Successful Trip to the Mating Ground

As some of our faithful readers will remember, in November 2010 we made our first shipboard survey out to the suspected right whale mating ground near Jordan's Basin. The winter is a challenging time to do shipboard research in the northeast with cold temperatures and weather fronts that line up and quickly push through like eager Christmas shoppers at the check out line. Even with these challenges, last winter we were able to do 3 of our 4 planned trips to the area. Since we weren't able to perform the 4th trip at the time, we have been looking for a weather window this late fall and winter to finish up.

Well, on December 13th, everything lined up and we completed our 4th trip. Our research crew drove up to Bar Harbor the day before and arose at 3:30 the next day to make the most of our one day at sea ("early bird catches the worm" and all that- not that we saw any early birds that morning)! The seas were a bit lumpy as we headed out in the dark aboard the M/V Friendship V, but thankfully calmed down for the middle part of the day before changing directions and increasing again (another one of those darned eager shoppers coming through)! We were fortunate to have a host of volunteers from many different agencies on board to help with the spotting.

Research team and volunteers bundled up for a December day on Jordan Basin. Photo by Zack Klyver

Now the really exciting news- almost all the whales we saw that day were reproductive adults. All seven females have given birth before and should be getting pregnant now (they have had at least a year of rest since they weaned their last calf).

Adult female "Columbine"(#1408)- born in 1984, last of 4 calves born in 2008. Photo: Monica Zani

And most of the males were big old males (some dating back to the early 1980's or before) that have sired calves previously (we know this only thanks to the good work of the geneticists at Trent and St. Mary's Universities in Canada). In most habitats, we see a mix of juveniles and adults and, with more than a third of the population being juveniles, we expect to see quite a few young animals in most habitats. The fact that we saw almost none means the habitat we surveyed is a resource fit only for adults; sounds like mating to me!

Adult male #1050- first seen in 1980. Photo: Moira Brown

We covered quite a bit of ground that day and ended up near Cashes Ledge- 80 nautical miles from the dock at Southwest Harbor, Maine. We are excited about our findings and eager to get back out there next year- funders willing. There is still more to do in the area- especially the detailed documentation of their courtship behavior (we saw none on this particular trip) and the collection of poop for hormone assessments to see how the levels in both males and females change during the time of peak conception. We will be lucky to observe either of these and simply need to be in the right place at the right time. Until we are able to retun to the area, we will have to wait to see what the females we saw do. In 12 months, we hope to see many of them off the southeast US with young calves! Stay tuned.

Happy Holidays and thank you to our supporters: Maine Department of Marine Resources, Canadian Wildlife Federation and TD Financial Group Canada, Canadian Whale Institute, and in kind support from the Bar Harbor Whalewatch Company and Ocean Properties.


Large Whale and Turtle Surveys for Wind Energy Development Planning in offshore Massachusetts

There is an increasing need to harvest alternative energy, and offshore wind is a valuable potential resource. A prerequisite for development is to determine appropriate sites where the impact to natural habitats would be minimal. Prospective sites may be in outer continental shelf waters, where there has been limited or no research performed in the past due to difficulties in reaching these distant locations as well as associated high costs.
In late 2010 the Department of Interior's Bureau of Offshore Energy Management, Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) issued a Request for Interest (RFI) for commercial wind energy development in outer continental shelf waters off Massachusetts. The area south of Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard was originally 3,000 square miles, but was reduced to about half that size in response to the Commonwealth's recommendations representing the fishing industry. Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) in partnership with the state's Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) issued a Request for Proposals (RFP) to perform surveys in the RFI area. The 18-month contract was awarded to the New England Aquarium for marine resource characterization surveys of sea turtles, right whales and other large whales. MassCEC requires a year's worth of seasonal migratory data to inform the federal leasing process.

Map of the survey area. Eight north/south transect lines are flown within this area, with 7 nm separation. (Cartography: Brooke Wikgren, NEAq)

The Aquarium collaborated with other prestigious New England research groups in order to fulfill survey objectives, forming the Northeast Large Pelagics Survey Collaborative (NLPSC). University of Rhode Island, current curators of the right whale sightings database, will be involved in data collection methodology, density and distribution analyses and data quality control. Two experienced aerial observers / photographers on each survey flight are from Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies (PCCS) and the Aquarium. The two pilots from ASSIST-U.S. also have a background in aerial surveillance. The goal is to perform two aerial surveys per month with additional surveys in response to biological hotspots or areas of particular interest. The Bioacoustic Research Program (BRP) at Cornell University deployed six BRP-developed Marine Autonomous Recording Units (called "pop-ups") in a configuration to detect whales within and around the survey area. Automated data recognition and expert human validation detect vocalizations of blue, fin, right, humpback and minke whales. All five species are known to occur near the survey area and are readily identifiable by their species-specific vocalizations.

Crew left to right: Bob Lynch, PCCS; Jessica Taylor, NEAq; Richard Jackson and Scott Patten, ASSIST-U.S. (Photo: Dick Pierce, BroadOakStudios.com)

The survey aircraft is a Cessna O-2A, the military version of the C-337 (see image). Two observers in the rear seats scan for large whales, while the automated digital SLR camera mounted over optical glass in the belly port of the plane collects vertical photographic data at 5-second intervals for turtles on the tracklines. Aerial Imaging Solutions (AIS) developed and customized the camera mount system and data logging program. It enables us to acquire high quality images that compensate for the plane's forward motion, while we remotely operate the camera from our laptop. Each georeferenced image also has details of associated flight parameters such as altitude and speed.

