#34 Worry Turns to Wonderment

As Kelly mentioned in her last blog entry, we lucked out on a recent survey and witnessed a first-time mother, Skittle (she's #3260 if you want to search for her in the Right Whale Catalog) with her newborn calf. Karen did a fantastic job of spotting her from over 3 miles away but when we approached the vicinity, we were initially alarmed by the whale's behavior. She was swimming in tight circles, occasionally head-lifting, frequently diving just below the surface and repeatedly thrashing her peduncle and flukes in and out of the water. Karen examined the photographs and saw no evidence of entanglement or injury, and so we continued to circle in the plane above looking for clues.

More than once, we wondered aloud whether there was a second whale with her but given the white water produced by the whale's behavior, it was a while before we were able to spot the tiny calf right next to her. Skittle kept her calf on the inside of the circle (see photo) and although we witnessed the calf swimming on its own, we also saw the mother diving just below the surface and lifting the calf on her back out of the water! This rarely witnessed behavior, thought to occur only shortly after birth, has only been seen once before in a North Atlantic right whale in 2005 by Jess and Monica who were fortunate enough to observe the full birthing event (see the associated Q&A here). We are happy to report that we video-taped this recent occurrence and hope to share it with you in the near future.

- Suzie




It's been about 2 weeks since Valentine's Day was observed throughout the U.S. and many other countries. All day long, love and affection among family, friends, and especially significant others was celebrated. However, this wonderful celebration can also have harmful affects on marine animals. During the last few days, NEAq observers have frequently witnessed evidence of Valentine's Day in the form of pink and red balloons scattered throughout the Central EWS survey area.

Balloons are detrimental to marine mammals, sea turtles, and birds because they can oftentimes be mistaken for jellyfish or other prey (plastic bags pose the same problem). Marine animals ingest this non-biodegradable material (typically rubber or Mylar) and then can't digest it. This causes intestinal blockage, which ultimately leads to starvation. Not only can balloons and other marine debris be ingested, but it can entangle marine animals as well.

So next Valentine's Day, or any other holiday, avoid purchasing balloons or at least be sure they are disposed of appropriately and do not end up in the marine environment. In addition, if you see balloons or other marine debris out on the water or on the beach, if possible, pick it up and dispose of it properly. To read more about the problem of marine debris click here.

Click here to read a blog entry from the Aquarium's seasonal Whale Watch Log where naturalists spotted balloons right next to where a whale was feeding! Find out what other marine animals can be harmed by helium balloons here.




#32 Update: More Recruits to Motherhood

Just because it's late in the North Atlantic right whale calving season doesn't mean we're done seeing new mothers! In fact, in the past week Southeast surveyors have added four new moms to the list, including one this morning, #3260. But it gets better: we had sighted #3260 yesterday morning at 11:50 without a calf and then saw her this morning at 9:50 with a calf! That means that we can narrow down the time of her calf's birth to a 22-hour window, and with great photo-documentation of the newborn we can learn a lot about a mysterious event--right whale calving. It's extremely rare to be able to see such a freshly born calf and its interactions with its mother, so this is a very exciting event for us and for right whale research in general.

Below is a photo of one of the two newest mothers in the Southeast that we've personally seen on Aquarium surveys: #2710. Click here to search for and learn about identified whales in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. Tune in for a blog (including photos!) about #3260's newborn calf from one of my teammates who witnessed it herself.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium; Suzie Hanlan




#31 Ground Zero

During our aerial surveys, we get an important perspective on North Atlantic right whales. Aerial photographs provide a full view of the right whales' callosities, entire body shots that often show us unique scars or fresh wounds, and even fishing gear that can be wrapped around a whale in places that are hard to see from the water, like the flippers.

However, after seeing whales from one thousand feet up in the sky, it's a special treat to have an up-close encounter with living, breathing right whales from the water. Earlier this week I had an opportunity to join the biopsy team for a day of research on the waters off Jacksonville, FL. We spent the majority of our day with one particular individual, a young-looking whale who meandered around for a few hours as we stayed close behind.

