. One of them involved Gannet, who was seen with a juvenile whale, but no calf. We circled on her for approximately half an hour, in order to be positive that there was not a calf with them, and also to ensure that the small fishing boat that had been on course for the whales, was not intending to harass them. It appears that Gannet had already been through a lot. We may never be 100 percent sure what happened to her calf, but we will continue to piece together the clues. Two days later, on February 17, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservtion Commission (FWC) aerial survey team found a calf carcass in their area. The pieces of the puzzle would appear to fit. She was first seen without her calf seven nautical miles (nm) northeast of St. Johns channel, Jacksonville. With the northeast winds that had been blowing around that time, it would make sense that the calf would show up to the south, 13 nm north-northeast of St. Augustine. It is also possible that this calf belonged to a different mom.

The carcass was towed in, but had been heavily scavenged upon by sharks, so it was missing all of the fluke, including most of the peduncle area too. The dead calf had a white belly, so we are now able to rule out all of the calves that we have seen since the February 17, and those with black bellies. A lot of important information can be gathered from the necropsy, which is why it is always so essential that we retrieve carcasses, and eventually the genetic sample will reveal who this calf belongs to. It is critical to determine the cause of death if we are to understand the various threats that this population faces.

Look out for the upcoming guest article from FWC on discovering the carcass.




#29: Right Whales on CNN

On Sunday, February 15, John Sutter from CNN online came to Florida to find out about right whales. He interviewed with us, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Council (FWC) and the Marineland volunteer network trying to capture all of the efforts involved in protecting this majestic creature.

We brought him to our plane to see our team in action and then to our field station to observer how we process all of our data. He asked a lot of interesting questions and took hours of audio recordings. Feeling that he fully captured the dedication of the aerial observers, he headed south to St. Augustine where he met up with the FWC team to discuss the boat board effort.

From there he headed further south to meet the Marineland volunteer network comprised of more than 200 individuals. John put together a comprehensive story about right whales and the efforts involved in monitoring and conserving this population.

There are a number of different webpages dedicated to right whales on the CNN site. I have labeled them to make it an easier search.

Searching for right whales (Plane, Boat, Land)

Spotting Endangered Species from the Skies

How to Identify a right whale

Some of our favorite whales




#28: Beating the Weather

Yesterday, we flew our survey area. It thunderstormed throughout the night and into the early morning. When we woke, the weather had subsided and the winds dropped down to 12knts. Thinking that the weather would follow the forcast and pick up, we waited for the next few weather buoy updates. None of them showed the predicted winds.

We took off at 11:30am and flew from north to south. Before the plane was even off the ground, two public sightings came through on the pager alert system. We were preparing for a busy day. Uncertain that the weather would hold out long enough to complete a full survey, we decided to just cover the St. Mary's and St. John's River channels, that is the northern and southern end of the survey area. We proved the weather men wrong, sighting 6 whales and 3 mother and calf pairs and informed a vessel of right whales near by. All in all it was a successful day.

The weather forecast can be useful in planning your week, but today is a perfect example that predictions are not always 100% accurate.

Photos of some of the whales sighted yesterday, including moms, #1142 and #1315, and two adult females that have been seen together for almost the entire length of the season, #2413 and #1968.
You can find out more about these whales at the North Atlantic right whale catalog.



#27: 31 Mothers to Date: Some Interesting Stories

The last we reported on the calf count on January 13, we had 21 moms which was a record for that time in any of the past calving seasons. The total record to break was the 2001 record of 31 calves. Well, I'm happy to report that as of February 6, we matched that record. My job in this field effort is a remote one. I sit at my computer over a thousand miles away and match, or confirm the matches, of all the mothers and some of the other whales as well. Using DIGITS and images uploaded to servers by other research teams, together we try to have a real time assessment of all the different mothers in the southeast.

