#11: A Bowhead Whale in the Bay of Fundy?!

I have had the wonderful privilege of spending the past 30 summer/fall field seasons documenting right whales in the Bay of Fundy. The Bay has always been such an important feeding ground and nursery area for this species and is also an accessible habitat for us to do day trips out of Lubec, Maine on the R/V Nereid. So our anticipation of who and how many right whales we will see is always high at the outset of the season. This year we even had a competition of which right whale would be seen first this season - we each chose a whale based on their prior presence in BOF or our own personal affinity to the individual (not what we would call a scientifically valid endeavor!). Alas, none of us have won this competition yet as the right whale sightings have been quite sparse so far this season.

But the Bay always seems to surprise us with something amazing, and this year is no different. On August 19th, as we were photographing the handful of right whales we had found that day, we came across what looked like a lone right whale, and so collected our normal suite of photographs. I was one of the photographers on the bow that day and as we approached, I heard someone say "Wow, that whale looks really skinny," and then, "Geeze, that whale has no callosities!" Trying to see that through the camera viewfinder isn't so easy, but with the advent of digital cameras we now have the ability to review what we photographed instantly. As we scrolled through the images, we realized that what we had just photographed was not a right whale at all but instead was a bowhead whale (a close cousin to right whales)!

A bowhead surfaces in the Bay of Fundy on August 19th, 2012. The head is similar to a right whale but it has no callosities and is shaped differently.  Photo: Amy Knowlton

This is a first for our 33 years of study in the Bay of Fundy! Interestingly, we were aware of an even more unusual bowhead sighting from this past March, when our colleagues at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies observed a bowhead in a surface active group of right whales off of Cape Cod, MA. Because of the novelty of their sighting and their plan to get that information published in a scientific journal, we decided to coordinate with them to see if we had sighted the same animal (which we had- the scars on the peduncle matched) and to let them send out a press release about both of our sightings. On August 28, The Boston Globe wrote a piece on the bowhead sightings. The Chronicle Herald out of Halifax, Canada, also wrote an article after a Nova Scotia whalewatch boat observed the bowhead the same week as our team did.

This bowhead has entanglement scars from fishing gear, as do over 82% of North Atlantic right whales. The scars from the bowhead sighted in the Bay of Fundy match the scars on the bowhead seen in Cape Cod Bay, so we know it is the same individual. Photo: Maria Hall

The presence of an Arctic species in the Bay strikes us as incredibly odd in a year where water temperatures in the entire Gulf of Maine are at an all-time high. But it may be that this subadult animal is simply on a "walk-about" or just very lost. It is not that unusual to see an individual animal of a marine mammal species outside of their typical range. But it's important to continue documenting these cases of "stragglers," as if there are many stragglers that show up outside of their known range, this could be an indicator of changes in food availability elsewhere.

Typical range of the bowhead whale.
This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Thanks to The Emirr for the map! 

With climate change occurring especially in the Arctic, we will continue to keep an eye out for any shifts that we witness in our long-term study of marine mammals in the Bay of Fundy.

-Amy Knowlton


#10: Dolphins in the Desert

Hi!  I'm Tracy, here for my second field season in the Bay of Fundy.  I've been working at the New England Aquarium this past year flying aerial surveys for wind energy development, and I'm super excited to be back on the water for these two months of research.

You can imagine the team's excitement on our fourth consecutive day in the Bay when we saw our first right whale at 7:09 AM in the Grand Manan Channel! Right whales in that area are unusual, as it's not a typical habitat for them- the Channel is relatively shallow and narrow compared to the Bay. Catalog #3742 made us work for this important sighting and didn't make it easy for us to photograph him! He was traveling northeast through the Channel and only surfacing for one or two breaths between dives. Luckily, Philip “Hawkeye” Hamilton was at the helm and had an uncanny sense of where and when #3742 would surface, so we were finally to catch an identifying shot of him.

Camera shy #3742, born in 2007. Photo: Meagan Moeyaert

We spent the rest of the morning surveying the central part of the Bay of Fundy, which had unfortunately turned into a right whale desert. We were getting sort of bummed about our lack of sightings when we spotted a pod of dolphins! Normally we see Atlantic white-sided dolphins here, but these were bigger, with taller dorsal fins and a white patch on their lower back.

What dolphin species are these? Photo: Tracy Montgomery

White-beaked dolphins!! White-beaked dolphins are larger and more robust than the more common Atlantic white-sided dolphin, with adults measuring 8-10 ft long and weighing 400-700 lbs. They feed on small mesopelagic fish, such as cod, herring, and haddock, as well as squid and various crustaceans.