Survey Aircraft, N9134Q (Photo: Jessica Taylor, NEAq)

Through the Aquarium's involvement in this project, we have developed a skilled aerial survey team with cutting edge technology to obtain high quality, reliable data. Consistent aerial surveys to retrieve valuable environmental data where historical survey data has been spatially and temporally inconsistent will help advancements towards assessing seasonal migration and habitat use in this region. We are proud to be an integral part of this collaborative effort in the contribution to informed decisions for offshore renewable energy development.



#23: BOF 2011 By the Numbers

2 months
18 team members
1 house
3 survey boats
19 survey days
30 pounds of coffee
8 right whale poop samples
9 right whale biopsy skin/blubber samples
55 right whale blow samples
859 minutes of right whale mom/calf pair acoustic recordings and behavioral observations collected
15 unique 2011 calves sighted
120 unique individual right whales sighted (low estimate, data still being processed)
600 sightings added to the Catalog (low estimate, data still being processed)

A lobtailing right whale on our last day on the water.
Photo: Kelsey Howe


#22: Two Entanglements in Two Days!

On September 26th, the right whale crew headed out on the Bay of Fundy for what we thought would be our last survey of the season. Our usual survey destination in the Grand Manan Basin yielded only a couple of right whales and three sperm whales. After many hours, we decided to head to the Wolves (a small cluster of islands east of Campobello Island, N.B), since fellow researcher Moe Brown had been there earlier in the day and had found about two dozen right whales. By the time we arrived at the Wolves, it was late in the afternoon and we were losing daylight fast. The area around the Wolves was thick with right whales, so we set to work and attempted to document the individuals in the area. We headed home as the light began to fade and the seas began to get a bit too bumpy for working.

When we arrived back at the dock, Moe notified us that upon reviewing her images of right whales from the day, she detected one that was entangled (Catalog # 3302, an 8 year old male). The entangling line was difficult to see because of the dark color of the line against the whale's black body. The team quickly went to work making logistical arrangements for the next day. "How many people do we have and how many boats can we get on the water?" We know from past experience that finding a single, specific whale in the Bay of Fundy is the proverbial needle in a haystack.

With not much sleep, the team headed out at first light the next morning. Joining the search were two vessels from Campobello Island, captained by Mackie Greene from the Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT) and Jerry Conway from the CWRT and the Canadian Whale Institute, plus the NEAq team on the R/V Nereid. A private boat with Chris Slay of Coastwise Consulting and friends onboard offered to help the effort! In total, we were four boats and 15 people. We also alerted the local whale watch boats and asked them to keep a sharp lookout for the entangled whale. After many hours of looking at the numerous right whales east and south of the Wolves Islands with no luck, the Nereid crew ventured south and east to the Grand Manan Basin to see if the animal may have moved there.

Around noon, the crew of the Nereid hailed the two rescue boats with a position- the Nereid had NOT found #3302, but instead had found a second entangled whale, #3111 (a 10 year old male)! The rescue boats arrived on scene and Mackie and Chris, both highly qualified disentanglement experts, quickly began assembling their equipment in the smaller of the two rescue boats. It should be noted that Mackie and Chris use special tools designed for this specific purpose and have been extensively trained for disentanglement. In addition, Mackie has received special authorization from the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to lead this type of operation. The work is dangerous, so the appropriate safety gear was donned. Amy Knowlton gave a quick debrief of the type of entanglement and the body parts involved. I hopped aboard to document the event, and just like that, the whale surfaced and we were underway.

#3111, showing signs of rope abrasion on the head and behind the post-blowholes (he also has some mud on his head). Photo: NEAq/CWRT

The peduncle wound, caused by several lines.
Photo: NEAq/CWRT

Over the next couple of hours, the whale was approached by the rescue crew each time it surfaced, and various, proven disentanglement techniques were used. On one approach, Mackie managed to get a knife tool into the bundle of four lines coming from the whales left flipper. At this point it appeared that something shifted and changed with the entanglement. Upon the next surfacing, the lines that had crossed the whale's peduncle had moved, and for the rest of the afternoon, we did not see the lines over the peduncle again. It is unclear if the lines were cut or the entanglement shifted in some way. We do not know if any line remains on the left flipper or perhaps even in the left side of the mouth, but we are hopeful that over time the gear might be shed. What we do know for sure is that because of the extensive effort of four boats and 15 people, this whale has a much better chance of survival.

The disentanglement team works to cut the lines off the whale.
Photo: NEAq/CWRT

Now, we wait and anticipate the next sighting of this whale. We and our colleagues will also be keeping a watchful eye out for #3302, the entangled whale that unfortunately was not found again.


#21: New 2011 Mom Sighted!

On September 26, one of our teams had a very exciting sighting: a new mom and calf pair for the year!

Legato and her calf on September 26! Photo: Moira Brown

Sighted to the north close to a cluster of islands called "The Wolves," the team observed an adult with a calf, spending time at the surface close to each other, coordinating dives and making body contact. The pair wasn't one that we recognized, so back in the office that night we looked at the photos and identified the adult as Legato (Catalog #1802). However, we were hesitant to jump to conclusions that this adult was the mother of the calf; it's a little bit unusual to have a mother and calf appear in the Bay of Fundy that weren't seen by aerial survey teams covering the East Coast or the Southeast (SEUS) calving grounds. Plus, this was our only sighting of them, so perhaps they were just sighted together by chance. Legato was born in 1998 and has had three calves, all birthed in the SEUS. She may have birthed this calf in a different location, but with the bad weather in the south this winter, it is possible that the pair was missed during surveys.

