#21: A Season of Unusual Sightings

As our season is winding down, we've been thinking about some of the unusual sightings we've had over the past couple months. We've mentioned some of them in earlier blog entries, like the unprecedented number of right whales off The Wolves (the island chain many miles north of the usual habitat) and the crazy cloud we saw in early September. But there have been other things that have caught our attention and made us wonder: What's going on this year?

One of the avian species we see every year are puffins, the cute football shaped black birds with the colorful striped beaks. Typically we only see four or five on any given day, but this year was a different story. Nearly every day we were out this season we had lots of puffins--puffins alone, in pairs or trios and occasionally in flocks of 8-12! And in late August we even had a rare sighting of an albino puffin! Why all the puffins? We have no idea, but we've certainly had fun watching them.

There were two other bird species that seemed much more prevalent this year than in the past: Northern Fulmars and Jaegers. Fulmars are usually found offshore, so the number of sightings we've had is surprising. What's great about fulmars is that they always seem a little curious about us. They literally turn their heads to check us out as they fly by.

Jaegers are aggressive seabirds that engage in kleptoparasitism--harassing other birds to force them to drop food they are carrying. As with puffins and fulmars, we've had a bumper crop this year. Find out more about all three of these interesting seabirds here.

The Bay was hopping with Bluefin tuna, especially in September. It's always exciting to see schools of these magnificent fish leaping out of the water as they pursue their unlucky prey.

In addition to the birds in the Bay of Fundy, we've also had an influx of humpback whales in areas that are usually the exclusive domain of right whales. It's not that humpbacks aren't seen in the Bay, they are, but they tend to aggregate further to the south and east. In years past, a big humpback count would be three in one day, but on a recent trip we counted 15! One of the humpbacks spent several minutes flippering, i.e. slapping it's long (12')pectoral fin against the water. Quite a bizarre sight when you're used to the black , paddle-shaped and comparatively stubby flippers of the right whale. The latin name for humpbacks is Megaptera novaeangliae, which means "big-winged New Englander"... it's easy to see why it got that name!

All of these species are not uncommon in the Bay of Fundy, but what has been interesting is the number of them. Why are so many humpbacks, fulmars, jaegers, puffins and tuna in the Bay this year? And could there be any correlation with the right whales' unusual northerly distribution, not seen in 30 years? Nature, as always, holds puzzles that we have yet to figure out.

To see more photos of unusual species we saw this season click here.

Photo Captions:

1) An albino puffin in the Bay of Fundy

2) A fulmar checks us out as it flies by the boat

3) A parasitic jaeger looking for trouble

4) T he back half of a leaping tuna

5) A humpback whale waves it's long flipper in the air


#20: Other Species Seen on Roseway Basin

In addition to North Atlantic right whales, we were lucky to see several other species of marine mammals, fish and birds during our trip to Roseway Basin. Following is a short list of some of the different species of animals seen:

Fin whale, Sei whale, Humpback whale, Minke whale, Pilot whale, Killer whale, Common dolphin, White-sided dolphin, Harbor porpoise, Mola-mola (Sunfish), Basking shark, Blue shark, Tuna, Northern Gannet, Greater shearwater, Wilson storm petrel, Leech's storm petrel, Northern fulmar, Pomerine jaeger, Parasitic jaeger, Black backed gull, Herring gull, Atlantic puffin, Phalaropes.

From left: mola mola (sunfish) and common dolphin

Here's a slideshow of more images:

Check out a similar slide show from this season's Aerial survey blog here.


#19: The Right Whale Team on CBC News

North Atlantic right whales were a feature story on the CBC this week. The story features some great footage of whales in Surface Active Groups and diving. There are also some interview clips of our Canadian team members, Moira and Yan.

Click here to watch the news story.


#18: A day on Roseway Basin

Our days on Roseway were long and action packed! Here's a log of a full day on Roseway Basin, from a Wednesday evening to a Thursday evening.

Wednesday, Sept 2

10-11:30 p.m.: On the night watch. Each crew member takes a 1.5 hour watch each night. At night we are drifting (not under power) and so I need to watch the radar to ensure that we don't drift near any other vessels. I watch the radar screen and watch out the wheelhouse windows for lights on the horizon. If a vessel comes within 3 miles of us, I will wake the Captain and he will decide whether or not we need to maneuver around the other vessel. My watch tonight is uneventful and I wake Jon at 11:30 p.m. to take the next shift. I'm glad to head to my bunk for a good night's rest!