Extremely acrobatic and high jumpers! Photos: Tracy Montgomery and Amy Knowlton

White-beaked dolphins are endemic to the North Atlantic Ocean but have only been seen a handful of times in the history of the project's surveys, so this was an unusual and exciting sighting! As we approached, they began to ride our stern wake, breaching high out of the water and playing in the waves behind us!

We then moved northeast, heading to a part of the Bay where another research team had seen a couple of right whales. We finally spotted our second (and last) whale of the day, Catalog #3893, at 3:59 PM, nine hours after our first right whale sighting. Like our earlier whale, it was frustrating to photograph because it was traveling- after having moved some distance, it would only surface for a few breaths every ten minutes. Kelsey spotted his “flukeprints”- patches of still water that surface after the whale has pumped its fluke underwater- and so with such a good pinpoint of the location of the whale, we were finally able to photograph its head!

#3893 was born in 2008. Photo: Heather Pettis

After four straight days on the water, the team decided to stay on land for a day due to low counts of right whales. Hoping that more right whales would move into the habitat while we were on land, we would get more "bang for our buck" in survey effort. While we still haven't had large aggregations of right whales, the team did have some other really interesting sightings, so stay tuned for our future blogs about our past few days on the water!

- Tracy Montgomery


#9: Calves Just Want to Have Fun!

After seeing quite a few right whales on Monday, we had high hopes for a busy Day 3 out on the water on Tuesday. However (as we are already well aware of), our study species have a mind of their own, so naturally we only found five individual right whales. But what our survey lacked in quantity, the handful of whales we did see put on quite a show for us. 

The 2011 Calf of #1243 breaching sequence- these three photos span only one second! 
Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

We spotted "Columbine" (Catalog #1408) several times throughout the day, which was exciting because she is an older female born in 1984 who has been a regular visitor to the Bay of Fundy over the last 28 years. She hadn't been observed here since September 2008, but is one of the first older whales to arrive this season. The NEAq team did photograph her during their 2011 winter survey near Jordan Basin in the Gulf of Maine, which is a potential right whale mating ground. With a beautiful dark black and robust body, Columbine looks healthy, which is encouraging to see in an ocean with changing environmental conditions and food distributions. Due to dedicated surveys and genetic analysis, we know she is the grandmother of #3808, the first right whale that we sighted in the Bay this season!!

Columbine's first sighting in the Bay since 2008. Photo: Philip Hamilton

Our new favorite resident whale (the 2012 Calf of #3390) continued its streak of impressing its audience with what is known as a "curious approach."  The calf (sans mom at this point), cautiously circled the Nereid, while playfully checking us out above and below the water.  We made sure that we were shut down for the entirety of this behavior, as to not endanger our inquisitive young friend.  Moments like this definitely bridge the gap between researcher and study subject: our similarities become more tangible when whales observe us with the same curiosity in which we study them.  

Without a doubt, this was one of the highlights of our day, let alone the season!  It is also interesting to note that it wasn’t until we left the calf about a half hour later that we found its mom (Catalog #3390) at least a mile away.  This is normal behavior for mom and calf pairs in the Bay of Fundy, as the calf is slowly weaned from its mother and the two begin to spend more time apart.  As a first time mom, it looks like #3390 is off to a great start of what we hope will be a long period of her raising healthy calves. 

This calf is studying US! Photo: Maria Hall

Towards the end of the day, the 2011 Calf of #1243 made sure we didn't motor past it by lobtailing energetically.  Once it had our attention, the one year-old began a long series of breaches right off of our boat, intermixed with several bouts of flipper slapping and rolling. It is nice to see that the yearling found its way back to the Bay, since "Magic" (Catalog #1243) and this calf were one of our mom and calf pairs in the Bay of Fundy last year!

  We couldn’t have asked for a more entertaining sighting to finish off the day.  Here’s to hoping the weather stays nice and that more whales continue to arrive in the days to come.

-Kelsey Howe

Editor's Note: Kelsey joined us for her first Bay of Fundy field season last summer! Read her previous posts from the 2011 season on taste-testing copepods and right whale gunshots!


#8: The 2012 Calf of #3390 puts on a show!

As Amy mentioned in the previous post, we've finally had a great stretch of weather to get on the water- today marks the fourth consecutive day for the Nereid team! Although we haven't been seeing dozens of right whales in the Bay, it seems promising that more will continue to arrive. We were very excited to have our first mom (Catalog #3390) and calf pair for the season. This is one of only seven documented calves born this year. The pair was last seen in Florida in March, so they've come a long way!