One of the mother/calf photos taken by Kara on February 7

Some of the 31 mothers down there right now have interesting stories. Two of them, Baldy (#1240) and Kleenex (#1142), gave birth to their first calves that we know of back in the 1970's: 1974 and 1977 respectively. Those were opportunistic sightings (there was little dedicated research on right whales back then), so they may have been calving for longer than 35 years! Whale #1515 has just a few sightings in her 24 years of calving and almost all of them are off the southeast. Where she takes her calves later in the year and where she spends her between calf time is one of those exciting mysteries! We also have the mother/daughter team of #1503 and her 1995 daughter Boomerang (#2503) both calving in the same year again. In 2006, the two gave birth and we could watch 3 generations of the same family swimming within a few miles of each other. Unlike humans, the generations overlap easily with females giving birth to their first calf at age 10 and continuing to calve for over 35 years. You could conceivably have a great, great grandmother calving next to her great, great granddaughter! In fact, I just checked and we have 4 generations calving this year- Baldy is the grandmother of Boomerang and both have calves this year. So Baldy has a newborn, a grandchild, and a great grandchild all in the same year!

Photos of right whale mothers taken during aerial surveys

Stay tuned for more interesting stories! there are plenty out there.




#26: Climate Change effect on right whale prey abundance

Global climate change has become a growing concern all over the world. Data suggests global temperatures will increase by 1.4-5.8 C by the end of the 21st century. The increase in global temperature will affect every part of the world. Coastal communities will be affected as sea level rises 13-95cm due to the Antarctic and Greenland ice caps melting as well as the thermal expansion of seawater. Global mean precipitation will rise by 5-20%, particularly in the higher latitudes, resulting in increased freshwater runoff from rivers to oceans. This will reduce salinity in these areas and may increase the prevalence of red tides. Areas not afflicted by excess precipitation will likely experience longer periods of drought.

In the ocean, as temperatures rise and salinity decreases, significant changes in ocean biology are likely, although we can only guess the effects on such a small population like the North Atlantic right whale. A climate change related shift in hydrographic factors has the potential to affect the abundance and quality of Calanus finmarchicus, a planktonic copepod that is the primary food source of the North Atlantic right whale. Calanus copepods are about the size of a grain of rice, and are the dominant zooplankton species found the western North Atlantic. Right whales consume between 0.6-6.4% of their body weight in calories per day, or as many as 2.6 billion C. finmarchicus! But because copepod development is temperature dependent, warming oceans could affect plankton population dynamics. A shift in C. finmarchicus abundance in right whale feeding grounds may cause right whale numbers in these areas to drop considerably. Salinity can also alter food for right whales. In the 1990's, arctic freshwater currents made their way down into the Gulf of Maine leading to changes in salinity and stratification that favored large increases in smaller species of zooplankton, most of which were not a suitable substitute as right whale food.

For right whales, climate change could mean shifts in the ranges and abundance of preferred food (Calanus copepods), shifts in species composition from copepods to other smaller less suitable prey species, and increases in red tides (which are known to be eaten by right whales accidentally).The reduction of suitable prey could pose a number of threats to right whales. Strong correlations have been made between C. finmarchicus abundance and right whale reproductive success, so reduction in prey abundance could lead to a decline in the number of calves. Reduced food can also lead to malnourishment, and increased susceptibility to disease, and increased mortality.

Not everything is so bleak though. One of our right whales, "Porter" travelled from Cape Cod Bay one spring to Norway by September, and returned to the Gulf of Maine the following year. Another whale was seen in the Bay of Fundy last summer, and in the Azores last month! These travels suggest that the capacity of this species to adapt to environmental changes, whether anthropomorphic or natural, may be greater than heretofore believed. Perhaps these travelers have carried the right whale population through tough times, and the long-distance travels of individually-identified right whales have shown they may not be as habitat restricted as has been believed.



#25: Great weather!

This weekend started the best stretch of weather we have had all season. With very little wind, the water is flat calm and allows us to see so much more of the whales than we usually can. Take a look at this slide show of images from Saturday, February 7. All the images are of mom/calf pairs, the first is of Eg#3320 (You can search for this individual on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog) and her calf.

The water was so clear, you can see the calf on both sides under mom! The next series is something I have never seen before, 2 mom/calf pairs interacting; the whale on the left is Eg#3320 and her calf and the whale on the right is Eg#2611- Picasso, she got her name from all of the scars on her head. The last series is of Eg#3101, a relatively new mom, notice how small the calf is!

Hopefully this weather will keep up and we continue to be able to find whales so easily!!

