Sunrise, sunset quickly went the day

We knew a right whale survey on Jordan Basin in December was going to be a challenge. For the last three weeks, the days have been getting shorter and the storm systems stronger. And as the shortest day of the year was approaching giving us only 9 hours of daylight, our hope for calm weather was fading. Then a glimmer of a break in the weather appeared for Saturday, December 18. The back to back storm systems that had been hurtling across the country and along the eastern seaboard bringing high winds and precipitation for days on end were slowed by a high pressure system coming down from Quebec.

Saturday's forecast and predicted wave heights were the best we were going to get for awhile but would it be good enough to carry out our survey effort? On Friday morning we made the decision to go for it and by 1 pm the truck was loaded and we were on our way from Boston to Bar Harbor, ME. Despite a slight increase in wind and waves on the Saturday morning forecast we decided to at least poke our heads out at 4:30 am. The land temperature was in the teens and there was several inches of snow on the ground. The boat's crew helped our team of six and a cadre of local volunteers load our gear and ourselves onto the snowy deck and into the cabin before heading offshore through a low cloud of sea smoke hovering above the water. By 7 am we had reached our survey area and there was just enough light to begin looking for telltale whale blows. The air temp was a balmy 25 degrees, and we decided to rotate our watch every 30 minutes to keep warm and alert. Even just 30 minutes on the top deck exposed to the full brunt of the wind on a vessel travelling 10-14 knots was bitterly cold, the wind chill was in the teens and in the frostbite zone on the windchill index.

With many sets of eyes looking near and far, several blows were seen miles away shortly after sunrise but they proved to be fin whales. We set off on our tracklines. Many hours of surveying yielded about a dozen fin whales and a few minke whales. Finally two right whales, almost in the middle of the survey area. Once again, they were cryptic in their movements and challenging to photograph. But we were able to obtain id photos and continued our survey.

But the second shortest day of the year proved to be just a little too short. Just at dusk we spotted three right whales, one of them breaching repeatedly. We adjusted our cameras to try an squeeze a little more light out of the day, but by the time we were able to get close enough to photograph, it was just too dark. We could still see the animal breaching through night vision goggles. However, we were left with a beautiful image in our mind's eye of a breaching right whale set against a back drop of the last tendrils of light from a beautiful sunset.

Once darkness fell, the captain headed us for home transiting slowly through the right whale area before picking up speed. We compiled our data and shared our findings with the volunteers aboard (who were also collecting bird data). Despite many sightings of both birds and cetaceans, the general consensus was that counts and species of birds were lower than previous trips and right whales were harder to come by. We did learn that our colleagues at the National Marine Fisheries Service had conducted an aerial survey this same day to our south and west and had found at least 28 right whales including a large surface active group in an area called Cashes Ledge. It may be that the purported mating ground covers a much broader area of the Gulf of Maine than previous surveys had indicated.

We were back at the dock by around 7:30 pm exhausted but happy that the weather gave us the opportunity to brave the cold and once again witness the Gulf of Maine under cover of winter. We have one trip left that will take place in January. Happy Holidays to all our followers and best wishes for a healthy and adventure filled 2011!


#3 Perfect conditions in the Jordans/Outerfalls area

On short notice, a perfect weather window opened up for our second excursion to the area just west of Jordan Basin. On Tuesday November 30, we set sail aboard the Friendship V from Bar Harbor to learn more about the right whales on the potential mating ground. The constellation Orion was bright overhead as we left the dock at 4:45 a.m. and steamed out in the darkness. The seas were calm this trip and sighting conditions perfect. We found our first right whale just as the sun broke the horizon and worked a smattering of whales throughout the day. It was a very different day than our first- many humpbacks and fin whales in the same areas where we found right whales.

#1056, showing some mud on his head! (Photo: Amy Knowlton)

We photographed a total of seven different right whales--none that we had seen on our first trip and no females this time. We found a number of big old males that we never or rarely see in the Bay of Fundy or on Roseway Basin including No. 1056 (shown above)--a male that was first seen 30 years ago. The right whales continued to be difficult to approach due to their erratic surfacings and inconsistent travel directions. We found a couple groups of two or three whales socializing (all males), but the quality of their behavior was very different from such groups in the Bay of Fundy or Roseway Basin.