Though the whale generally kept its distance, during one surfacing we were able to approach for photographic documentation. At this point I was the one taking paper data, and as the whale mellowly began to display some unusual behavior, there was a lull in written data collection that allowed me to enjoy my proximity to and experience with such a unique and rare animal, and I was able to pull out my personal camera and take a short video. In this video the whale has maneuvered itself perpendicularly in the water and is lifting its chin briefly into the air before sinking back down under the surface. You can see the whale's right chin callosity, a couple mandibular islands, a little bit of the right bonnet callosity, and a peak at a white chin.

Video taken under NMFS permit #775-1875. Please note: It is illegal to approach a North Atlantic right whale within 500 yards (50CFR 224.103(C).




#30 Meet a Pilot: Ryan Hagins

Ryan Hagins is the Aquarium's newest pilot and has been flying the Central EWS surveys since 2009. Ryan was born and raised near Fernandina Beach, Florida. After graduating from ATP (Airline Transport Professionals) Flight School in Jacksonville, Florida in 2008, he has been employed with Environmental Aviation and Eagle Cap Aviation. He has been flying for 3.5 years.

In addition to flying for NEAq, he has had some interesting opportunities over the past few years. Beginning in 2008, he has flown jump planes in air shows for skydivers throughout the states of Florida and Georgia.

Additionally, in 2008, he had the opportunity to fly ship shock trials for the U.S. Navy off the coast of Florida. Ship shock trials are when Navy ships (either new types or ones with significant modifications) are subjected to a series of tests that determine whether it can withstand sea combat. The shock trials involve the detonation of explosive charges near the ship, along with an analysis of the effects on the ship. In order to prevent detrimental effects of these tests on marine mammals and turtles (learn about different types of sea turtles here, here and here) in the surrounding area, aerial surveys are carried out. Ryan piloted these aerial surveys to be sure the area was clear of marine animals.

While he enjoys all aerial work, he is particularly proud of the conservation-based projects he has been involved with, especially his work with NEAq. As with all of our pilots, Ryan's involvement in the Central EWS surveys is an integral part of protecting right whales off the coast of Florida.

- Karen and Ryan



#29 Motherhood

From a research perspective, a season on the calving grounds is foremost about mothers and calves. The proximity of the North Atlantic right whale calving grounds to land gives scientists an extremely unique and important opportunity to keep track of the health and viability of a species teetering on the edge of extinction. During our surveys we have the chance to see right whale calves sometimes days after they are born, and with luck we can eventually add the young whales to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog and keep track of them for decades to come. In order to facilitate the most complete knowledge and tracking of the little individuals born into the critical legacy of a (hopefully) recovering species, the biopsy boats in the EWS area primarily target mother/calf pairs. Once a calf is at least a month old, a skin sample can be collected from it and analyzed for its health and DNA. If every new calf is successfully biopsied this season, we have a genetic fingerprint that, among many other purposes, could allow future researchers to follow each calf's own reproductive successes for generations of right whales to come.

Photo Credit: Kelly Slivka

Last season there were a record number of right whale mother/calf pairs seen on the calving grounds: 39. This may have been around a 10% increase in the entire population! So far this season, however, we have 10 mothers toting new calves around Georgia and Florida waters. Though we expect to have a few more mother/calf pairs identified by the end of the season, this lower number of pairs is not necessarily cause for alarm. Fluctuations such as this are natural in populations both big and small, and researchers have seen ups and downs in the number of new calves many times throughout the past two decades of thorough right whale research. Below is a slide show of the new mothers we have seen in our EWS area already. Above is a photograph of the chart in our field house where we post composite drawings of all the new mothers and keep careful track of whether their calves have been "darted" (biopsied) yet or if a sample is still needed.




#28 Meet The Pilot: Mike Vigus

This is the first in a series of blog entries about our talented and dedicated pilots. Without them, our Central EWS surveys would not be possible. If you're interested in the aerial aspect of biology-based field work, this is your chance to ask the more technical questions about flying or just learn a little something new. As always, please feel free to address your queries in the comments section. Thanks to Karen's insightful questions (and bribes of cookies!), we are happy to introduce you all to Pilot Mike Vigus:

How long have you been flying?

I took my first lesson in 1980 but couldn't afford to continue flying. I began training again and soloed in 1985. Then, I received my first paid flying job in 1990 flying skydivers.

