#22 Biopsy Sampling

I recently had the opportunity to assist a boat-based team of researchers from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (Georgia DNR) with biopsy sampling of a right whale calf. Biopsy darting is performed in the Southeastern U.S. each year as a collaborative effort between researchers in the U.S. and Canada.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Karen Vale

Obtaining a biopsy sample (i.e., a sample of skin and blubber) provides genetic information, which can help scientists determine characteristics and relationships such as reproductive success, sex ratio, genetic diversity (loss of genetic diversity can be detrimental, particularly for a critically endangered population with so few individuals), identity of individuals and genetic relationships (e.g., paternity and maternity), etc. Much of my day was spent anxiously waiting on a 20 ft. inflatable boat named the R/V Hurricane (see photo) for the aerial survey team to locate cow/calf pairs.

Late into the day, we finally got the call from Kelly and Suzie in the plane - they located whale #1701 (Aphrodite) and her calf. We quickly headed toward the coordinates provided by the aerial team. Once on scene, the boat was carefully maneuvered into position to obtain photographs and a biopsy sample. Clay George, a researcher with Georgia DNR, readied a crossbow equipped with a modified arrow. Instead of the typical sharp tipped arrow, our arrow is modified with a hollow cylinder tip which allows for collection of a small piece of skin and blubber. The biopsy darting trip was a success and the genetic information of Aphrodite's calf will soon be added to the genetic databank. [read more about biopsy darting with this post from the Bay of Fundy blog.]




#21 That's Either A Small Whale or A Really Big Shark

Or so we thought when we caught a glimpse of something big in the water below us during our survey last week. Due to the sheer size of the animal, we initially suspected it to be a right whale calf hanging out at the surface, but after a quick once-over of the animal, it became evident that this was no whale.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Kelly Slivka

We had in fact flown over an enormous great white shark, so large that in all likelihood it dwarfed the size of a newborn right whale--our best guess puts the shark at nearly 20 feet in length. Great white sharks are somewhat common in the waters off of Florida and up and down the Eastern seaboard.

These animals are oceanic wanderers, and can be found just about anywhere. We do take data points for sharks as a regular part of our research, and we were able to snap a photo before we continued on our survey. The shark seemed to be heading nowhere in any hurry and slowly slung its tail back and forth, side to side as it swam, its dorsal fin barely grazing the ocean's surface.




#20 "No-Fly" Days

Adverse weather conditions prevented us from flying today, however there is still plenty of work to be done at the field house (pictured on right). On these "no-fly" days, one of our duties as an Observer is to manage and analyze data and images collected during our aerial surveys for the digital North Atlantic right whale catalog.

The catalog has developed from a collaborative effort of various organizations, and is curated by the New England Aquarium. The digital images we take in the plane are coded with supporting data (e.g., behaviors, group associations, location, etc.) and the whales are identified. It is a common misconception that wildlife biologists are always in the field and rarely work indoors. There are always data sets to be managed and our days sometimes consist of more hours looking at a computer screen than looking out of a window, searching for whales.


Photo Credit: New England Aquarium/Karen Vale



#19 Stunning Weather Momentarily Stuns Aerial Observer

The headlines say it all: "Cold stuns sea turtles", "Cold weather killing off fish",and "Brr! Florida manatees warm up at power plant hot tub"! It could be argued that, as a Canadian-born Alaskan resident who works in the Arctic, I might not be the best judge of what constitutes cold weather but that doesn't mean I was unaffected by the recent cold spell here in Florida. Or so, that's the excuse I'm using for momentarily confusing everyone during a recent survey when I slipped up and said "break track right, I have a bowhead whale at 3 o'clock", one of the species I survey for in Arctic waters. Of course, I meant to say 'right whale' but, in point of a fact, the species are more similar than you might imagine. As another observer commented, bowheads look a lot like 'naked' right whales; that is, bowheads are devoid of the distinctive head callosities that we use to identify right whales with, as can be seen in the attached photo.

Unless you spend time around Arctic or sub-Arctic waters, you will likely never see a bowhead whale but it's remarkably similar to the North Atlantic right whale. In fact, they are all in the same family, Balaenidae. The two genera in this family are Eubalaena which include the North Atlantic, North Pacific and Southern right whales, and the Balaena which consist of the bowheads. The size, and body shapes of all in this family are remarkably similar. They do not have throat grooves, lack a dorsal fin, and also produce a v-shaped blow like the right whale.