On September 28, the whale watch company Quoddy Link Marine photographed the pair together, behaving like a typical mother and calf. So this is indeed a new mom and calf for the year, and we are delighted to welcome the 22nd calf of 2011 into the population!

Mom and calf, being playful. Photo: Moira Brown


#20: Thinking Conservation On and Off the Water

As a guest to the right whale field house in Lubec, I have a unique perspective from which to view typical field operations for the New England Aquarium's right whale research team. The team exhibits habits that are so rote as to be unnoticeable, but as a newcomer, I've developed a great respect for the assiduous manner with which all the individuals in the house attempt to live their lives aligned close as possible with their conservationist principles. Immediately upon my arrival here I was impressed with the thoughtful effort that goes into recycling, reusing, composting, and consuming energy (from the grid and from the farm) sustainably. Everyone here goes the extra mile, no matter how exhausted by a day on the water or inundated with a day of data analysis, to not only talk the talk of environmental responsibility but also to walk the walk.

First, let me touch on the thorough recycling regime for the house that Amy spearheads. We recycle everything that can reasonably be recycled--bottles, cans, plastics, paper, cardboard, corks, batteries, light bulbs, metals--and Amy goes so far as to take the things that cannot be recycled in Lubec back to Boston with her to be recycled where there are greater resources. Amy has also thought of the challenges of recycling, realizing it gets done less if it's not convenient, so she's put recycling bins in the bathrooms and near the showers (for toilet paper rolls, paper towels, and shampoo containers, among other things) and close to any work spaces to ensure almost nothing that can be recycled falls into the waste basket.

When we're done reusing it, we recycle it!

Secondly, we reuse whatever we can. Lots of the plastics that might get thrown away (for example, hummus or yogurt containers) are great as reusable leftover containers--it's like getting free tupperware with your store-bought food! Many of our drinking glasses are old jars, and most of us in the house use water bottles and coffee tumblers that are refillable for years and years. Also, one of my favorite aspects of the field house is that upon our arrival everyone who so desired could claim a cloth dinner napkin to use for the season. The napkins hang on personalized clothespins in the kitchen and can be grabbed whenever someone is sitting down to eat, then washed with any load of laundry, majorly saving on paper towels.

The Whale House napkin line.

Thirdly, we keep a compost heap in the backyard and a compost bucket in the kitchen. Any uneaten food (of which there is very little in general), egg shells, coffee grounds, banana peels, etc. gets put into compost to eventually return to the ecosystem. Our paper towels are compostable, too, so they don't end up in the dump.

Where our uneaten foodstuffs feed the earth.

Lastly, everybody tries to consume in a sustainable fashion, thinking about how long we're spending in the shower, turning off lights when a room is empty, using efficient machinery, unplugging battery chargers when they're not in use, drying our clothes naturally outdoors, and buying organic, locally farmed and fished food when possible (we've been a member of the Tide Mill CSA for years!).

Line drying clothes.

Environmental responsibility is a challenge, and the project isn't necessarily a paragon of going green--to study whales we still need big trucks to tow boats and gasoline to run them both, lots of electronics, and if we washed ourselves and our gear any less than we do now we'd probably be kicked out of Lubec. But, undaunted by those deficiencies, my co-workers are being actively conscientious and creative in their attempts to lessen the project's impact on the environment, and it's a subtle heroism that I deeply admire.


#19: Finding Porcia in the Bay of Fundy - Get some whale wallpaper for your phone!

On September 9, both the R/V Nereid and R/V Callisto headed out into the Bay of Fundy. It was a slightly unusual survey day- we had a late start due to thick fog, so we didn't even photograph our first whale until 1:30 PM. Though we could hear the whales--their strong exhalations reveal their location--they were difficult to see because of a strong swell that obscured our view of them.

After a long afternoon of difficult sightings, the Callisto crew and I were excited to sight a mother and calf pair. Looking through the camera lens, I noticed the mother had a distinct convex head shape we call a "roman nose." A bell went off in my head- earlier in the morning, Monica had told me that the only calf present in the Bay that still needed to be biopsy darted was the calf of #3293. #3293 is named Porcia, one of the most famous Roman women. The calf's callosity was continuous, another clue that this was Porcia's calf. We called the Nereid and informed them of who we thought the whales were. Shortly thereafter, the Nereid arrived, confirmed that the calf was Porcia's, and Monica collected a biopsy sample from it! We were all excited to be one step closer to having collected genetic data for each of the 21 calves born this year.

Porcia with her 2011 calf. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

We believe that Porcia was born in 2001, although we aren't completely sure of this. Her first calf was born in 2008, and is still doing well--it was last sighted in Cape Cod Bay this spring! We observed Porcia with her 2011 calf for a while longer, but before they disappeared into the sunset, Porcia went on a memorable dive--she paused with her flukes held high in the air for several seconds before completely slipping under the surface, which allowed me to take this photograph.

Porcia's fluke - Photo: Marianna Hagbloom
Download a version of this image as wallpaper for your smartphone!
Click here for iPhone.

