#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!



#7: The Blasted Potato Gun

Well, we finished our homemade acoustic array and nick-named it the Potato Gun in honor of the usual instruments people make with large quantities of PVC pipe in the backyard. Our "Potato Gun" consisted, in the end, of about 20 feet of PVC pipe sawed in half with 3 evenly-spaced hydrophones nestled into the underside. The goal was to create an array with which, when a whale vocalizes under the water, we can triangulate in on the sound and determine where it came from. (You can find a good description from Northwestern University of earthquake triangulation here; we're using the same idea, but with waves of sound.) This allows us to determine which one of the many whales we're often surrounded by most likely made the noise.

One of our nested hydrophones.

Though our idea, I think, was sound (hardy-har-har), our makeshift array didn't really fly in the water. When we tested the array, dropping it just a few feet below the surface so that we could visually assess how the half-pipe was cruising, we heard a lot of strumming noise from the lines we had attached to the pipe and the weights we had to strap onto the array in order to keep it level under water. Plus, one of the hydrophones ended up sitting right next to the engine, and the engine was so loud as to likely block out any low or distant whale calls. After so much planning and brainstorming, and after using our own hands to make our vision of a perfect array into a reality, it was quite disappointing to find that it didn't work like we had hoped. But, such is science--while these trials can be frustrating, they're also what we love about our jobs. Plus, we already have an array that works well enough for the moment, so we simply continued to record using our original system during our days out on the water.

Testing the potato gun.

Yes, the weather has been less than desirable, only allowing us 4 days on the boat in the past 22, but the days we have ventured into the bay have been phenomenal. The first whales we've found every day have been the right right whales for us: mother/calf pairs. All together, we've collected just under 20 hours of acoustic and behavioral recordings from the pairs, which is a lot of new and exciting data. We've seen multiple events where the various calves have separated from the their mothers, and we have assiduously recorded the behaviors and sounds that mark their returns. With this kind of data, we can determine the environments in which it's most important for mothers and calves to be able to communicate vocally and the behaviors that mark the calves' steps in maturation. And understanding right whales better is one of surest ways to go about protecting them better.

Photographing a pile of right whales during a gorgeous day on the water. As Scott says with a wry smile, "This sure beats working!"

Stay tuned for a blog coming soon where you can hear some examples of the sounds we've recorded with our hydrophones this season!


#6: Waiting for the weather to change

Although we were optimistic about our weather window for the week, our slew of several consecutive beautiful days on the water turned into just one day. Although we did find right whales when we went out, sightings were difficult because of the sea state, and because the whales had moved from the locations we had been seeing them! Who knew?! We'll be blogging with a full update very soon!

The R/V Nereid, looking unhappily fogged in.

Hopeful for a second day on the water for the week and not entirely sure if the forecasts were as terrible as they sounded, we poked our noses out. Sure enough, the fog bank we encountered on land stretched past the Grand Manan channel and into the Bay of Fundy. Thankfully, the R/V Nereid is equipped with excellent GPS and Radar systems which guided us home safely.

Not ideal conditions in the Bay.

While we're waiting for the weather to turn in our favor, we are getting lots of work done in the office. Our data sets from our previous trips out are being processed, and we're busy matching the whales so we know who is in the Bay this year. Keep your fingers crossed for good weather so that we can get back out there!

Looking at whales on computer screens is almost as fun as seeing them in the field!



#5: First SAG of the season!

On Saturday, we headed back into the Bay for our third survey. It was a beautiful day on the water- clear skies, calm seas, and whale blows on the horizon! We sighted fin, minke, and humpback whales early in the morning. We also spotted a sperm whale, which Philip photographed. Sperm whales can be identified by their flukes, and we compared Philip's photos to the fluke photos we took last year. It seems that this whale was not one of the sperm whales photographed in 2010, but we'll need to collect more data before we can draw any conclusions about whether or not the same individuals are returning to this area.

The broad flukes of a sperm whale. Photo: Philip Hamilton

Eager to see some right whales, we continued on and were thrilled to notice a cluster of blows around 9:15 AM. We were approaching a Surface Active Group (SAG) of about 20 individuals! This SAG was fairly energetic, and it was amazing to hear how loudly the whales exhaled. The main center of attention was a female, Catalog #2746, who is also a mom this year. Her calf was on the outskirts of the SAG, and every now and then she would leave to reunite with it, at which point all the other whales would race after her. #2746 floated belly-up most of the time, showing off her white underside. The other whales around her burst out of the water and tried to get as close to her as possible. After an hour we left the SAG while it was still in full swing, but our colleagues on another boat observed the SAG for additional two hours! Check out the video below to get an idea of what this SAG looked (and sounded!) like:

Soon after, we came across a season code whale, S025. This whale was first seen in 2009 but we know very little about it, so it cannot be given a catalog number yet. Based on its behavior, it was easy to see why it hasn't been better documented- it zigzagged all over and led us on a wild chase! Although we weren't able to collect a skin sample from it, we were happy to have it well documented through our photographs.