~ Kara



#24: Matching Whales

Part of our job as an aerial surveyor for the New England Aquarium requires we input our digital photographic images for each whale sighting into a program called DIGITS (Digital Information Gathering and Information Tracking System. DIGITS allows us to sort and analyze the photographs for individual whale identification and matching, health assessment, and various other parameters. The photographs will then be organized in the North Altantic Right Whale Catalog, where the information is accessible to researchers and the public.

The other day, I was analyzing photos taken on January 21st 2009 of a whale sighting of two whales off the coast of Georgia. In order to identify these two individuals, I have to match callosity patterns and other distinctive characteristics to previous whale sightings. After several unsuccessful matches I came across a whale that matched one of my whales, Eg #3460. Eg #3460 was last seen with another whale Eg #3421 on Jan 10th 2009 off the coast of New Jersey by Geo-Marine Inc. As I started matching my second whale from Jan 21st, I came across a very familiar photograph of two whales taken on Jan 10th 2009 off the coast of New Jersey! It turns out that my second whale from Jan 21st matched the other whale (Eg #3421) from Jan 10th meaning that Eg #3460 and Eg #3421 traveled over 650 nm miles in only 11 days. Both whales are juveniles (born in 2004) and likely made this incredible migration together. I find it amazing that two animals will stay together over such a great distance. I'll be interested to see if they are re-sighted together later in the season.

Play the right whale identification game and try your hand at matching whales!



#23: Vessel use in the SEUS

Through reading our blog, it is evident we see a lot up in the sky; interactions between mothers and their calves, entangled whales, whales interacting with each other, and whales traveling alone. We also see all the vessels that utilize our survey area as well. Sometimes everything aligns just right (no pun intended) and we have the opportunity to save a right whale in real time.

The SEUS (Southeast United States) Right Whale Critical Habitat is highly utilized by many vessels and we (New England Aquarium) are part of a large conservation effort to alert all vessels of the location of right whales in near real time in an attempt to prevent vessel strikes.

Many types of commercial shipping vessels including car carriers, container ships, tugs, tug and barges, tankers and freighters bring goods in and out of the ports of Brunswick, Ga., Fernandina Beach, Fla., and Jacksonville, Fla. These vessels are safely guided into port by the local harbor pilots. The critical habitat is also utilized by two large naval bases. Mayport Naval Base located at the mouth of the St. Johns River in Mayport, Fla., and Kings Bay Naval Submarine Base in St Marys, Ga. All these naval vessels use either the St. Marys or the St. Johns River Entrance (both in our survey area) to access the Atlantic Ocean. There are a number of Coast Guard stations within the SEUS critical habitat that include Brunswick, Ga., Jacksonville, Fla., and Ponce Inlet, Fla., that all house a number of vessels which utilize the area for a multitude of purposes; including search and rescue and law enforcement. Some of the channels in the SEUS critical habitat are dredged each year by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers with large hopper dredges to keep the channels deep, clear, and safe for all vessels that utilize the channels. Additionally, there are many commercial and non-commercial fishing boats and numerous private recreational vessels.

Busy shipping lanes in critical North Atlantic Right Whale habitat

As you can see there are quite a number of vessels that use this area. When you overlap how right whales use this critical habitat with the number of vessels in the area, the chance of the two meeting can be quite high. There are many measures in place to reduce the chance of a vessel strike, including recommended routes into the channels, the newly instated ship strike rule (speed rule) and of course the Early Warning System (EWS) aerial surveys. The main reason why we fly these aerial surveys is to be the eyes in the sky to find whales so that we can help prevent vessel strikes, all other data collected is a bonus.

There are many times during the season, where we witness close calls between vessels and whales. Just Monday, we witnessed what could have been a close call if we hadn't been in the area. We sighted a group of two whales in a Social Active Group (SAG) and then another single whale within a mile of the first two. We were circling to get photo ID pictures and noticed a vessel heading on a steady southerly course that if continued would pass the whales at what we thought would be an uncomfortable distance. The vessel was about five nautical miles north of the whales, so we had plenty of time to contact the captain on the marine radio. The captain came back right away, we told him of the whales' location and he asked us to direct him away from them. He altered course away from the whales and we reminded him that there were more whales in the area and to keep an eye out for them. Its days like that, that make us feel really good about the work that we are doing up at 1000 feet.

Photo Caption:
Right whale breaching near a cargo ship by the St. John's River channel. Photo by Andy Garrett courtesy of Florida FWC.