The groups on Tuesday were very slow moving, quiet, and one whale rarely came up to breathe-- a far cry from the often noisy and active groups in August and September [Check out photos and videos of active groups from the Bay of Fundy in 2008 and 2009, as well as this post from the fall describing a group in the Roseway Basin]. This subdued behavior is similar to some groups I witnessed back in the 1980's in Cape Cod Bay in February. It could just be an artifact of the small size of the groups we have seen near Jordan so far and we will see more energetic interactions when we find larger groups, or it could be that they are truly socializing in a different way in this habitat. It is exciting to try to understand their behavior in such a different habitat- it is all new!

The Northeast Fisheries Science Center plane surveyed the area while we were there and photographed nine whales. They too found the whales difficult to photograph because they spent such short periods on the surface. Prior to this trip, we had seen a few whales that the plane had also seen, but not many. Tuesday was the first time we were both in the area at the same time and it will be interesting to compare the identifications from the two, very different platforms.

We still haven't found any precious whale poop that would tell us what their reproductive hormone levels are, though we did have one moment of excitement when some volunteers on the bow excitedly announced that they smelled something really bad! We scrambled to get the net ready to collect a poop sample which floats on the surface for a while, but it ended up being a false alarm caused by a whale with particularly bad breath--something that has tricked us in the past.

We will be looking for a good weather window for another trip in a week or two and this time will be hoping for a larger social group or SAG. Will these be similar to those SAGs we see 2-3 months earlier? Or be as different as the behavior we have documented so far? Stay tuned!

Philip using the field catalog to match right whales (Photo: Moe Brown)



#2 A lull in the weather of November in the Gulf of Maine

Three times a day for two weeks we studied the weather forecast and data on wind speed and wave height from the weather buoy in the vicinity of Jordan Basin. Day after day the winds were greater than 20 knots, and the wave height over eight feet: not sea conditions favorable for right whale research. On Thursday November 11, the weather began to look promising for the following week: winds were forecast to calm to variable less than 10 knots and the waves subsiding to 2 - 5 feet, almost perfect conditions.
On Monday November 15 we loaded up all our gear at the Aquarium in Boston and drove to Bar Harbor. We met up with the crew of the charter vessel, Friendship V, a 112' long catamaran used seasonally for whale watching and now geared up for whale research. Our first hours were spent unloading our gear, becoming familiar with the safety procedures on the boat, then dinner and early to bed. Departure on Tuesday November 16 was at 4:30 am, well before first light. It was going to take about two hours to get to our first trackline and we wanted to be there at sunrise. The day before, right whales had been seen by the Northeast Fisheries Science Center aerial survey team; at least we knew there were right whales in the area. Before we left we planned our tracklines to cover the area of right whale aggregation from previous years. Our plan worked well, well almost. We arrived at our first waypoint about 55 nm south of Bar Harbor at dawn. In addition to our team of six biologists from the Aquarium, we were joined by whale researchers, interns and naturalists from the Bar Harbor area. We set up our watches, spread out around the upper deck of the boat and watched with amazement as a fog bank engulfed us in a matter of minutes. Having steamed all this way, there was no point in turning back so we proceeded slowly, peering into the fog and listening for whale blows.

The visibility shrank at times to less than 100 yards, but then someone called out they had heard a blow and sure enough a right whale. Our first right whale was #2791, an adult female who calved in 2009 and is due to get pregnant.

By early afternoon, the fog bank cleared and we surveyd until it was too dark to see. In total we recorded about a dozen whales for the day. Fourteen hours after our depature we docked back in Bar Harbor, and were ready for another survey the next day. But the weather closed in again. The crew of the Friendship V made plans to relocate the vessel to a secure mooring early the next morning to prepare for the next storm. We managed to get our first survey completed on the only calm day for over two weeks. Our next survey will take place in early December.

Many thanks for a very successful survey to the captain and crew of the Friendship V and our vounteer team of researchers from Allied Whale, Maine Department of Marine Resources, naturalist and interns from the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Company and Down East Nature Tours.

#1 Quest for the Right Whale Mating Ground

There are many aspects of the life and habits of North Atlantic right whales that remain elusive and one long-standing mystery is the location of their mating ground. Most right whale calves are born from December through February on the only known calving ground, located in the waters of the southeast U.S. We estimate that the gestation period is 12 to 13 months, which means mating likely takes place between November and January.

In January 2002, right whales were seen from a military vessel southwest of Jordan Basin in the central Gulf of Maine, approximately 60 miles south of Bar Harbor, Maine. From 2004 through 2009 in November, December and January, scientists from the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC, Woods Hole, MA) recorded aggregations of right whales in the same area (their image provided below).