Thursday, Sept 3

5:30 a.m.: Moe (who had the last night watch) wakes up the rest of the crew so we can get dressed, eat breakfast and be on watch by 6 a.m. Everyone is a bit tired since this is our third day at sea.

6 a.m.: Moe and I take the first watch and head to the top of the wheelhouse to look for whales. It's a beautiful day for surveying! The water is very calm and there's good visibility, so spotting blows should be easy today. It's going to be a busy day.....it's only 6:45 a.m. and we've already found our first whale!

11 a.m.:
The whales are pretty spread out today. We've surveyed for several hours and found six right whales. For many of these whales, this is the first time we've seen them during our survey of Roseway Basin. Over the past two days we covered the eastern to mid sections of the Roseway Basin Area to be Avoided (ATBA) and found a heavy concentration of whales. (Read Moe's full post about the ATBA here.) Today, we are surveying the western section of the ATBA so we can get a more complete picture of what part is being utilized.

12:20 p.m.: I'm famished! We're taking a quick lunch break to revitalize the team!

1:16 p.m.: Success! We just obtained a biopsy sample from right whale #1036! (You can search for this individual's sighting history and photos on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.) This whale was first seen in Cape Cod Bay in 1970 and has never been biopsied before. #1036 has a very cryptic sighting history. After it's first sighting, it disappeared for 12 years. It was finally found again in 1982 in Roseway Basin. This whale seems to prefer offshore habitats as it is mostly seen in the Great South Channel (east of Cape Cod) and in Roseway Basin. This biopsy sample will determine whether #1036 is male or female and how it is related to others in the population!

3:30 p.m.:
After photographing a single right whale, I spotted a tall dorsal fin out of the corner of my eye. Seconds later Moe called up on the radio; "Did you guys see an orca?" We all immediately went on high alert to re-sight the lone orca. Sighting an orca in the North Atlantic is a rare occurrence. Most of us had never seen a wild orca before, so we were all very excited about this sighting! We photographed the dorsal fin and the saddle patch just behind the dorsal fin so that researchers can identify the individual.

4:45 p.m.: Throughout our survey today we have seen fin whales, sei whales, common dolphins, harbor porpoise, basking sharks and several ocean sunfish. We've also seen tuna feeding on large schools of fish.

6:30 p.m.: This is the perfect ending of our trip. For the past hour, we've watched a single right whale display head pushing. Head pushing is a behavior in which the whale lifts it's chin out of the water and then forcefully pushes it's chin back down on the water. The force creates a "bow wave" that is very impressive. Yan lowered his hydrophone into the water so we could hear the "gunshots" that accompany this behavior. A "gunshot" is a percussive sound made by right whales. At this point, we don't know what the purpose of this behavior is or how they produce the "gunshot" noise. The whales are constantly reminding us how much more we can learn about them!

7 p.m.: We have packed up our equipment and are heading back to Metaghan, Nova Scotia. Traveling at 9-11 knots, we should arrive around 2 a.m. We're all exhausted, but excited to get back to Lubec and share our findings with the rest of the right whale team!

Photo Caption:
1) Eg#1112 displaying head pushing behavior
2) Sei Whale
3) Yan with biopsy dart
4) Video: Eg#1112 displaying head pushing behavior



#17: Cool cloud sighting in the Bay of Fundy

Recently the Right Whale Research Team photographed a very unusual cloud during one of the surveys in the Bay of Fundy. Here's a photo:

We sent the photo to an expert and here's what we found out about our amazing sighting.

Caption: Monica and Philip under the "Morning Glory" cloud.


#16: Calvin returns to the Bay

Great news! Calvin, #2223, one of the most famous right whales in the population, has returned to the Bay of Fundy. We sighted her on Sept 2 with her calf of the year by her side. This was her first sighting in northern waters since giving birth on the southeast U.S. calving ground early this year.

For those of you who don't know her story, Calvin was born in 1992 and it was during her first summer in the Bay of Fundy that her mother, Delilah, was killed by a shipstrike, leaving Calvin an orphan. We didn't think Calvin would survive without her mother, but amazingly she did. She was named (before her sex was known) after the character in the comic strip Calvin and Hobbes.

Like that little boy, Calvin the right whale showed resourcefulness and a surprisingly independent nature. Since then we've watched her grow up and have followed her exploits in the various habitats in which she's been sighted. In 2000, she became entangled in fishing gear but luckily was disentangled by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in 2001. She still bears the scars on her head, body and peduncle from that experience. And in 2005 Calvin became a mother for the first time and brought her calf to the Bay of Fundy, just as her mother had done 13 years earlier.