Mom (#3390) with her calf. Photo: Maria Hall

This calf was a joy to observe, as it pulled out all the tricks in the book- lobtailing, breaching, flipper slapping and rolling! What made it even more entertaining to watch was that he didn't quite have the hang of these behaviors yet. Most of the times he breached he landed on his back, but some breaches ended with a big belly-flop. His flipper slapping yielded some loud smacks on the surface of the water, but this calf also ended up just waving at the team and hitting his own body a few times. We were able to capture some of these behaviors on film! Enjoy!



#7: They have finally arrived!

Over the past two days we have had both the R/V Nereid and R/V Callisto offshore surveying the Bay of Fundy for the elusive right whales. On Sunday, teams from both boats saw a couple of right whales but again they were very difficult to work -- single animals staying at the surface only briefly and traveling long distances between each surfacing. Neither boat was able to collect any photos for our right whale identification catalog. Our impression was that the right whales were searching for food but weren't finding anything. But at the end of the day on Sunday, our colleagues working out of the Grand Manan Research Station called to report they had found a mother/calf pair in the Grand Manan basin (where right whales are typically found) which was exciting news. Maybe this was a sign that things were shifting.

On Monday when the Nereid crew got back out to the basin, it felt like the Bay had come alive! We began to see right whale flukes in all directions and the bird life was incredibly active: storm petrels, shearwaters and gannets were there in droves! There were also many fin whales, minke whales, basking sharks and harbor porpoise in a very small area perhaps just a few square miles in size. It seemed to be a feeding frenzy! Over the course of the day the Nereid crew photographed seven individual right whales including #3390 and her calf, one of only seven calves documented this past winter calving season off the southeast U.S. coast. The Nereid crew is out again today and hopefully will be out over the next few days as the fog has finally lifted and the winds are calm.

Stay tuned for videos and updates from the Nereid crew!

#3390's calf was seen breaching and flipper slapping as he waited for his mom to return from a feeding bout. 
Photo: Maria Hall


#6: Close Encounters of the "Wrong" Kind

Our two research teams were able to make it out into the Bay on Friday due to clearing of (most of) the fog.

17 August, 2012

Unfortunately, it was a bit of a frustrating day for both teams. Around 8:45 AM, we did sight a fluking right whale, so we stopped to wait for the next surfacing. However, after waiting and scanning for 25 minutes, we did not see it again and so were unable to obtain photographs. We decided to move on with our survey to see if there were other right whales in the area.

As we continued, we hit a large, dense area of fog and lost our visibility. We changed directions and were able to gain visibility after a while, and around 11:30 AM we sighted another fluking right whale. It was behaving similarly to the first whale that we saw, so it could have been the same individual, but either way, it was impossible to stick with. We were unable to witness the surfacings and only saw distant flukes every 20-25 minutes. Determined to get photographs of this elusive whale, we stayed in the area as long as we could but had to eventually move on.

Realizing that the wind was picking up and our sea state was worsening, we decided to head to Eastport to refuel the boat so we'd be prepared for our next survey. As we were heading west, Amy pointed out a particularly small minke whale. We stopped the boat to get a better look, and in turn, the young minke came to get a better look at us as well. The white bands on the flippers were very visible, and we got some great looks of the head as the whale came up to breathe. 

Close encounter with a minke whale

Refueling in Eastport during a low tide is always a cool experience. Since the Bay of Fundy is home to the largest tides in the world, the marine world has adapted to its extremes:

Fueling up at low tide

While fueling, Meagan found a Lion's Mane jellyfish between a boat and the dock. This jelly had a bell of about one foot in diameter, but this species can grow even bigger- they're the largest known species of jellyfish, with a record of a 7 foot, 6 inch diameter bell!

Close encounter with a Lion's Mane jellyfish. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom


#5: Humpbacks... and more fog!

On Monday when we checked the weather forecast, our crew in Lubec was excited by what we saw: a potential break from the fog banks that had been keeping us stranded. After six days on land, we were all itching to get back on our research vessel, Nereid.

This is my first season with the New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Team. I have worked around large whales in the wild—and unpredictable weather—before. Last summer I was in Gloucester, Massachusetts, studying humpback whales with the Whale Center of New England, and prior to that I worked aboard a whale watch vessel out of Portland, Maine. At the Whale Center, our focus was on matching humpback whale flukes and documenting behavior patterns.

There is plenty to do at here at the Lubec field station while we wait for the fog to lift, such as matching past right whale sightings to individuals in our Catalog. Matching humpback whale flukes is much different than matching callosity patterns on right whales; right whales are more challenging. After several consecutive days on land, gazing at callosities on the computer, all you want to do is get back on that boat!

We took off at 9:30 AM on Tuesday, hoping that the last of the fog had dissipated. As we steamed out with the R/V Callisto (carrying the acoustic research team) following closely behind, we watched as wisps of fog floated among West Quoddy Head and Campobello Island. It was strikingly beautiful, and made for a lovely trip out into the channel.