In November and December 2010 and early January 2011, a joint international research team from the New England Aquarium (NEAq) and the Canadian Whale Institute (CWI, Wilson's Beach, NB) will charter a vessel from Bar Harbor, ME. The team will carry out vessel surveys in this area to collect photographs of right whales for individual identification, scarring and health assessment as well as skin biopsy samples for ongoing genetics studies, and fecal samples for studies on reproductive hormones. Funding for the field study has been provided by the U.S. Marine Mammal Commission (grant to NEAq) and the Canadian Wildlife Federation and TD Bank (grant to CWI).

Friendship V

The survey vessel, Friendship V, is being chartered from Ocean Properties who are providing additional in kind financial support and with rooms at the Harborside Hotel for the researchers before and after the cruises. With enough funding for four survey days, the plan is, weather permitting, to survey one day in November, two days in December and a fourth day in January. Ideal weather is a must, which means less than 15 knots of wind and a swell of not more than 3 to 5 feet, and less is better on both counts. Stay tuned as we monitor the weather daily to find a suitable day.

- Moe Brown


#20 Do We Have To Leave?

Compilation of photos from our 2010 field season

Its that time in the season again to say goodbye to the whales and to Lubec. Everyone is busy cleaning the house and packing up gear. The main office is bare except for the computer that I'm using to write our final blog entry. The only spot in the house that has a normal level activity is the kitchen and that's only because we're having pizza night as our farewell dinner.

Our wonderful chef, Claudia, preparing pizza in our custom clay oven

This year was certainly an anomaly in the Bay of Fundy given the low number of right whales, plus the atypical sightings of sperm whales, pilot whales and white-beaked dolphins. In total, we identified 53 individual right whales (number depending on data analysis) of which there were only 5 mom/calf pairs. We had a successful survey on Roseway Basin and on the way back we found a small aggregation of right whales feeding at the surface southwest of Lurcher Shoals. Colleagues reported small groups of right whales on southern Jeffreys Ledge off Gloucester, MA and around Mount Desert Rock, south of Bar Harbor, ME. These small aggregations spread through out the Gulf of Maine were the trend in 2010.

Although we do not have an explanation for the unusual year, we have some theories. Right whale distribution is driven in the spring, summer and fall by feeding; it is likely that the food resource was not sufficient to attract right whales in their usual haunts. We will continue to speak with colleagues in other fields of oceanography and investigate the effects that may result from this anomalous distribution.

Sometimes science is hard. The weather for the last two weeks of September were not conducive to any surveys since September 18. Today we learned that one of the whale watch vessels managed to brave the elements in the Bay of Fundy this morning and saw a number of right whales. They also described the wind as strong enough to "trip a snake." Although our time here is done for the season, we are already preparing for a field season in a portion of the Gulf of Maine called Jordan Basin. This area may be the putative mating ground for the right whale, and vessel surveys are planned for late November and December. Be sure to stay tuned to our blog for the next exciting survey season.



#19 Recapping Efforts

Recap and update to entry #17 Where The Whales Aren't.

R/V Callisto heading out at dawn on Sept 18 for our bay-wide survey

We have ventured to the far reaches of the Bay of Fundy, outside of our traditional survey area, to look for right whales this season. Last week the team discussed expanding our survey to areas south of Grand Manan Island and farther east toward the southern tip of Nova Scotia - 2 areas where right whales have been seen recently. With only a 2 day weather window, we decided to first complete a thorough survey in the Bay before we went exploring around the Gulf of Maine.

R/V Nereid heading home at dusk on Sept 18 after our bay-wide survey

On September 18, R/V Callisto and Nereid surveyed a large section of the Bay and found 9 right whales in the northeast part of the Bay, an optimistic number given the year. The whales were farther northeast than usual and outside of their typical feeding area. So we extended our Bay of Fundy survey by another day to cover the northeastern and westward areas outside of the critical habitat area. To our surprise, we only found 3 whales between both boats. Interestingly though, we saw 56 pilot whales during those 2 days and similarly to sperm whales, pilot whales are deep-diving squid eaters. Speaking of sperm whales, we saw 5 sperm whales during those surveys and have some cool audio recordings that we're going to post soon.

Right whale with entanglement scar across its head

A rare sight in the Bay of Fundy - pilot whale

The weather is typical of September and is not looking good for next week but we're hopeful we will be able to survey again before our season ends.