Porcia's perfectly black, unscarred flukes are a rare sight in a population where over 70% of the individuals have been left with white scars after being entangled in fishing gear.



#18: Right Place, Right Time

On September 18 and 19, we were treated to ideal conditions for surveying in the Bay- low winds and no fog! We were all eager to see if right whale numbers had changed from our last survey, several days before. Little did we know that we would hardly get any surveying done, because we could hardly move on our trackline without sighting more right whales!

We were thrilled to spot our first pair of right whales around 8:20 AM on Sunday. Not long after, we noticed many blows grouped together on the horizon, which could only mean one thing: Surface Active Group (SAG)! The SAG was centered around a mom, Catalog #3130, while her calf remained on the outskirts. The dynamic of the SAG was interesting- there were long breaks in between the activity, and the whales would scatter while #3130 would reunite with her calf. There were whales everywhere we looked, in all different directions and distances. We estimated more than 30 different whales were aggregated in less than one square nautical mile. I wondered- is this what the North Atlantic looked like before whale populations took a toll from commercial whaling?

When we felt we had photographed all the individuals in the SAG (not an easy feat for the photographers nor whale watcher!), we moved on to smaller SAGs in the distance. By the end of the day, we had documented nearly 60 different right whales in a relatively small area of the Bay.

Heading across the Grand Manan channel on the following morning (Monday), the observers on the bow of the Nereid caught a glimpse of a whale. Surely it wasn't a right whale... was it? The Grand Manan channel is not a habitat often used by right whales. So we were surprised when we found not one, but three right whales in the area! As we documented the whales, we noticed two vessels heading in outbound, south down the Channel. Since the presence of right whales is unusual in this area, we called Fundy Traffic to notify them of the whales located outside of their critical habitat area, and they in turn notified the ships to steer clear of the whales. The vessel operators responded by steering well west of the whales.

A vessel steering well clear of a right whale in the Grand Manan channel. Photo: Allison Henry

We continued into the Bay, and had another extraordinary day filled with a large SAG of about 20 whales, followed by some other smaller SAGs. One exciting sighting was of a familiar face: Calvin (#2223)! Calvin was born in 1992 to a whale named Delilah. During their first summer in the Bay of Fundy, Calvin was orphaned when Delilah was struck and killed by a ship. Calvin's story is amazing because not only did she survive without her mother, but she also endured a fishing gear entanglement in 2000 (and was disentangled in 2001), and has now gone on to bear calves of her own. She, along with some of our other "famous" whales, are featured on our sponsorship page, and by making a donation to the Right Whale Research Program, you directly help fund our research and conservation efforts.

Calvin, taking a break from all the socializing in the Bay! Photo: Kelsey Howe

Now: off to process all this data we collected!


#17: Pizza! Pizza! Pizza!

In the age of digital photography, email and cell phones (not that they work in Lubec, ME) it is easy for us to work all the time. On nice weather days we are found working a typical 12-14 hour day on the Bay of Fundy. When weather (fog, rain and wind) keeps us at the dock we can be found in our office in our field house hunched over computer screens and data sheets. Processing a single day of data from the field can often take several days in the office. So when a nice stretch of weather occurs it is very easy to quickly become backlogged. We work very hard to remind ourselves to take a day off each week. Our days off are dictated solely by the weather and so might occur on a weekday or a weekend or sometimes consist of only an afternoon. However, when an official day off is called most of us grab a bike or hit the trails for some exercise and fun.

A few weeks ago, we had field station work day which involved clearing brush, power washing the house and other general maintenance projects. Since the day was spent doing hard, physical work we decided it would be the perfect night to have a pizza party in our clay and brick pizza oven.

Yan, tending the fire burning in the oven in preparation of the pizza night.

Homemade pizza dough resting.

A couple of pizza cooking in the oven.

The delicious finished product!

We're all looking forward to one more pizza night before the end of the season, which is quickly approaching (September 30!).


#16: Whale Blow, Chapter 3: THAR HE BLOWS!

This is the third installment of "The Quest for Whale Blow,"detailing our newest research project focused on collecting and analyzing right whale blow. You can read Chapter 2 here.


Our first few weeks here (in August) for blow sampling were actually a bit frustrating - simply because the weather was just terrible. In fact, it was the worst August weather for whale work that we've had in years. Day after day there would be fog, then rain, then wind, then fog again, then more fog, then more rain, more wind... and day after day we'd be stuck on shore. In the whole month of August our blow-collecting boat, Callisto, got out just three times. And each of those three times we were only able to be out for a half-day, in somewhat choppy seas and much-less-than-ideal conditions (it's very tricky operating a long pole on a little boat if there are any kind of waves).

Yet despite the poor weather ... we're getting samples anyway! So far we've always gotten at least three samples per half-day, and often more. Our "bride's-head" collectors seem to be doing quite well at catching droplets of blow vapor, and we're also getting better and better at operating the blow-collecting pole. On our most recent day out, Sept. 11th, we got ten blow samples in just four hours!

Pole operation is definitely a skill that improves with practice. We've got a whole system worked out now in which Scott Kraus carefully pilots Callisto up to the whales, taking a great deal of care not to disturb them, while Roz Rolland stands at the bow maneuvering the pole to get the bride's-head collector over the blowholes of the whale. (This is not at all as easy as it sounds.) Meanwhile, a skilled whale photographer (usually either Moe, Monica, Amy or Marianna) is dashing around the boat trying to stay out of the way of the end of the pole, taking photos of the whales so as to ID them later, and is shouting whale ID's and frame numbers to me so I can scribble them down on our data sheet.