Over the years Calvin's story has been used to illustrate the troubling issue of ship strikes--they are the leading cause of right whale mortality--and to help move the shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy so they no longer cut through the main concentration of whales.

You can read more about Calvin and her namesake student scientists, The Calvineers, in the 2008 blog. Calvin is also one of our sponsorship whales, so if you'd like to follow her in the future you can sponsor her or visit the Catalog website.


#15: Mavynne entangled and freed

Mavynne, #1151, is a mom this year. She and her calf were seen by our team for the first time this season on August 28, up off the Wolves. Apparently the pair did not stay in the Bay of Fundy for long as Mavynne was found severely entangled on September 4, on Jeffrey's Ledge, 25 miles off the coast of New Hampshire.

Fortunately our colleagues from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies who specialize in large whale disentanglement were able to respond and remove all the gear from Mavynne. No one has seen her since that time and we don't if she and her calf are still together. You can search for sighting histories and photos of Mavynn (#1151) on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.


#14: Pico seen!

Last January, we reported on a very unusual and exciting sighting- a female right whale seen off the Azores. Shortly after the sighting, the whale, #3270, was given the name of Pico- the name of the island near where she was seen. Amazingly, the shape of the island matches the shape of Pico's bonnet (see picture below).

Because it is so unusual to see a whale from the western North Atlantic so far to the east, we all wondered when and where we would see her next. Well, three days ago, we got our answer. Pico was seen in a surface active group in the Bay of Fundy. Pico was first sighted in 2002 and has never given birth to a calf that we know of. We will be following her future sightings very closely! You can, too, at the right whale Catalog web site.



1) Pico Island in the Azores south of which 3270 was sighted (Google maps)
2) Aerial photograph of Pico- right whale 3270 (Photo: NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center)
3) Pico in the Bay of Fundy on September 10, 2009 (New England Aquarium)


#13: Pictures from Roseway Basin

On September 4th, a few members from our team set off to Nova Scotia to survey Roseway Basin Area to be Avoided for 10 days. The team saw over 60 right whales and a bunch of other marine mammal species.

Here are some pictures from their trip.

Stay tuned for more on the Roseway trip, including video!


#12: Half day on the water

We were able to get on the water today for a half day trip. The winds were supposed to be light this morning and were predicted to pick up to 15 knots in the early afternoon. After being stuck on land the past three days due to wind, we were itching to get back on the water. Our morning was calm and sighting conditions were clear enough to see Digby's Neck in Nova Scotia.

We surveyed south of Grand Manan as far east of the shipping lanes. We started off to a slow start with only two right whales by 10 a.m. But all that changed by about 12pm when we saw a large social active group (SAG) in the distance. As we approached the SAG, 3 miles from where we were, whales started heading in all directions. The wind had already picked up by then and sighting conditions were making it difficult to stay with the whales. We managed to photograph 9 whales in the SAG and Philip was able to identify 8 of them on the spot! Truly impressive.

Here is a short clip highlighting our day out:

Stay tuned to hear all about our 10 day trip to Roseway Basin were we say 60 right whales!



#11: Ruffian's amazing recovery

During a recent trip out to sea, one of the whales we sighted for the first time this season was #3530, a whale we named "Ruffian" back in February of 2008. This sighting was a very exciting one for us because Ruffian had been horribly wounded by an entanglement in some kind of fishing gear prior to January 2008, and though he was no longer entangled, we did not expect him to survive due to the extensive injuries he had sustained. (See all of Ruffian's sightings by searching for #3530 on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.)

He was sighted a few times after that, but the last shipboard photos were taken in April 2008 by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS), and at that time he still looked terrible. But last Friday we got our first really good look at him in more than a year and we were thrilled with what we saw: his many wounds had healed, leaving only a few white scars on his back, head and tail. Although we don't know his age, Ruffian (named for his "roughed-up" appearance) is a young whale and that was probably the leading reason for his remarkable recovery. Young mammals in general have an enhanced ability to heal compared to older animals.

Entanglement in fishing gear is still one of the biggest threats facing right whales. Nearly 75% of the whales in this beleagured population carry entanglement scars, and we know that at least 20-30 right whales have died or been fatally wounded from entanglements. We are grateful that Ruffian is one of the lucky ones...


Photo captions:
1)Ruffian with severe entanglement scarring, photographed by Georgia DNR in February 2008
2)Ruffian, wounds healed, in Bay of Fundy, August 2009 (photo NEAq)