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)