#18 To Eat Or Not To Eat? That Is Not The Question.

As our field season slowly winds down, discussions of low right whale numbers in the Bay of Fundy continues. A particularly interesting theory has been recently suggested that relates to copepods, the primary food for North Atlantic right whales. A colleague informed us of an unusually warm slug of fresher water that moved into the Gulf of Maine earlier this year. What does warmer water in winter and spring mean for right whales in August - October? Potentially, A LOT!

Calanus copepods collected during our survey in Roseway Basin

In the Bay of Fundy, right whales feed specifically on a copepod species called Calanus finmarchicus that are found in dense aggregations at or near the bottom of deep water basins in late summer and early fall. The Bay of Fundy is one of the main feeding habitats for North Atlantic right whales so their absence here suggests something may be going on with the food resource on which they have traditionally depended. This brings us back to our original question - how could unusually warm water in winter affect right whales in the summer?

In the Bay, adult copepods spawn in late winter, early spring, just in time for the spring phytoplankton bloom. As copepods develop, they feed on the phytoplankton then as summer rolls around they begin a period of hibernation, where they descend to depth and remain there all winter until spring...and the cycle continues (click here for more detail on the copepod life cycle).

Zach and colleagues from Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station sampling for copepods in the Bay of Fundy

For now we can only speculate to how the unusually warm water which apparently started to infiltrate in late winter may have affected the spring phytoplankton bloom and/or copepod recruitment. If copepod abundance was lower this year than traditionally found in the Bay of Fundy then the influx of warm water starting earlier this year may provide some insight as to why right whales did not show up in significant numbers. Future detailed monitoring of copepods in the Bay of Fundy would be a big step toward understanding right whale distribution and ecology.


#17 Where The Whales Aren't

Perplexed is a good word to describe the feeling around the whale house these days. It is mid-September and right whale numbers are still unusually low. Below is an e-mail Amy Knowlton sent to the NEAq team last week that expresses our frustrations but also suggests possible reasons for the low numbers we are seeing in the Bay this year.

Hi all,

I just checked the database for RW defecation - this August is the only August on record (except for 1984-1993 when perhaps we weren't so careful at documenting this?) that there have been no defecations witnessed in BOF, much less many right whales at all! But it does make one wonder what is up. For those of you not here, we did get out yesterday (Sept 9) and found 3 RW's and 2 sperm whales. One of the RW's (adult male EG#1227) was upcalling and then headpushing and gunshotting (click to hear incredible audio of right whale sound production). Thorny, another adult male EG#1032, seemed to be approaching EG#1227 though they never joined up. The third whale was found around N44 31.0 and W66 32.0 and was booking southwest at a good clip and impossible to work.

Is it sperm whales or lack of food or both? Erghh


Several theories have been suggested to explain the low number of whales in the Bay this year. We've discussed in previous blog entries that sperm whale 'clicks' may be driving right whales out of the Bay. Secondly, food resources (copepods) may be limited or even dispersed from the deep water basins which typically aggregate copepods in dense concentrations making feeding more efficient. The lack of observed right whale defecations may suggest insufficient food consumption however it is highly speculative given the overall low frequency of right whale sightings.

NEAq team members discuss surveying different right whale habitats outside of the BOF.

We were able to survey this past Monday (Sept 13) but only came across two whales (M/C - EG#3360 and 2010CalfOf3360) and they were also heading southwest out of the Bay. At a team meeting yesterday we discussed moving our survey efforts to areas outside of the Bay where there have been reliable right whale sightings this year. A considerable amount of planning, preparation and cooperative weather is necessary to do this but it will be worth it if we're able to find any sort of right whale aggregations.

We'll update asap of any shift in our survey efforts. It should be quite an adventure.



#16 Here Comes the Bride

On August 29 in Roseway Basin, Yan and I were on watch with our eyes peeled for right whale blows. A few hours had passed and we had not come across any of our whale friends. I spotted something bobbing at the surface about a mile or so away. We decided to head in the direction of the mystery debris. Upon our approach we realized that it was a bunch of balloons.

Wedding balloons found while surveying for right whales in Roseway Basin

As we were preparing to pull them out of the water, a right whale surfaced only a few hundred feet from us! I quickly radioed down to Moe, "Whale is up, 9 o'clock!!" "What kind?" she asked. I excitedly replied "Right whale!!!" We stayed in the area and happily worked 4 whales, never loosing track of the balloons.