As soon as we get a sample, Roz flings the end of the pole back at me in the stern (as I toss the data sheets out of the way, pull out my sample-processing equipment and try not to drop my pencil overboard). As fast as possible, I haul in the 32-foot-long pole till Roz can grab the sample off its other end; Roz hands the sample to me for processing, I label it and tuck it in our cooler surrounded by ice packs, Roz puts a new bride-'s-head on the pole, we re-deploy the pole, and off we go again! Roz and I have got this pole-retrieval choreography pretty well rehearsed now, and we can retrieve one sample and re-deploy the pole for the next sample pretty fast.

All four crew members are in high gear the whole time, so it's pretty busy. And it's exciting! Check out this video (taken Sept. 9th, 2011) to see Roz getting a blow sample from male North Atlantic right whale "Sparky", who is in the middle of a SAG (surface active group). Thanks, Sparky! (And a big thanks also to New England Aquarium president Bud Ris, who happened to be on the boat with us that day and who took the video; and to the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research, which is funding this study.)

- Kathleen Hunt


#15: Whale Blow, Chapter 2: Brideshead Revisited

This is the second installment of "The Quest for Whale Blow,"detailing our newest research project focused on collecting and analyzing right whale blow. You can read Chapter 1 here.

Blow analysis is very much the cutting-edge frontier of marine mammal research, and it's often quite difficult to find funding for innovative new research ideas like this. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy's Office of Naval Research (O.N.R.) has a particular interest in developing methods to detect and ameliorate effects of chronic stress in marine mammals (particularly the effects of noise, because of the Navy's need to use military sonar). ONR Program Officer Michael Weise, Ph.D., has even taken the trouble to sponsor several research conferences on the topic, inviting the top stress researchers from around the world to brainstorm ideas about innovative new methods for assessing stress in marine mammals. These conferences have essentially jump-started a whole new research field on marine mammmal stress. The ONR has recently given us funding to study stress hormones in feces of 3 different cetaceans (see, for example, our previous posts on our beaked whale project in the Bahamas). And now the ONR has also funded our study to study stress hormones in respiratory blow of North Atlantic right whales.

So here we are in the Bay of Fundy, trying to catch right whale blow!

Right off the bat we faced three fundamental questions:

1. Can we build a device that can capture enough blow vapor? Previous studies only succeeded at collecting infinitesimal amounts, about 50ul (picture a tiny droplet about the size of a poppyseed). What we need is at least four times more, about 200ul (approximately apple-seed size). That may still sound tiny, but it's much more than anybody's collected before from a large whale.

2. Can we actually get the device over the blowhole of a free-swimming whale? We know we can approach right whales very closely, but the whales are constantly swimming and rolling and moving around, and it's not at all clear how easy it will be to hold a blow collector right over their blowholes.

3. If we succeed at both #1 and #2, and if we actually get samples and get them back to our lab, will the samples actually contain any measurable hormones?

Dr. Rosalind Rolland operating the customized blow-collecting pole

on the R/V Callisto.

To get the project underway, Aquarium researcher Scott Kraus, Ph.D. spent much of the spring months designing and building a telescoping 32' carbon-fiber pole mounted on a beautiful, custom-machined swiveling mount that is bolted to to the bow of our boat, Callisto. Meanwhile, I spent innumerable weeks designing a blow collector that can be put on the end of the carbon-fiber pole. I tested a variety of bottles, hoops, rings, and different kinds of absorbent material that we could potentially hold over a whale's blowhole to catch absorbent vapor. My best blow collector has turned out to be a plastic bottle covered with 2 yards of nylon tulle bridal veil. Yes, that's right, bridal veil - what can I say, bridal veil just turned out to be the best fabric I tested for catching small droplets of vapor! From a distance, the finished collectors look uncannily like a person's head draped in veil, so of course we've taken to calling them "Bride's Heads".

To date I've made several different, improved versions of bride's-heads (I'm now on Bride's-Head Model 8), and as I write this the forward cuddies of Callisto are stocked with 20 different bride's-head blow collectors of various designs. Our beautiful carbon-fiber pole and mount are working smoothly, and in trial runs, Aquarium researcher Rosalind Rolland has developed a considerable degree of skill at swinging the huge pole around. Roz and I have also worked out a method to rapidly retrieve a used bride's-head and swapping a new one onto the pole.

Now all we need is good weather, and whales!

-Kathleen Hunt

Stay tuned for Chapter 3!


#14: The Quest for Whale Blow, Chapter 1: The Adventure Begins

One of our newest research projects is a pilot study to see if it is possible to collect respiratory vapor ("blow") from free-swimming North Atlantic right whales, and then to see if we can measure stress hormones in it.