There are, however, some interesting differences between bowheads and right whales. Notably, bowheads are closely associated with sea ice, and they avoid their only known predators, killer whales and humans, by retreating under ice. Amazingly, thanks to the heavy bone structure of their skulls, they are able to break holes through ice that is 2 feet thick! There are many superlatives that can be applied to the bowhead: they have the largest mouth and head in the animal kingdom (about one third of their body length); their baleen plates are the longest of any whale (up to 14 ft long and 12 ft wide); and they may well be the longest lived mammal on Earth, with some individuals reaching 150 - 200 years in age! Despite these unique characteristics, the commonalities between bowhead and right whales is remarkable and I feel privileged to observe both species. No doubt, this summer I will find myself momentarily stunned by some Arctic sunshine, and will again slip up and call out 'right whale' when I mean to stay 'bowhead'.


Photo credit: Gary Miller, collected under NMFS permit SRP 518.



#18 There She Blows

Check out this great example of the right whale's characteristic V-shaped blow (see image). The shape of a blow can help scientists distinguish different species of cetaceans when they are seen from afar. For example, the finback whales' blow is tall and slender rising about 20 feet above the surface of the water. The humpback whale has a short bushy blow. The sperm whale has a blow that veers to the left due to the angle of its blowhole.

You probably recognize the whale in the left of this image from a previous blog.

Photo Credit: Jessica Taylor. 19 January 2010



#17 Meet a Researcher: Karen Vale

My reasons for pursuing a career as a wildlife biologist, such as a deep respect for the natural world, an innate sense of curiosity, and an affinity for science, are probably common motivators among many individuals in my field. I grew up on the coast of Massachusetts and spent much of my childhood near the ocean, so it's not surprising that many of my career choices have placed me in, on, or above the sea.

As an undergraduate student, I gained valuable experience by volunteering and interning, primarily for non-profit organizations on Cape Cod and in southeastern Massachusetts. This was an extremely exciting and educational time in my career! For instance, I was able to assist the local stranding network in their response and rescue of stranded dolphins, seals, and large whales on Cape Cod. I participated in my first large cetacean necropsy on a humpback whale (Megaptera novangliea) and also participated in the successful release of Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus).

Outreach has always been an integral part of my science career and will probably continue to be so in the future. I have worked 6 seasons as a biologist and research assistant onboard commercial whale watch vessels, primarily based out of Plymouth, MA. While onboard, I educate the public about whales and the marine environment as well as collect data for the endangered humpback whale photo-identification catalog and database. I have also been engaged in whale watching safety education for both commercial and recreational vessels in the northeast region. For instance, I was involved with the "See a Spout, Watch Out!" Responsible Whale Watching Boater Education Program as well as disseminating the Northeast Region Whale Watching Guidelines on behalf of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS).

My passion for science and fascination with wildlife management certainly doesn't end at the shore. I have an interest in all wildlife, including terrestrial mammals. For two years I studied a different type of aquatic mammal - the swamp rabbit (Sylvilagus aquaticus), the largest member of the cottontails and a conservation concern throughout portions of its range, while pursuing an M.S. degree in Wildlife Ecology and Management. My thesis, which I completed in 2008, concerned habitat use and territoriality of male rabbits in southeastern Arkansas. I also had the opportunity to participate in a home range study of white-tailed deer (Odocoileus virginianus) on Choctaw Island Wildlife Management Area in Arkansas, which included drop-netting and radio-collaring individuals.

My professional and academic experiences have undoubtedly left me with feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction, knowing that I have made a difference for future generations, particularly with work concerning endangered and threatened species. This holds especially true for my current position with the New England Aquarium's Aerial Survey Team - helping to protect critically endangered right whales so that future generations may have a chance to appreciate these amazing creatures someday.

- Karen



#16 Like Four Peas, a Laptop, a Telephoto Camera, a Life Raft and a Satellite Phone in a Pod

There are a lot of aspects of aerial surveys that pose challenges, such as the aforementioned photographing, attempting to prevent whale-ship interactions, and staying on top of the continuous collection of data-- marking data points for sea states, unique species, location on the tracklines, and vessel traffic. But on a more basic level, the simple requirement of just sitting in a Cessna Skymaster for 7 hours is quite the challenge in itself. The interior of this airplane is incomprehensibly small, and you can't realize just how small until you physically take your seat inside and realize you're within kicking distance of everyone else in the plane, from pilot to co-observer.