Yan and Candace on watch in Roseway Basin

As you can see in the photo at the top of this blog, the debris was a bunch of black and white plastic and foil balloons tied together with silver ribbon. The largest of all read "Mr. & Mrs.". I quickly scanned the horizon with my binoculars. My suspicion was right, no wedding party in sight. Where did they come from? I wondered (and still do). I always ask myself that question when I see bits of trash drifting about off shore. Once we had them on deck I punctured each one of them and put them in the trash. When I see stray balloons floating away my stomach cringes because I wonder where they'll end up. Maybe around the neck of a seal, in the stomach of a sea turtle, wrapped tightly around the beak of a bird, or maybe they'll wash up on the shore of your local sandy beach.

Balloons collected from Eastport Pirate Festival

My balloon story continues onto land. Last week was the annual Eastport/Lubec pirate invasion which includes a water balloon fight between the two sides. Automatically a few fellow right whale team members and I were picking up the colorful bits and pieces of broken balloons that littered the streets.

Sadly we could only watch as several water balloons missed their intended pirate targets and landed in the water alongside the harbor seals that play in the tidal currents just a few hundred feet off shore.

While writing this blog I began "Googling" words like balloons, animals and ocean. I found this article about marine debris quite interesting. It's incredible how much trash we pass each day we're surveying, and that's only the stuff that floats. I can't even imagine how much is under the surface.


#15 Seven Days At Sea - Roseway Basin

Kara, Candace, Yan and Zach loading the Rominic with food and gear before heading out.

The crew returned from Roseway Basin around 4 am, last Wednesday morning, after an 18 hour trip of 175 nautical miles. We unloaded the boat under the deck lights, loaded the truck and made our way back to Lubec. As we crossed back into the US from Campobello Island, customs officials asked few questions as our weary faces, blank from exhaustion, showed the effects of 7 consecutive days at sea.

Yan and Kara sorting out the data collected for the day.

Moe on the satellite phone checking in with the Whale House and getting a weather update.

Just after midnight last Wednesday, August 25, the fishing vessel Rominic, fully stocked with food, water, ice and all of our research gear, left the wharf in Wilson's Beach on Campobello Island. The first couple of days were pretty rough due to high seas, moderate wind and no right whales. All of the crew, except Captain Papier, were feeling pretty miserable at the start but by day 2 and 3 everyone had fully adjusted to our new rockin' n rollin' home. Our days started early, between 6 and 7 am, and ended around sunset. Click here to see our daily routine.

Surface active group (SAG) in Roseway Basin

We had planned to survey from east to west, but on Friday morning we woke up to thick fog. We motored west and broke through into clear skies near the middle of the Basin. We started our survey for whales heading west from the middle of the Basin but only a few right whales were spotted over the first two survey days. After the west side was completed, we motored back during the night to our starting point and were rewarded with an aggregation of right whales on the eastern side. In total, we photographed approximately 30 individual right whales (pending photo analyses) on Roseway Basin.

Curious approach by 2010Calfof1701

We left on Tuesday morning (August 31). By 9 am the waves were building and the wind increasing, and with the news of an approaching hurricane by the end of the week it was time to steam home. Our trip home proved to be an unexpected surprise as we came across a very active group of whales SW of Lurcher Shoal. In this group we had our only mom/calf pair (Aphrodite/2010Calfof1701) plus a close encounter by the calf, the largest SAG of the trip AND we observed several of the whales subsurface feeding. We were even able to collect a copepod (right whale food) sample to confirm the whales were feeding in this area.

Right whale skim feeding at the surface. This whale appeared to be ill - Note the discoloration of the callosities.

Other species highlights were bow-riding common dolphins, breaching humpbacks, curious approaches by a minke whale and a blue shark, several leatherback turtles, ocean sunfish, a merlin that flew right in the wheelhouse as we were preparing dinner and a warbler.

Two bow-riding common dolphins - Photo by Moe Brown

Although our survey efforts were not rewarded with as many right whale sightings as in past years on Roseway Basin, we did document that the whales are in the area, and that there is a small aggregation at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. The survey provides another piece to the puzzle of right whale distribution this year, that there seem to be small groups aggregating in several areas around the Gulf of Maine.



