#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.


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