#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


#6 A Right Whale Found Dead On Nova Scotia Coast

Team members assess right whale carcass

I was hoping my first blog entry would be about a living whale, but instead I was one of the four team members who responded to a dead right whale report on Friday. Hearing that a right whale has died is always a blow to our community because this species cannot afford to lose a single member. We know many individuals by name, and we have seen many of them grow from birth! However, carcasses are invaluable to our research since detailed examination reveals much about the animal, and often the cause of death. It is critical that we learn the cause of death in order to fully understand the threats this species faces.

Amy and Marianna taking measurements

Early on Friday morning, Moe received news of a right whale carcass on the Nova Scotia coast. Moe, Jerry (NEAq volunteer), Amy and I headed across the Bay of Fundy in Campobello Whale Rescue's Fast Rescue Craft (FRC) inflatable to search for the whale. We caught up with Phil, a Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) officer, on a rocky coastline where the 43 foot male whale was found. We needed to relocate the significantly decomposed carcass to a beach with accessible roads in order to conduct a proper necropsy. The whale was towed to an ideal location, a large sandy beach only a mile away. Unfortunately for us, this large sandy beach was also ideal for weekend beach goers. To appease residents' understandable concern, DFO hired Mr. Stanton, a local fisherman, to help tow the carcass another 10 miles away.

Moe and the FRC with whale in tow

Mr. Stanton needed a deckhand, and before I knew what was going on, I was in his skiff and headed to his boat. I notified him that I had limited boating experience, but apparently he felt confident in me, as he left me in charge of his 45 foot vessel while he tied a line on the whale. About five hours later we arrived at our destination. The locals were intrigued by our arrival and helped the DFO officers and our crew secure the carcass. The crew worked until 3 am to secure the carcass above the high tide line to ensure the carcass would not drift away over night. Final arrangements have been made, and the necropsy has been scheduled for Sunday. We may be one step closer to finding out who this whale was, and why he died. Stay tuned...

Light fading on crew members as they reach shore


[Note: Other members of the New England Aquarium staff have responded to deceased whale incidents. You can read about another incident closer to Boston in this post from the Marine Mammal Trainers.]


#5 Whale Watchers

R/V Nereid waiting out the fog

Since our first survey in the Bay of Fundy last Monday, we have only been able to get out to the Bay one other day (Saturday). The wind and fog have been relentless, forcing us to stay onshore for several days at a time (Click here to view a blog about Bay of Fundy weather). We were able to survey in the Bay last Saturday, however, we were forced to come in earlier than planned after the wind switched from NW 5-10 kts to SW 10-15 kts more quickly than forecasted. Normally 10-15 knots of wind is not a problem, but the wind was blowing against the outgoing tide making the seas too rough to collect data from our small boat. Although the weather cooperated long enough to complete a partial survey, we did not see any right whales.

Whale watch vessel Elsie Menota in the Bay of Fundy

However, a naturalist aboard a whale watch vessel out of Grand Manan Island located a mom/calf pair on Saturday west of the critical habitat area. They were able to take photographs of both individuals which we used to identify them as Insignia (Eg# 2645) and her calf.

Insignia (Eg# 2645)

Eg# 2010 Calf Of 2645

Whale watch vessels are an excellent platform for education and public awareness of the issues facing right whales. Similarly, Thursday morning, during a team meeting, we received a call from a local whale watch vessel who informed us there was a right whale in the inland waters of Head Harbour Passage near Campobello Island, a mere mile from our dock. The crew aboard the whale watch boat didn't have a camera, so we broke up our research meeting, gathered our gear and headed for the boat. There was thick fog as the R/V Nereid left the dock in our impromptu attempt to locate and photograph the whale. However, before the team reached the whale's last known location, the fog had closed in again and the whale could not be found.

R/V Nereid heading out into the fog

We often work with crews and naturalists on whale watch vessels in the Bay to locate right whales and, as in Saturday's right whale sighting from the Elsie Menota, obtain identification photographs. In this case their efforts resulted in the confirmation of the first mom/calf pair of the season in the Bay of Fundy!


#4 A Day Of Firsts

Eg# 3660 surfacing in calm water in Grand Manan Channel

Monday was my first day of fieldwork with the right whale project. Until then I had never been around animals as large as these giants. Rather, much of my fieldwork experience came from studying the acoustic behavior of killer whales in the San Juan Islands, Washington for my Masters degree, and conducting passive acoustic marine mammal surveys fifty miles offshore of North Carolina. I have come to the Lubec field research team as a PhD student from Penn State University, interested in studying the effects of ship noise on right whale behavior, hoping to learn as much as I can from the other researchers during this field season, and eager to help them with data collection and processing.

Jenny on watch on the bow of the R/V Neried

Our first day on the water began promisingly! As I was standing on the bow sprit gazing out at glassy blue-black water and trying to remember all of the things I had just learned about marine mammal surveying in the Bay of Fundy, I saw a smooth, slender, dark form break the calm surface and rise tall, with a forked tip. My thoughts registered this foreign shape as a right whale fluke, and I cautiously gave the right whale symbol to the crew, aware that it was unusual to see right whales so near the harbor. No doubt the crew assumed it was a humpback whale and that my amateur eyes were overly eager to spot right whales. I certainly second-guessed myself too, during the ten minutes we waited for it to resurface from its dive. But, upon surfacing we all cheered when we saw the characteristic callosity pattern atop the rostrum, confirmation this was indeed a right whale!