#14 Right Whale Numbers Still Low

R/V Nereid on a calm day in the Bay of Fundy

Despite our initial excitement after our survey on August 27 that suggested the right whales had arrived into the Bay of Fundy after a slow start, it appears that this influx of animals was short-lived. After three days of extensive surveys using two boats on August 29, 30, and 31, only ~17 individuals were sighted. Few of these individuals matched the ~18 whales sighted by the Nereid on August 27 yet the area surveyed over those latter days in August certainly included the area surveyed on the 27th. We are perplexed by the low numbers of right whales and what appears to be substantial movement by individuals in and out of the Bay. Last year during the month of August we saw at least 79 individuals not including calves of the year (data is still in progress). This year we have only had 32 individuals (not including calves) so the change is dramatic.

Though we don't know the reason for this reduced number, some ideas have come to mind. First, for the first time ever in our 30 years of surveys here, we appear to have a number of sperm whales sticking around in the Bay - as many as seven individuals were seen on August 29 by our two vessels. Also, whale watch boats in the area have been seeing them throughout the month. When we put our hydrophone in, the sound of clicking sperm whales was quite loud. It could be that right whales do not like this sound (see video below).

Audio clip of Sperm whale clicks recorded by Dr. Susan Parks (Environmental Acoustic Program, Penn State University) and her PhD student Jenny Tennenssen (Ecology Program, Penn State University) while on the R/V Callisto.
*Note - audio was dubbed to the video for visual effect, clicks can only be heard underwater.

Another possibility is that the food resource has not set up well this year and thus, the copepod density is not high enough for the right whales to stick around.

We are hoping that Hurricane Earl which passed through the region on Saturday morning could shift things around and entice the right whales back into the Bay. Once the seas and winds calm down, we will be heading back into the Bay to see who we find.


#13 Weathering The Storm

NASA satellite image shows Earl over New England

As Hurricane Earl threatened the east coast of the U.S. and the Canadian Maritimes, like most coastal communities, we began preparations for the storm. Starting on Wednesday we began hauling boats (Callisto and Bonita) and on Thursday Amy and I moved the Nereid from our Lubec dock to a safe harbor on Campobello Island, N.B., Canada. By the time Earl arrived it had been downgraded to a tropical storm and arrived Saturday with gusty winds and loads of rain. Fortunately, Earl has moved (but not without first causing the delay of the annual Eastport pirate invasion of Lubec) and we are hopeful that we will soon get some workable weather so that we can resume our surveys of the Bay of Fundy.

Waves crash from Earl on the coast of Lubec.



#12 Whales Have Arrived!

On Friday we were finally able to get out on the water after four long days of bad weather. Only three whales had been sighted on our last cruise, so we were hoping more whales came into the Bay while we were stuck on land. Luckily, that's exactly what happened. The crew aboard the Nereid photographed 10 to 15 right whales and saw many more in the area, and the Callisto had some additional ones...plus one adult sperm whale!! And interestingly enough, this sperm whale whale matched one of the three photographed in mid-August, so at least one of these unusual whales is lingering in the Bay.

Photo 1 Photo 2

The flukes of the sperm whale sighted on August 14 (Photo 1) match those of the whale seen on August 27 (Photo 2). Photos by Candace Borutskie and Roz Rolland, respectively.

Another highlight was the first sighting of Derecha, #2360, and her calf. This mother had gained some fame back in March when the aerial survey team from Univ. of North Carolina-Wilmington and Duke University photographed Derecha giving birth! (For more information and photos of the event, click here.)

Photo by Marianna Hagbloom

Derecha's 5 month old calf in the Bay of Fundy.

We were all thrilled to know that the pair had made it safely up the coast, but quickly realized that the calf needed to be biopsy darted for a DNA sample. Monica's first ever darting attempt was a big success and the calf's skin sample will now be added to the genetics archive for ongoing studies of this endangered population.

Photo by Marilyn Marx

Monica holds the vial containing the small skin sample of Derecha's calf. It was the first time Monica tried biopsy darting!


# 11 Heading To Sea: Roseway Basin

A few of us at the Whale House (Moe, Yan, Candace, Kara and Zach) are preparing to leave for Roseway Basin this week. This is NEAq's second consecutive year surveying for right whales in Roseway (see last year's entry #18). This project was undertaken with the support of the Government of Canada provided through the Department of the Environment through the Canadian Whale Institute.

Gulf of Maine

Our original departure date has been delayed due to high winds in the Gulf of Maine. We're planning to push away from the dock early Thursday morning to make the steam across the Bay of Fundy to Roseway Basin, approximately 30 miles south of Nova Scotia. Ideally, we will spend two weeks at sea however it is unlikely the weather will cooperate and we will be forced to come in for a couple days.