The elusive S025. Photo: Kelsey Howe

Later in the day, we came across more whales scattered across a small area of the Bay. Monica was successful in collecting a skin and blubber sample from the 2011 calf of Catalog #2790, and by the end of the day, we had photographed 34 different whales!

The 2011 calf of Catalog #2790 with some mud on its head. Photo: Tracy Montgomery

Knowing there are so many whales in the Bay is exciting, but frustrating at the moment since we're currently stuck on land due to severe fog. It looks like we will have some excellent days coming up soon though, so stay tuned!


#4: Plenty of whales in the sea!

Hello all! I’m Kelsey Howe, and before I describe our extraordinary second day out on the water, I’ve been asked to introduce myself since I am a newbie at the BOF field station this year. I was incredibly lucky to snag a seasonal intern opportunity to be a part of this amazing and experienced research team.

A few summers ago, I interned with the non-profit Allied Whale in Bar Harbor, ME, and have spent the last year working for the Large Whale Conservation Program at the State of Maine Department of Marine Resources. While I have experience researching large whales, I haven’t had the privilege of studying right whales, and I am excited to learn and experience as much as I can while I am here.

After our first day on the water, the fog kept us ashore for a few days, and the future forecasts weren’t looking promising. However, after studying the weather buoys on Monday night, Philip decided that Tuesday could be a good day on the water. With an early morning departure, the sun eventually overpowered the clouds to keep us warm while we traversed the waters east of Grand Manan in search of right whales.

After about three hours, we photographed our first right whale of the day, which was recognized as Catalog #3312 (search for our cataloged whales here!), and for the rest of the day our crew was kept busy with right whale sightings!

An adult whale surprised us with its curiosity - it circled our boat and even tilted its head to get a better look at us! Photo: Dan Pendleton

We soon encountered Mavynne (#1151) skim feeding, which allowed us to see her prominent white mouth scars from her tragic 2009 entanglement in fishing gear. As Philip mentioned in the previous post, it is rare to see right whales skim feeding in the Bay of Fundy.

Mavynne's skim feeding revealed her mouth scars. Photo: Patricia Naessig

We decided to try a plankton tow to see if we could get a better picture of the quantity of copepods in the water. We captured quite a thick amount of the tiny reddish pink organisms and discovered that copepods are not just a delicacy for whales, but humans find them appetizing as well! After bravely sampling some of the plankton herself, Amy commented that they would “taste great on a cracker.” Besides supplying some comedy for the Nereid crew, the dense plankton sample indicated that this food source may be more plentiful than in the previous year, which may also mean that we’ll have a more typical season of right whale sightings.

The plankton tow was a success! A dense sample of copepods together has a consistency like jelly.

Noticing some splashing not far from our boat, we discovered a calf “flippering.” This behavior is seen in some other whale species such as humpbacks. The calf had rolled on its side, lifted its huge flipper out of the water, and repeatedly smacked it against the surface. Because it was on its side, we were also able to see its eye! The calf soon joined its mother who we identified as Magic (#1243). Interestingly, Catalog #3343 was also in the area--Magic’s son born in 2003!

Meeting eye to eye: the calf's eye is visible to the left of the flipper. Photo: Dan Pendleton

Ultimately we photographed 23 unique individuals, including Quatro (#1968) and Boomerang (#2503). Additionally, we ended up recording six different species of whales including several sei whales and a sperm whale, both of which are fairly rare finds in the Bay of Fundy. The R/V Callisto was also out on the water and gained great behavioral and acoustic data (about 7 hours' worth!) on a mom/calf pair to the northwest of Grand Manan.

We could not have asked for a more incredible second day out on the water, and judging by the amount of whales and plankton that we collected, this season is shaping up to be a great one!



#3: First day out!

We had four days to sort things out in the field station before our first day on the water on Friday. Even though many of us have been coming here for years, there are always issues at the start of the season. This year we had the usual array--setting up a computer network that everyone could see, for some strange reason a computer and a printer stopped working, a busted hot water heater--you get the idea. No matter how prepared we are, these sorts of problems are always part of the field season start up.

The R/V Nereid crew loads the boat for the first survey.

We had most of the bugs worked out when Moe Brown made the call to go out on Friday. The marine forecast on one weather site was not great, but going on a long history of observing the weather here, Moe went with her instincts and they were spot on. Aboard the R/V Nereid, we were able to do a thorough survey of the western side of the Bay of Fundy. We found two lone right whales in separate locations in the Bay--both were young whales that appeared to be feeding at, or just below, the surface of the water. Normally, right whales in the Bay feed many hundreds of feet below the surface.

Our first right whale of the day, surface feeding in the Bay of Fundy.

The second of the two whales is a whale that has only been seen off the coast of the southeastern U.S. and is not in the catalog yet--it is only referenced with a temporary code of S048. We sighted it 13 miles north of the area that we usually survey. We were able to collect an important skin sample from this whale which may allow us to identify it to a calf born in recent years.