Our day continued in much the same way—flat waters and abundant wildlife. And though we saw no more right whales, we saw many other creatures I had only read about or seen on television: breaching humpback whales, basking sharks, fin whales, and a mola mola. My experiences doing fieldwork off the coasts of Washington and North Carolina had offered many other surprises, but never these sights. What a beautiful place the Bay of Fundy is--I look forward to discovering more about what it offers!



#3 One Right Whale And Counting

We had a perfect first day on the water last Monday. The Bay was calm and visibility was excellent which normally makes spotting whales much easier. A colleague who works on a whale watch vessel in the area informed us she had not seen any right whales for the last few weeks, but their boat had not been out into the deepest part of the Bay of Fundy where the right whales are usually found. We focused our survey in the Right Whale Critical Habitat area in the Grand Manan Basin. We didn’t even make it across the Grand Manan Channel before Jenny, a newbie, spotted a right whale traveling up the middle of the channel. We suspected it to be a humpback but after a second look we confirmed it was a right whale, the first of the season! The whale has been identified as Eg #3660 (Click here and search for #3660 to see a full sighting history of this individual). It was unusual to see a right whale in the Channel, most of the right whale sightings over the decades have been in the deep water east of Grand Manan Island.

After such a surprising sighting, I suspected a busy first day as we worked out the early season kinks. As it turns out, we would not see another right whale all day. We did, however, see almost every other large marine creature to be found in the Bay. On our way toward the basin to start the first survey transect line we saw basking shark after basking shark (19 in total). It was easy to spot their black triangular dorsal fin from hundreds of yards away since the water was so calm and our view was uninhibited by waves or swell. Off in the distance, a group of humpbacks gave us quite a show breaching, sometimes simultaneously, and slapping their flippers and tails against the water. We saw several schools of tuna and even a breaching Mola mola, or ocean sunfish. The species list was rounded off with hundreds of porpoise, a couple fin whales, harbour seals and a minke whale.

All and all, it was a great day for us to get back in the survey groove and allow the new crew members, myself included, to get use to procedures and protocols on the boat. The next few days are calling for bad weather but hopefully the whales will slip in with the fog and keep us busy all summer.


#2 Lubec Arrival By Land And By Sea

The Whale House in Lubec, Maine, is filling up with researchers arriving by land and by sea. The season began in late July with packing up the right whale office at the Aquarium. A couple of team members arrived in Lubec early to open up and clean up our field research station after a long winter. On July 30th, Amy and Bill brought the research vessel, Nereid, along the coast from Bass Harbor on Mount Desert Island, it's about a six-hour steam to Lubec. The R/V Nereid is as old as the right whale project. It is maintained during the off season to high standards thanks to the dependable team at James H. Rich Boat Yard (Bernard, ME). The vessel usually runs for 12 - 14 or more hours each survey day and must be reliable and safe for the unpredictable waters of the Bay of Fundy.

The team spent Sunday, August 1st, setting up the field office and installing the necessary safety gear and disentanglement gear on the Nereid. Moe, the Project's senior scientist, called the team together for a brief informational meeting and assignment of tasks for the day. Veteran researchers Monica, Jess, Amy and Bill were introduced to Marianna and Zach who are new to the Right Whale Research Project. The morning was spent working on the office, setting up computers, VHS radios, printers and checking camera gear, and sampling equipment. After lunch the team met at the research vessel and were briefed on safety procedures. New member Jenny arrived just in time for the safety talk. Then the team took a short trip to Eastport to fuel the Nereid for the next day on the water.

Claudia, returning for another season, cooked up a quick meal of lentils and rice spiced up just right. The team eats dinner every evening at a large table together in the kitchen, usually with candle light and always with good conversation. The evening was spent completing all of the work to be ready for the survey the next day. It was a great day of preparation and anticipation was high for the first day out on the water.



# 1 Right Whales And Researchers Migrate To Canadian Waters.

The New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Team has relocated the office and researchers from Boston to the field station in Lubec, Maine to start the annual Bay of Fundy research season! This year marks the 31st consecutive year of the Aquarium's right whale research program in Canadian waters. From our seasonal home port in Lubec we will be surveying for right whales in the lower Bay of Fundy every day weather permits (mostly it is fog and wind that keep us ashore). Our vessel is a Dyer 29 named R/V Nereid which has served us well since 1981. For the 2nd consecutive year we will charter a 50 foot fishing vessel to take some of the team offshore to survey for right whales for two weeks on Roseway Basin, south of Nova Scotia. This is the second and only other known critical habitat for the species in the waters of Atlantic Canada.

Why did we choose to spend August and September in these cold, fog shrouded and often stormy waters? Because every summer North Atlantic right whales migrate to these waters to feed on plankton, nurse their young and socialize (courtship). These two areas where the whales concentrate for several months provide us with the best opportunity to document individuals and new calves as well as collect samples for DNA, hormone and health studies. We are looking forward to an exciting and productive research season and we hope you will enjoy following our progress and discoveries throughout the season.

2010 Team members include NEAq researchers: Scott Kraus, Roz Rolland, Moira Brown, Amy Knowlton, Monica Zani, Jessica Taylor, Marilyn Marx and Marianna Hagbloom. Kara Mahoney will be taking a leave from NEAq education for two weeks to help us with our Roseway Basin surveys. We will be joined for the season by Yan Guilbault and Candace Borutskie from Quebec, Zach Swaim from North Carolina, Dan and Claudia Pendleton from Washington, and Jennifer Tennessen from Pennsylvania State University. Volunteers who help with research and field station renovations include Travis Tennessen (Pennsylvannia), Bill McWeeny (Maine), and Jerry Conway (New Brunswick).

NEAq Right Whale Research, Right Whale Catalog