But first: why are we trying to measure hormones in whale blow? To give a little background, one of the most urgent needs in marine mammal research today (in my opinion, anyway) is that we really need a good way of measuring stress hormones in free-swimming whales. I've been measuring stress hormones in terrestrial wildlife for most of my career, and time and again I've found that that if you have a good method of measuring stress hormones, you have a good chance of figuring out whether or not certain human activities are seriously affecting the animals.
For example, whales worldwide are being affected these days by a huge variety of disturbances, ranging from noise (shipping traffic, sonar, seismic exploration), to global climate change, to direct physical effects like net entanglement and ship strikes. Some of these disturbances are obviously bad for the animals. An entangled whale, for example, is very obviously in trouble. But what about the disturbances that have subtler effects? It's not always so easy to figure out whether, or how much, certain disturbances might be affecting the animals. Take shipping noise, for example. Suppose a population of whales is subjected so much shipping noise that (say) the whales fall silent, apparently unable to hear each other; or maybe they move away, leaving a preferred feeding ground and moving to a less preferred feeding ground. Those responses might look rather minor. But sometimes the animals actually turn to be highly stressed by such impacts, to such a degree that their health and reproduction starts to suffer. Eventually, the whole population can start to go downhill.

The good news is that these subtle effects are very often detectable early on, via elevations in the animals' stress hormones. So, if we could develop a way of measuring stress hormones in whales, we could potentially finally have a good method to detect, assess, and hopefully ameliorate, the stressful impacts of human activities - before the impacts get too severe.
So, that's why we want to be able to measure stress hormones in whales. There's a fundamental problem, though: Most hormone techniques require blood samples, and it's basically impossible to get a blood sample from free-swimming whale. So we have to try to get some other kind of sample from the whale instead.

A North Atlantic right whale's distinctive V-shaped blow.
Photo: Jessica Taylor

We've already found that we can measure stress hormones very well in whale feces, and we have several other research projects focused on fecal stress hormones. But unfortunately, not all whales are thoughtful enough to provide a fecal sample when we want one! Enter respiratory sampling. If you spend any amount of time watching large whales, you'll know that every whale, every time it surfaces, produce a big, puffy cloud of respiratory vapor. When you're watching a whale, usually it does not happen to produce a fecal sample when you're nearby, but it always blows. Repeatedly. In fact, these "blow" clouds are so big and visible that they're often how we spot and find the whale in the first place (as in, "Thar she blows!"). A few researchers have already succeeded in collecting tiny amounts of blow vapor, and one of our colleagues even found some hormones (testosterone and progesterone) in a few of her blow samples.

What we want to do now is develop a method to collect larger volumes of blow, enough so that we could try to measure several different hormones at once - including the first-ever attempt to measure stress hormones in whale blow.

-Kathleen Hunt

ps- stay tuned for Chapter 2!


#13: Gunshots and Jell-o (not a reality TV show!)

Our fourth day out on September 2 continued our recent trend of finding fewer and more spatially distributed individuals (see previous blog); however, even though we only photographed a total of four right whales on the 2nd, our day started out with a bang. A little after 9 am, we came across an older male, first photographed 30 years ago in the Bay of Fundy named Sliver (Catalog #1227) who was doing a behavior called "head pushing." The whale lifts its head out of the water and pushes it down forcefully, which creates a bow wave.

Sliver's curiosity leads him to investigate the Nereid and crew.

Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

After we properly photographed Sliver, we decided to throw a hydrophone over the side of the boat to listen for a loud, cracking sound called "gunshot,"often produced by head pushing whales (you can listen to a recording of a gunshot here). Gunshots are primarily thought to be produced by lone males or males in SAGs as either a form of sexual advertising to females or as an aggressive warning to competing males. Sure enough, Sliver was actively gunshotting! He was circling our small vessel with a curious approach and actually appeared to be head pushing and gunshotting at us! Maybe the hurricane blew all the female whales out of the Bay and he decided to try his luck with the next best thing. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, Sliver was so close to us, that we could see his body shiver or “jell-o” after a gunshot sound was produced. We were able to video document this incredible physical phenomenon, and while the technological capabilities of our video camera do not allow us to sync up with our hydrophone, the video clip below includes Amy listening on the hydrophone and informing us when Sliver produced a gunshot, which accurately corresponds to the “jell-o” visual.

This second clip also includes a bit of the Jell-o shiver followed by one of Sliver’s many head pushes (displaying his white chin) that created enough of a bow wave to wake the Nereid:

We eventually left Sliver to his own devices and a couple of hours later photographed three other older males: Gemini (#1150), #1419, and Houdini (#1167), who is aptly named for his history of escaping from multiple entanglements over the last 30 years. Around the same time that #1419 and Houdini initiated a SAG with each other, we figured out that both whales needed to be biopsy darted! Monica deftly darted one whale after the other, and we are thrilled to have collected these samples! It is fairly rare to find older individuals who haven't been darted, let alone to have two undarted old-timers sighted together, so we were excited by our stroke of luck, as well as Monica's skill with a crossbow.

Houdini (left), and #1419 (right) meet up in the Bay. Photo: Kelsey Howe

We didn't see any other new right whales for the day, but we did encounter several other whale species, including humpback, fin, sei, minke and sperm whales. We may focus our research on right whales, but the sight of any cetacean is pretty cool in our book!

While making the trek back to our dock in Lubec before sunset, we came upon a familiar figure. Sliver was about two miles north of where we left him about seven hours earlier, and he was still swimming in circles while head pushing (and presumably gunshotting)! We can only hypothesize at this point what he was doing during the seven hours between our chance meetings, but lone males have been documented gunshotting for over seven hours, so it is actually quite possible that Sliver continued these behaviors throughout the day. If so, it is an incredible showcase of strength and endurance, and we were lucky enough to be able to witness just a tiny portion of Sliver's gunshot and "jell-o" display. Hopefully he will have better luck with the ladies next time, since the only ones he appeared to impress all day was a boat full of female researchers.



