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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Bookmark and Share
Sort Posts By Season
2014 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2013 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2012 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2011 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2010-2011 Jordan Basin Expedition (first post)
2010 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2009-2010 Aerial Survey Season (first post)
2009 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2008-2009 Aerial Survey Season (first post)
2008 Bay of Fundy Season (first post)
2007-2008 Aerial Survey Season (first post)
- ► 2015 (31)
- ► 2014 (39)
- ► 2013 (30)
- ► 2012 (32)
- ▼ August (10)
- ► 2010 (61)
- ► 2009 (66)