How long have you been flying with NEA? How did you start working for NEA? What do you think of the job? Favorite aspect of the job?
I flew for the Florida team in 2000, and then in 2004 long-time NEA pilot Ron Salmon recruited me to fly with him on the NEA contract. I love flying marine mammal surveys; I wish it was a year round job. There are many facets of the job that I enjoy. One aspect of the job is working with the observers; they are intelligent, humorous and have interesting experiences and knowledge to share. Also, their enthusiasm and commitment to their work is admirable. Another is seeing the whales do what they do. It's amazing to see mom/calf interactions, or a group of whales sagging (i.e., in a surface active group), or seeing a whale breach. Another is feeling like I'm a small part of something that makes a big difference, like the part the aerial team plays during a disentanglement effort or preventing a ship strike. It's very rewarding.

How did you become interested in becoming a pilot?
It was pretty natural for me; I built model planes as a kid, and have always been interested in mechanical things. I took my first flying lesson a week after graduating high school, then it just took me a while to figure out a way to fund the remainder of the training.

What is the most interesting job you ever had?
What, do you mean like the time I was Demi Moore's "cabana boy"???

Any other interesting flying jobs?
Year round I fly for the City of Jacksonville Mosquito Control Division. There I fly planes and helicopters in an effort to minimize the spread of infectious diseases by reducing mosquito populations and breeding.

Any other biology related jobs?
The mosquito control work has a lot of biology in it. Many of the products we use are not poisons, some are bacteria that specifically attack mosquito larva, and some are growth regulators that disrupt the mosquitoes life cycle. Not all mosquitoes are active at the same time, so we time the application of pesticide to the specific species of mosquito for maximum effectiveness, to minimize the amount of pesticide released in the environment. Sometimes we take no action on a mosquito breeding site based on the number of predators living in the site like pollywogs, fish, and dragon fly larva knowing that they will keep the number of mosquito larva at the site from getting out of hand.

Anything else worth mentioning?
It's not flying related, but years ago I was a lumberjack in the Sahara forest.




#27 Our First Mom

Yesterday, we had a very slow and quiet survey day. We had almost completed the entire survey without any sightings, when on our last survey line, we had a special sighting. We had come across whale #1701 (Aphrodite) - the very first mom we saw this season. (Click here to search for #1701 in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog.)

As you can see from the photo below, her calf is getting a lot bigger and is even beginning to form a callosity pattern on its head. We first saw Aphrodite with her calf on January 11, 2010, so her calf is estimated to be a little over a month old. A calf's callosity emerges shortly after birth (the black roughened skin on its head, chin and lip) but this pattern typically doesn't stabilize for about a year. As you can see with #1701's calf, it's already forming a very distinctive callosity pattern.

Check back with the blog throughout this week to read an upcoming post further exploring the mother/calf pairs in the Southeast.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium; Karen Vale



#26 A Jaw-Dropping Habit

As we've mentioned before, North Atlantic right whales aren't visiting the waters of the Southeastern United States in order to feed. Rather, coastal Florida and Georgia are the calving grounds, warm, shallow water where mothers gather to birth their calves.

Right whales feed in the waters off of New England and eastern Canada where their prey, tiny crustaceans called copepods, amass in dense columns in the water. In order to feed, these whales create a kind of vacuum with their gaping mouths, swimming through the water with their jaws dropped and their lips apart and letting a basic law of physics filter copepods from the seawater as it streams through their hundreds of baleen plates.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Kelly Slivka

Since whales feed by plowing through the sea with their mouths open, it's rare to see a whale exhibiting this mouth-open behavior down here on the calving grounds, as there's really nothing for them to eat in this part of the sea. It was curious and amusing, therefore, to see a juvenile whale (above) bopping around with its mouth wide open the other day, a sight with which aerial observers in the Northeast are much more familiar.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Zach Swaim

Even more amusing, though, was discovering that this particular whale is a habitual jaw-dropper. As I attempted to match the whale, found to be the 2008 calf of #3292, to its likeness in the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, I again saw pictures of this spunky juvenile (above) with its mouth wide open, taken in these same waters almost one year ago to the day by the Aquarium's aerial team.




#25 Data Points

We have referred often in this blog to data collection and taking data points, so I thought it wise to give a brief explanation of what exactly we mean. Though we collect both computer- and paper-based data during our flights, the majority of our "effort" data (data about the route of our survey and the conditions that affect our ability to sight whales) is collected via a computer program called Logger 2000, a prevalent software program developed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) specifically for cetacean research (read more about Logger 2000 here).