Aside from sitting still all day, the other challenge that the limited space inside the airplane gives us is the effective use of this space in order to fit all of our research and safety equipment inside, while still allowing room for our legs. The total floor space we have to work with adds up to about seven or eight square feet, an area a little smaller than a yoga mat. About two of these square feet are taken up by the Pelican case which holds our seven-pound camera, and another two feet are taken up by safety equipment, including a hefty life raft. The laptop sits perfectly in front of us so that the left-side observer has direct visual sight of the airplane's GPS location and other data-collection software on the screen if and when needed. We also have our satellite phone taking up another half square foot, leaving under four square feet to deal with-- just enough for our legs and feet, which, as anyone can imagine, need a good stretching out several times during the flight. But that doesn't mean our knees aren't banging against the VHF radio or the Personal Locator Beacon in the seat-front pockets every now and then.

The last but nonetheless important piece of equipment that needs to be well-placed in the plane is the mouse that controls the computer. As observers, our eyesight needs to be trained out the window on the sea's surface during every possible second of the survey, except during ship-strike mitigation emergencies and data collection while we circle on whales-- but even then we need to be looking out the windows as much as possible. Whenever we take a data point, which will be explained in more detail in a future post, we have to click the mouse in order for our software to mark the data. However, we can't be distracted by looking at the computer screen in order to direct the mouse, especially if we need to keep our eyes on a whale we've just spotted far off in the distance. As a solution, we have secured the mouse right up on the left siding of the airplane, just to the right of the observing window and at eye level, so the observer's focus never has to leave the water. Everything in the plane is arranged with the most effective observing in mind, and though the Cessna is a tight space, this does mean that all of our equipment is within arm's reach, and we never have to take our attention away from our most important task: visually locating and marking positions for every single right whale in our survey area.

Photo Credit: Kelly Slivka. Top - Pilots Ken and Holly and Team Leader Jess in the Cessna; bottom - observer Karen on watch.




#15 Update on Entangled Humpback

We have an update on the entangled humpback whale our survey team spotted on December 9, 2009 (See blog entry #4). According to the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, a whale tentatively identified to be the same individual was re-sighted by recreational boaters off the coast of Spanish Wells, Bahamas on December 26, 2009. The whale was in poor condition (i.e. covered in orange cyamids and lethargic). According to to the The Eleutheran News, an impromptu disentanglement effort was made by the boaters and they managed to free the whale from most of the gear using a gaff. Eventually a diver entered the water to cut the last of the gear free. Thankfully, no one was injured during the disentanglement. Read the entire news article here:
A Whale of a Boxing Day Story - Humpback rescued off Spanish Wells.

If you see an entangled whale on the east coast of the U.S., it is best to keep your distance and immediately report the sighting to the Coast Guard or call the disentanglement hotline: 1-800-900-3622. If possible, stand by the whale at a safe and legal distance until rescuers arrive or another boat can take your place. Oftentimes, if a boat does not stay on site, rescuers cannot relocate the animal in the same day. Please keep in mind that attempts to disentangle any marine mammal without proper training and authorization may be subject to prosecution and may result in injury to both animals and humans.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium/Jess Taylor




#14 Amelia Islanders Show Their Support

The Nassau County chapter of the Sierra Club recently hosted an informative discussion about North Atlantic right whales. Tom Pitchford, a wildlife biologist with the Right Whale Project of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commision (FWC), and Barb Zoodsma, the Right Whale Recovery Program Coordinator of NOAA, did a fantastic job educating a full house of interested locals about right whale ecology and conservation efforts. Audience members included one of the awesome pilots flying our surveys, Holly Friedman; a Fernandina Harbor Pilot, Brian Seuter, plus his family; two of the local NEA aerial surveyors, Kelly and myself; Sierra Club members plus persons from all over Amelia Island. Tom and Barb fielded questions, relayed compelling stories and shared amazing video footage of right whale disentanglement efforts. All in all, the evening was a great success. Public education is an integral part of right whale conservation work and we are grateful to the organizers of this important event!

Young right whale enthusiasts,
Griffin & Avery, share their artwork



#13 Curiosity? Symbiosis? The Questions of Inter-Specific Co-Mingling

Though some might be hoping for me to provide a few answers in this blog about the reasons behind inter-specific relationships, I'm afraid all I have are more questions and a bit of well-founded speculation. Over years and years of surveys, aerial observers have happened to see some very interesting things going on out in the offshore ocean waters, things that researchers might have never known about if it weren't for the efforts put forth for the EWS. Of course, one of the great benefits to these ship-strike reduction surveys is that, on the side, they have allowed researchers to collect an enormous amount of data about the marine life in survey waters. We collect data regarding sharks, leatherback turtles, and unusual marine mammals that we might see from our daily track-lines, and with all this observing, we're occasionally witness to some unique situations. Most notably, in January of 2005 the Aquarium's aerial team was lucky enough to be flying over a right whale just as she was in the process of giving birth. Some other events, though not as groundbreaking, certainly give us a quandary to mull about for days, reigniting the instinctual inquisitiveness about the natural world that I believe drove a lot of us to become biologists in the first place.

