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.
WE HAVE BLOW!
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