We use the paper data only for right whale sightings, jotting down notes about the whales we're seeing and making a basic sketch of the callosities. We also keep track of which photographs taken correspond to a given whale; in this way, the paper data is instrumental when it comes time for photo analysis. (See photo of whale data sheet.)

In order to collect our electronic data, we connect our research computer to our main GPS in the plane, which sits in front of the pilot. Every ten seconds during the flight, Logger 2000 automatically downloads the plane's exact position in latitude and longitude and the time, tracking our every move. However, when we have an event we need to record manually, like the position for a whale, shark or ship, we force the computer to record a specific data point using the computer mouse which sits on the wall of the plane near the left-seat observer.

When we click the mouse we take a blank data point marking the time and location of the plane at that instant. We then make a voice recording detailing the information needed to make sense of the point; for example, that there is a cargo ship heading west three nautical miles to our north. All of these locations are automatically downloaded into a Microsoft Access database, and at the end of each survey, we manually enter all the information contained in each voice recording into its appropriate data point in this database.

This process allows us to record data points for all the commercial and military ship traffic (see a great diagram of the shipping channels in this archived blog), right whales, and other marine life, such as rare turtles, cetaceans, and sharks, we see in our survey area. Additionally, we take data points for any changes in weather, cloud cover, visibility, or sea state, and whenever anything unusual happens during the survey; in this way, we ensure that our data collection is as controlled and complete as possible.

All data is proofed for errors and then submitted to the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium (NARWC) effort data curator at the University of Rhode Island where a complete quality control check is run. The data then becomes property of the NARWC and is made available to researchers for various studies upon approval by NARWC board members.

- Kelly


#24 Tail Breaching

Last week, Suzie and I saw right whales exhibiting tail breaching behavior. This is when they throw their flukes and tail stock into the air and slam it down on the surface of the water. We also saw some animals exhibiting lobtailing behavior, which is when they repeatedly slap the surface of the water with either their dorsal or ventral flukes. These behaviors were easy to identify in the field because I have commonly observed humpback whales display these same behaviors on their feeding grounds off the coast of Massachusetts. Lobtailing is a fairly common behavior seen among right whales, whereas tail breaching is apparently not as common.

The photograph below shows a humpback whale lobtailing in the central Early Warning System (EWS) area this past week.

Photo Credit: New England Aquarium, Kelly Slivka.

Because of the relative infrequency of tail breaching, this behavior did not exist in our DIGITS identification catalog, when we were coding the photos for behaviors. After some discussion, tail breaching behavior was added to DIGITS and now we can code for the behavior when it occurs, even if it rarely happens. As you can see, even though NEAq has been flying EWS surveys since 1994, methods are constantly being tweaked and improved - it's always a work in progress!




#23 Time Flies When We Fly!

It feels like Mother Nature is on our side - finally! The winds have been more moderate, the fog has been more of a rarity, and we no longer have to wait for frost to thaw from the plane before we can take-off. Best of all, there are lots of whales in the area. According to our team leader, Jess, we had a pretty slow start to the season this year but we are now in full swing. Just yesterday, we had eight sightings of a total of 17 whales; this followed our record day so far this season of ten sightings of 22 whales! The photo analysis of the hundreds of images from these two survey days will keep us busy during any upcoming 'no fly days'. As Karen mentioned in a earlier blog, the New England Aquarium is the long-time curator of the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, but it may surprise you to learn how time consuming and challenging the image analysis can be.

One of our first tasks, when analyzing a series of photos, is to draw a sketch of the whale, as exemplified here in a composite of an individual known as Aphrodite, one of this season's mothers. This sketch includes all visible callosity features, scars, and memorable marks - all identifying cues that we can see from the air. After painstakingly coding each individual photograph, we can then use these distinctive features of a given individual to attempt to match our sightings against already cataloged whales. Identifying known individuals can be a bit of a fine art, and as such, there are some truly experienced 'master artists' such as Philip, Amy and Marilyn. For some of us, who are newer to the process, matching can be tricky and time-consuming but, ultimately, it is quite a bit of fun, too! Please try your hand at the Right Whale Identification Game for a little sample of how we spend our time when the weather keeps us grounded.