Slideshow of 2009 Roseway Project

We will be in contact with the Whale House via satellite phone and look forward to giving updates on our surveys.


Roseway Basin
Safer Havens For Right Whales in Canadian Waters


# 10 The Latest Right Whale Deaths

As two previous posts (here and here) by Marianna shared, we were involved in the necropsy of the latest dead right whale found on August 13 in Nova Scotia. Sadly, this was the third right whale mortality in the past two months.

Right whale necropsy on August 15

On June 27, 2010 a right whale carcass was found floating 50 nm east of Cape May, New Jersey and towed to shore for a full necropsy under the direction of Dr. Michael Moore from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. This adult male had suffered a chronic entanglement around the head and flippers which led to its demise. Unfortunately, this particular entangled animal was not known to us when it was alive and we have not been able to ID the carcass as it was too decomposed. We hope to get an identification through genetic analysis.

The second carcass was found floating on July 2, 2010 off the coast of Jonesport, Maine. It had two propeller cuts on the side of the body. Samples taken of the lacerations were taken at sea by a team from Allied Whale at the College of the Atlantic but the carcass was too decomposed to learn anything about the timing of the vessel strike (i.e. if it occurred before or after death). The animal was a sub-adult female. Again, individual ID is not known but may be determined from genetics.

And now, this third carcass - determining the cause of death is still underway but there are indications of blunt impact at the skull region from a vessel strike.

Necropsy reveals fractures in the skull and both sides of the rostrum on August 15.

We are very concerned about this latest rash of right whale deaths, perhaps all the result of human activities. Though the right whale community has made great strides in implementing protective measures for right whales, this job is certainly not yet complete.

- Amy

#9 Skim Feeding Right Whales!

I recently joined the Right Whale Project to help the Aquarium team heading to Roseway Basin later in the week (check back tomorrow for more information on our trip to Roseway Basin). I have a full time position in the Education Department at the Aquarium and am lucky enough to help with this season's surveys. I have previously flown aerial surveys in the southeast but I haven't been involved with data collection for about a year and a half, so the team sent me on the R/V Nereid yesterday to get me back up to speed.

Right whale with mouth open, showing its baleen

We ended up having an amazing day on the water. We headed to the middle of the Bay of Fundy survey area and weren't having any luck spotting right whales when we got a report that the R/V Shearwater, a research vessel from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies doing humpback whale surveys, had seen 3 - 4 right whales skim feeding as well as a mother/calf pair southeast of Grand Manan Island. Even though the position was about 26 miles away, we took a chance and steamed to that spot. On our way we spotted TONS of humpbacks and then about a mile from the reported spot, we found our first right whale for the day! We ended up seeing 3 right whales, all skim feeding. While this behavior is common in other habitats, like the Cape Cod Bay, it is not commonly seen in the Bay of Fundy. Right whales in the Bay of Fundy feed at depth, using their baleen to filter the water for mostly copepods, a small zooplankton (animal plankton) that is very abundant in cold North Atlantic waters. It was incredible to not only see this behavior but also to see the incredible baleen that these whales have.

Right whale displaying skim feeding behavior

It was a great day on the water and a great way to get me back in the swing of things, I even got to see my first puffins in the wild! I can't wait to see what we will find on Roseway Basin!



#8 The Inside Story: A Right Whale Necropsy

Early on Sunday, Moe, Amy, Yan, Jess and I traveled back over to Nova Scotia to help a veterinary pathologist and his team perform a necropsy of the right whale that we towed ashore Friday evening (see Entry #6). We met Dr. Pierre-Yves Daoust from the Atlantic Veterinary College, University of Prince Edward Island on the beach, were introduced to his team (Heather, Jessica and Phil) and made a plan to accomplish the job in two days with a crew of 10. Our tenth crew member was volunteer Cathy Merriman who has been active in right whale conservation for many years and happened to be visiting in the area. Certain logistics were arranged to make our job easier: an excavator and two dump trucks from SpecResources were standing by to help with the necropsy and disposal of the carcass, and Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) provided two fishery officers who helped us out tremendously with knife sharpening, crowd control, and other logistics.

The ultimate goal of a whale necropsy is to determine cause of death; since there are usually several possibilities, we collect as much data as possible. The first step is to measure different parts of the body as well as blubber thickness, which can help us judge if the whale was healthy. This whale appeared to be a fit adult male, measuring 13.7 meters (45 feet) in length with blubber thickness of up to 20 cm (8 inches).