#12: Four days in a row!

Judging by the weather we had before Hurricane Irene swept through, the saying about "the calm before the storm" didn't ring true. However, we all can now attest to "the calm after the storm." The team took advantage of four consecutive days on the water this week, all with light winds that gave us calm seas.

As Monica described in the last blog post, on August 30 we sighted a mom (Catalog #1123- Sonnet) and her calf, which were new to the season's sightings in the Bay. While we were photographing the pair, we witnessed a small SAG form- first one adult male joined the pair, then three others approached and joined in! While the adults dived deep, the calf stayed at the surface, which allowed Monica to biopsy dart the calf to collect a small skin sample. By the end of the day, we had photographed 17 different whales.

A SAG around a Mom/Calf pair developed in front of our eyes!
Photo: Tracy Montgomery

The following day, we decided to mix things up and try a different approach to our survey, heading north and east of our usual track. We thought it paid off when we photographed our first whale at 9:00 AM, but as we continued to survey the Bay for hours, no other right whales were sighted. Around 1:30 PM, we finally had our second sighting: a calf and its mom, Viola (#2029), who was born in 1990 and had calved twice before. Unfortunately, this pair was seen in the shipping lanes, the "road" for large shipping vessels. We contact Fundy Traffic at the end of every day with the positions of the right whales we see so that they can notify all the ships that pass in and out of the area to slow their speed and keep an eye out for whales. Hopefully #2029 and her calf weren't going to spend any time hanging out in the lanes and moved on to a safer area. By the end of the day we photographed eight different whales, including two that formed a small SAG, but we also saw an additional three that we weren't able to document because they were too sneaky for us!

Two whales, chin to chin, in a small SAG on August 31. Photo: Moira Brown

Since we didn't have much luck with large numbers of whales to the east, our plan for our third day on the water was to survey on our regular tracklines. However, the whales had another idea and led us northeast! We sighted 11 different whales, but they were difficult to work with because they were on longer dives (14-16 minutes, as opposed to an average 10 minutes) and very spread out. The highlight of the day was seeing a new mom and calf pair for the Bay: #1911, Mystique, who was born in 1989 and had calved three times before.

Mystique (#1911) flukes down for a dive while her calf follows at the surface. Photo: Moira Brown

Working 14-15 hours each day can be draining, but since our team was in the groove and the weather looked great, we decided to go for the gold and survey a fourth day. The team all agrees that our September 2nd trip was the most exciting of the four (and maybe of the season so far!), but I'm going to leave you all on the edge of your seats to find out why in the next blog post....


#11: A New Mom in the Bay!

We know that 21 calves were documented this winter in the coastal waters of Georgia and northeast Florida (the primary calving ground for the north Atlantic right whale). However, it is always exciting to see these moms show up in the Bay of Fundy with their calves. It gives us an opportunity to sample (a skin sample for genetic work) the calf if it was not already sampled in the calving ground over the winter and also to fully document the calf from a boat based platform. The digital images obtained at this age are very important in our ability to later photo identify these whales as individuals.

Right Whale #1123, Sonnet (top) and Sonnet's calf (bottom).

Finally on August 30 it seemed like we had a stretch of good weather coming our way. We got on the water on August 30 (our first day out since the hurricane) and had right whale #1123 (Sonnet) and her calf. Sonnet and her calf had been seen for the first time in the Bay of Fundy this summer just a few days earlier by a whale watch boat. This sighting was very exciting as we were able to obtain a much needed (but small) skin sample from her calf. We're hoping we'll soon see some other mom and calf pairs new to the Bay!


#10: Hurricane Irene

NASA image showing Irene along the east coast.

Since our last post, Hurricane Irene raced up the East Coast leaving a path of destruction in her wake. We prepared for the hurricane by hauling our smaller research boats and moving the Nereid (our primary research vessel, here's a photo) to safe harbor. We stored all our loose furniture in the back yard, removed the VHF antenna from our house and made sure we had a good supply of bad movies and popcorn. Irene spared downeast Maine while other parts of the East Coast and New England suffered extreme damage.

Despite the approaching storm we managed to get a half day on the water on the 27th. Patchy fog limited our day and made working a challenge, as we could often hear right whale exhalations but not see them. We found (with the help of a few whale watching vessels) a small patch of right whales and worked a few hours before heading home and making preparations for Irene.

Working in fog can be a challenge when attempting to get good ID photos.


#9: A Happy Ending for #3760

Hello! My name is Patricia (Tricia) Naessig and this is my second time working with the New England Aquarium here in the Bay of Fundy. For the last nine years, I’ve been the Wildlife Trust/EcoHealth Alliance team leader for the northern Early Warning System (EWS) right whale aerial surveys flown off the coast of Georgia in the North Atlantic right whales’ Southeastern United States calving grounds (SEUS).

Northern EWS Right Whale Aerial Tracklines.

The first time I came to Lubec in 2008, I trained with the Aquarium scientists for a couple weeks to learn more about their data collection techniques and to observe North Atlantic right whales on the feeding grounds. I also had a chance to meet two of the wonderful Calvineers that were also at the Lubec, Maine research house to learn more about the right whales they had been studying for all of 7th grade at the Adams School in Castine, Maine. This season, I’m here for all of August and September and very excited to be working with the research team again.