Right whale S048

It was a great first day on the water. We were treated to many sightings of ocean sunfish (Mola mola)- one of the oddest looking creatures in the ocean (see picture below). These fish are generally associated with warmer waters and it is relatively rare to see them in the Bay of Fundy.

An ocean sunfish in the Bay of Fundy.

Although we only had two right whale sightings, the R/V Callisto conducting the mother/calf (m/c) studies found 2 m/c pairs to the east and saw other right whales in the distance even further to the east. Now- we just have to wait for the fog to clear and the winds to subside for our second day on the water!


#2: Fiddling, stream-lining, and refining.

Hello! Though I am very happy to be sharing the New England Aquarium's right whale research team house (and resources!) in Lubec this month, I am not technically a team member. I'm here in this beautiful slice of Maine with two other researchers keen on studying mother/calf right whale pairs for a long term project with Penn State University. This special five-year project aims to follow mother/calf right whale pairs through the three habitats most of them tend to visit throughout the year: the Southeastern U.S. calving grounds in winter (where the right whale research team once flew aerial surveys), the Cape Cod Bay feeding grounds in early spring, and the Bay of Fundy feeding grounds in late summer. Since we'll be studying the same animals as the Aquarium team and have great relationships with them from work in the past, it makes a lot of sense for us all to put our heads and skills together for our various projects. In 2010, I was an aerial observer for the Aquarium in the Southeastern U.S., and I am pumped to reunite with some of my friends and work with this extremely talented bunch of people again.

The majority of us arrived, safe and sound, on the first of the month and unloaded our personal belongings and research equipment onto the shelves and floors of the house. Though everyone loves time out on the water, I think we're all glad we've been landlocked for the past two days by foggy, stormy, windy weather. It takes awhile to get organized, locate all the project goods, and work out any kinks that couldn't be worked out earlier in the planning.

"And science lurches forward!" said Scott as he cut into PVC pipe for our homemade array.

The project I'm working on is an acoustic and behavioral study, so we're trying to observe changes in mother/calf relationships throughout the calves' first year and also hear how the whale sounds made by mother/calf pairs develop at this early stage of the calves' lives. So our main goal in these first few days is to adapt our "acoustic array," the physical layout of our hydrophones underwater, for the Bay of Fundy. We have a few handy tools at our disposal: an array the Cornell Lab of Ornithology--avid whale-listeners--built for us, and the tools in the shed at the Lubec house with which we can make our own array. With these tools, we spent the day sawing, drilling, and hemming and hawing, brainstorming with any whale connoisseur who crossed our path about ideas for the array. An array can be difficult to design because hydrophones are delicate and can tell us a lot of information if they're placed under the water in a good arrangement. A clever array can allow the hydrophones to triangulate where whale sounds are coming from via a (long and tedious) series of mathematical equations, and this is what we would like our array to do. So we fiddled and tinkered and tried, and by the end of the day, I think we came up with something great. But we'll have to wait until that first good weather day allows us out into the bay to test it out.

Jenny, a grad student at Penn State, mulls over the Cornell array.

It's wonderful to be in this little-known, exceptionally beautiful alcove of the country, and hopefully I will soon see it by sea as well as by land!



#1: Heading Downeast

Right whale researchers are a lucky crew- just as the peak of the summer heat hits Boston, we get to head up north (ahem... downeast) to the cool Bay of Fundy, just like our research subjects! For the past 31 years, we’ve made Lubec, Maine, our home-away-from-home for the months of August and September, and this year is no exception! Our gear is packed, our cars are loaded, and we have a talented group of scientists coming from all over the U.S. and Canada for what we hope to be a busy field season.

A very small portion of the gear we transport for the field season.

Last year, we had surprisingly low numbers of right whales in the Bay of Fundy, and an equally surprising high number of sperm whales! We’re eager to see if this is a new trend or just a “fluke.”

On a sad note, we know there are several whales we won’t be seeing in the Bay this year, as five deaths have been confirmed and at least two others suspected since January. Two of these confirmed deaths were reproductive females, which are invaluable to such a slowly growing population. Slash (Catalog #1303), who had given birth to at least six calves, was a favorite of the team and easily recognized by her scarred flukes. Unfortunately, her carcass was never secured so we will never know the cause of death, although ship strike is a possibility.

While her calf rests at the surface, Slash lifts her uniquely scarred flukes to go on a dive in the Bay of Fundy.

Despite these losses, we are optimistic that we’ll see lots of new “faces” this season! This winter, 21 calves were born, and about 2/3rds of them will make their first appearance in the Bay! The others will travel with their moms to locations still unknown.

We hope our dedicated readers are just as excited as we are for the 2011 field season, and that those new to our blog will develop a love for these whales too! You can also follow the program via Right Whale Scoop on Twitter and by joining our new Right Whale Group on Facebook! See you soon!