Jess and Yan peel away blubber with the help of the excavator.

The next part of the necropsy involved peeling away the blubber in order to examine the internal organs and muscle. Some of the organs were no longer intact, but the lungs and heart still provided us with valuable information, and possible blood clots were found in the lungs and bronchial tree. Samples were collected, but they will need to be analyzed back in the lab before we can draw any conclusions. However, if they actually are blood clots, this would indicate a hemorrhage occurred. Other samples collected included skin, which through DNA analysis may reveal who the animal was, and a small amount of fecal matter, which may be able to provide hormone levels.

As the light (and our energy) faded, we put our tools aside for the day and spent the night in a hostel. We were sent straight to the showers since eau de dead whale is not pleasant for anyone. Early the next morning, we returned to finish the task of uncovering the rest of the skeleton and removing the remains from the beach. Our noses now quite used to the smell and our knife skills finely tuned, we set to work and separated bones from connective tissue so that the skeleton can be displayed in a museum in the future.

Working to expose the skeleton requires intense labor!

We made some curious discoveries as we unveiled the skull: several large fractures in the rostrum, which is the upper jaw, as well as fractures in the skull and both ear bones. The ear bones in particular are embedded deep in the skull, so to have both broken suggests an tremendous impact to the head. This collision could have happened while the animal was alive, or it could have happened after the animal was already dead. Analyses of the bone samples we collected will help determine when this impact occurred.

Important discoveries are made: fractures are revealed in the
skull and both sides of the rostrum.

As we finished disposing of the body, we discussed the next steps. A necropsy is never pleasant- it's emotionally and physically draining. The amount of labor, organization, and the smell can all be overwhelming. I found that I had to suspend my idea of what is "disgusting" in the name of science. Previously, the largest animal I had ever dissected was a piglet, perfectly preserved in formaldehyde. This was a 45 ton carcass that had been rotting for about two weeks! However, once the analyses are complete, we should learn who this whale was and get some idea of the cause of death, which makes the whole process worth it.

Carrying out any thorough necropsy requires a tremendous amount of coordination and the funds to accomplish the job. DFO was integral to this whole event with logistical and financial support. With the help of Captain Stanley Stanton to tow the carcass, the heavy machinery operators who worked diligently to help carefully dismantle the carcass, the local residents of Gulliver's Cove and surrounding area who provided help with fensing as well as providing cool drinking water, and the hostel owners who cooked the weary workers a delicious dinner, we were able to accomplish this challenging task more easily than is sometimes the case. We are grateful for all the support provided.


#7 Sperm Whales In The Bay

We haven't had too much luck catching up with right whales so far this season. There have been many days where we see a blow or fluke over 2 miles away and then when we arrive in the vicinity, we sit and wait for 20 minutes just to see the next blow another mile off. We have heard from whale watching operators out of Massachusetts that they are seeing a lot of right whales around Jeffreys Ledge, so we are hoping that their arrival to the Bay of Fundy is just slightly belated.

However, we have still had some exciting days out in the Bay over the past week when the weather improved and we were able to survey in flat calm waters. We heard reports from local whale watching vessels that they had seen a sperm whale on several occasions. It was quite a surprise that sperm whales were observed in the Bay, they are typically found in waters over 1,000 feet deep and only close to shore in areas where the continental shelf drops off close to the coastline. Considering near-shore populations were whaled out over 200 years ago, we were anxious to catch a glimpse.

On August 14th, our whale watcher, Yan spotted a blow and exclaimed to the crew that he had a surprise for us all. As we approached, we recognized the distinct blow that veers off to the left hand side, along with the bulbous head, wrinkly dorsal surface and 'knuckles' forward of the peduncle. All in all it is a truly bizarre looking creature. The whale fluked as we watched, and we all expected to be waiting a long time before we saw the next surfacing, as sperm whales can remain submerged for over an hour. While we waited we dropped our hydrophone over the side of the boat, and were able to listen to the remarkable clicks that this animal was emitting.

As we continued our survey for right whales, we encountered two more sperm whales. We have little experience with sperm whale identification. However, it only took an untrained eye to see that all three of these sightings were of different individuals when comparing the trailing edge of their flukes.


Photo/video captions:
1) Sperm whale at the surface - note the distinctive diagonal blow
2) Crew waiting for a right whale to re-surface
3) Sperm whale logging at the surface
4) Flukes of three sperm whales spotted in the Bay of Fundy
5) Sperm whale blow