One of the things I’m most excited about is the chance to see some of the whales that I’ve studied in the southeast here in the northeast after their long migration north. Nine of the 21 right whale calves born this past calving season have already been sighted in the Bay of Fundy this season! Also, there was an especially happy right whale sighting for me on August 13. After photographing a large SAG in the Bay that day, the team on the R/V Nereid spent time photographing other whales scattered around the study area. One of these whales was Catalog #3760. #3760 is a four year old juvenile right whale that I last saw on February 13, 2011. On that day, I was circling over the whale at 1,000 feet in a survey plane off the coast of Jekyll Island, Georgia. I was trying to photograph the whale as it rolled around in a SAG with two other whales. From the viewfinder of the camera, I could see a reddish pink color near the whale’s blowholes. While the plane continued to circle the whales, I examined the images closer on the camera and quickly realized that the whale was entangled. #3760 had pink monofilament netting coming out of the right side of its mouth and looping over its head.

February 13, 2011 image of #3760 with knotted pink monofilament netting crossing over the whale's head. Photo: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, NOAA permit #9 32-1905.

Once it was established that #3760 was entangled, my aerial survey team immediately called the disentanglement team based at the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (GDNR) in Brunswick, Georgia. The disentanglement team quickly pulled together all the gear they needed, jumped in their rigid-hulled inflatable boat (RHIB) and rushed out to where we were circling the whale. For the next 3.5 hours, myself and the rest of the aerial survey team helped to track the whale from the air as the disentanglement team on the water attempted to cut some of the netting on the whale. The very skilled disentanglement team was able to make multiple cuts to the monofilament netting- no easy feat! They had to get their 20 foot RHIB R/V Hurricane close enough to a free swimming large whale so a team member could reach out with a knife at the end of a long pole and cut the netting. Eventually, the plane was getting low on fuel and sunset was approaching, so the plane and the boat had to return to shore. At that point, everyone was hoping that enough cuts had been made to the whale's entanglement so the whale could eventually shed any remaining netting on its own.

Clay George with the GDNR disentanglement team about to make a successful cut to the netting on the left side of #3760’s head. Photo Credit: Georgia Department of Natural Resources, NOAA permit #932-1905.

When I found myself again photographing #3760 on August 13, I was hoping that I wouldn’t see any remaining traces of the pink monofilament netting as I stared through the viewfinder. Luckily, as the Nereid team examined #3760 through camera lenses and binoculars, no netting was visible on the whale. The last remnants of the monofilament netting had come off the whale at some point during its migration north along the east coast. It was a very happy ending to a story that began exactly six months earlier on February 13. Maybe 13 isn’t such an unlucky number after all…

August 13, 2011 image of #3760 gear-free. Photo: Patricia Naessig

Unfortunately ,#3760 was one of five entangled right whales sighted in the SEUS during the 2010-2011 season. Not all of these entangled whales had a happy ending. After a significant disentanglement effort which included sedation (modeled on the first sedation of a right whale in 2009), #3911 (a two year old female) was found floating dead at the end of January. During most calving seasons, one or two entangled right whales are sighted during the SEUS aerial surveys. However, we’ve had five entangled right whales in the SEUS for two out of the last three seasons. Overall, over 80% of the North Atlantic right whales have scarring on their bodies indicating they were entangled at some point in their lives. It’s a frightening trend that the New England Aquarium and everyone in the right whale conservation world are working very hard to counteract.

-Patricia Naessig


#8: Sounds from the Sea

As I mentioned in the previous blog, we've gotten some great acoustic data from the whales we've studied on the days we've been out in the bay. Below is a series of cool sound bytes we've collected over the month.

The first clip is from a separation event between a mother named Viola (Catalog #2029) and her calf. After swimming about 500 yards away from her calf, Viola suddenly began to breach, throwing her body out of the water over and over, performing seven or eight breaches total. Once she began, her straying calf bee-lined right for her, and Viola quit breaching upon its return. We can't be sure what messages, if any, Viola was sending to the calf; we can only postulate about what we saw. However, we can confidently assume the calf could hear it's mother's 60-to-80-ton body smacking back into the water at the end of every breach. We were recording near the calf, and here is one of the breach sounds we picked up on the hydrophones (listen for the splash about half way through the clip):

Another day on the water, we started our morning with the Surface Active Group (SAG) Marianna blogged about in this post. We've known for many years that SAGs are a setting for lots of vocalizations, and below is a series of up-calls (the trademark right whale communication call) we recorded while observing on the periphery of the SAG:

Finally, here is a recording from later on that same day, when we spent a few solid hours with mother #2790 and her calf. While we were with the pair, they spent the majority of their time separated, the mom most likely subsurface feeding in the area while the calf seemed to aimlessly bop around on its own. Throughout the afternoon the calf did a lot of stereotypical "mooing" sounds, so named because the sounds resemble a cow's moo. The sounds can be heard easily above the water's surface and also, as you can hear here, below. We're not sure what the sounds mean, but maybe by the end of this project we'll figure it out. In this clip, if you listen carefully you can first hear a soft slapping sound from when the calf slapped its flipper on the water's surface followed by a couple moos:

It's amazing how time flies--I'll be leaving Lubec in a day or two as our project comes to a close here for this season. I wish the rest of the researchers in the field house the best of luck through the end of September!