The first common occurrence, which I briefly spoke of in my last post, is seeing North Atlantic right whales with bottlenose dolphins. Just a couple of days ago Jess and I had a sighting of a single right whale who was breaching over and over, throwing its massive body almost completely out of the water, then surging for a few breaths at the surface before diving down to begin another series of breaches. Interestingly, this whale was inundated by bottlenose dolphins. There were at least twenty dolphins on all sides of the whale, cutting through the water, keeping pace with it, dodging the whale as it crashed back into the sea. Though we do often see dolphins associated with right whales, we don't typically see this many dolphins associated. We wondered if the number of dolphins were somehow affecting the breaching behavior of the whale, or even if the whale's behavior was affecting the number of dolphins surrounding it. The accompanying photo captures a mere microcosm of the number of dolphins that were around the whale. There is a regrettable lack of scientific research about the relationship between North Atlantic right whales and bottlenose dolphins on the calving grounds here in the Southeastern US, but it is a somewhat unique association; up north off of Massachusetts where I study humpback whales in the summertime, it is highly unusual to see any sort of association between humpback whales and the most common dolphin in that area, suggesting that dolphin-large whale interactions aren't ubiquitous. Without much standardized research, we can only speculate that the bottlenose dolphins might be expressing their natural curiosity by consorting with the right whales, or perhaps there's some sort of symbiotic relationship from which both the right whale and the dolphins are benefiting. One can only imagine what it must be like for the right whale, dolphins shooting through the water like bullets, hearing a barrage of dolphin clicks from all sides, and not having much ability to shake them off if wanted.

But dolphins, it seems, aren't the only curious mammals in the sea. In January of 2005, just days after the Aquarium aerial survey team witnessed the right whale giving birth, they witnessed another outstanding situation. We commonly see sea turtles during our aerial surveys as they travel to their nesting sites, but when the team that January stopped to photograph a right whale they ended up seeing an anomalous instance of whale-turtle interaction. A sea turtle was very still (and perhaps a little bewildered) in the water as a seemingly curious right whale appeared to investigate it. The whale brought the tip of its rostrum up repeatedly alongside to the turtle, now and then sinking just to surface right next to it again (see photograph). I can't even begin to suggest what might have been going on in this instance, but the intricate interactions between animals in the natural world are certainly something to behold.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium; Photo 1 - Kelly Slivka; Photo 2: EG# 3301 with turtle - Jessica Taylor




#12 Busy Day

A couple of days ago, Kelly and I were scheduled to fly together as a team for the first time. We flew a survey covering most of the central EWS area and what a busy day it was! We had a SAG of 5 adult right whales, an individual adult right whale, and a cow/calf pair as well - one of each group type! It was amazing to see the calf exhibiting head-lifting behavior, raising up out of the water exposing its rostrum and chin.


Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Karen Vale



#11 Did Salem Inherit the Lips??

The calving ground is hopping with a number of juvenile whales and one of them has an interesting history. Catalog #3617, known as Salem, was born in 2006 to whale #1817, known as Silt. While most calves are weaned by the end of their first year of life, Salem stayed with Silt for at least 17 months through May - five months longer than most calves. Its first sighting on its own was in the harbor in Salem, Massachusetts- a very unlikely place for a right whale (or any whale for that matter) to be. Ironically, a team of right whale researchers had steamed out of Salem harbor that very morning looking for right whales offshore!

One of the distinctive features of Salem is that its lip callosity on the right side is so long that it connects with its chin callosity (see photo to the left). There are only a few right whales in the population that share this trait. In fact, it is so rare that I am willing to boldly guess who Salem's father is! Because the fathers have no long term association with the mother or with the calf after it is born, the only way we can determine paternity is with genetics.

I would bet that once the researchers at Trent University in Ontario Canada do the paternity analysis for Salem, we will discover that whale #1250, Herb, is its father. Herb was named after a man who had a big mustache that connected to his beard- just as Herb the whale's right lip callosity connects with his chin callosity.

We don't know much about the inheritance of callosity patterns, but the similarity between Salem and Herb makes me a believer that Salem got its lips from Herb.

Photo Credits: New England Aquarium, Salem (top) in 2007 by Philip Hamilton, and Herb (bottom) in 2003.