Strands of fog along Campobello Island. Photo: Maria Hall

We spotted lots of harbor porpoise and a few minke whales near Grand Manan, and as our watch continued we saw two blows in the distance—two adult humpback whales!

Humpback "Ibex" with a mostly white fluke. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

For a while we thought perhaps we had four humpbacks. These individuals were moving quickly and surfacing far from where they last dove, so when they resurfaced we didn’t think they were the same animals. Also, these two humpbacks were only taking one or two breaths at the surface before going on a deep, terminal dive. This is unusual for humpbacks, who generally take five or more breaths before taking another dive. Perhaps beneath the surface there were a lot of small fish they were chowing down on!

Humpback "Platform" with a strip of black dividing the white lobes. Photo: Maria Hall

After photographing the flukes of the humpbacks, we headed south- but not for very long. We encountered an extensive, heavy fog bank which halted our survey for the day.

Extremely limited visibility for our observers on the bow. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

While some would consider this really frustrating, even half days on the water are valuable. We were still able to collect data on other marine species, and shot some photos that will benefit humpback researchers. Getting a chance to record data, do some photography, and chat with the rest of the crew is good experience and a lot of fun. And when the day comes when there is no fog and tons of right whales, I’ll be totally prepared!

-Maria Hall

Edit: Thank you to Danielle Dion of Quoddy Link Marine for the Humpback ID's!


#4: Fog Blog! Five Fundy Fog Facts

Due to the fog, today marks our sixth consecutive day on land. The Nereid team last attempted to run a survey on Tuesday August 7, but had to return to the dock after a couple of hours because of the fog they encountered. Our next potential day out may be tomorrow, so please keep your fingers crossed for both teams! In the meantime, here are five Fundy fog facts:

1. For our location and purposes, southerly winds = not great news. Northerly winds = better news. Wind coming from a southerly direction has passed over the Atlantic ocean, creating moisture-rich air. Wind coming from a northerly direction usually has passed over land (New Brunswick), creating a drier air. Here, air laden with moisture can lead to fog, whereas dry air will not.

Inspiration for this blog. 12 August 2012.

2. When the dew point is the same as the air temperature, fog will form. This weather site for nearby Grand Manan makes comparing these values simple. An important thing to be aware of to help avoid this scenario while out in the Bay:

Not ideal survey conditions.

3. Whale blows can be heard better in fog. Foggy air is more dense because of the water molecules, so the sound travels better and faster...

4. ... yet while we might be able to hear the whales better, it doesn't really make our work any easier. It's difficult to photograph whales in fog!

Exhibit A.

5. Right whale researchers start to go a little crazy when stuck on land for too many days straight. The perk? Our amazing Claudia comforts us with food. Yesterday, it was pancakes with local blueberries.

Flipping fruity flapjacks.


#3: Where are the right whales?

We had another good survey day yesterday- great visibility and calm seas- and found no right whales. The arrival date for right whales in the Bay of Fundy has changed quite a bit from past years to more recent years. In the 1990's, they frequently arrived in early July. In the 2000's, they reverted to what we think of as their usual pattern of arrival- early August, with a few appearing in late June or July. Even though we know the arrival date will vary, whenever we find few to no whales, we begin to wonder: Why aren't they in the Bay? If they're not in the Bay, then where are they?

File photo: Kelsey Howe, taken on last day of BOF 2011 surveys.

One thought about the first question is that the sea surface temperature has been quite a bit warmer this year- 58-59 degrees F compared to the more usual 46-52 degrees F. The plankton that right whales depend upon require specific conditions that may well have changed. Also, a recent study discovered dramatic reductions in phytoplankton in the Gulf of Maine in recent years. Phytoplankton, or plant plankton, is the very base of the food chain and is dinner for the copepods that right whales feed on. So with warmer water temperatures and reduced volume of phytoplankton, it's possible that there's been some shifts in the food resource for right whales- perhaps the copepods are available in a different location than usual, or at a slightly different time of year.

Assuming that right whales are responding to these or other environmental variations, changes in their distributions may actually be a positive sign. It may be demonstrating their ability to adapt to what will likely be an increasingly changing environment. While some people still try to deny the evidence of climate change, animals around the world are already highlighting the environmental changes by altering their normal ranges--from birds and butterflies to whales. For example, are the conditions that have made the Bay of Fundy favorable to sperm whales in the last three years unfavorable for right whales?

As to the second question of where the right whales may be, there are several possibilities. The NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center's aerial surveys in July had right whales on the northen edge of George's Bank and near Cashes Ledge- all south of the Bay of Fundy (see map from their interactive web site below).

There have been no recent surveys in those areas, so it is unknown if they are still there. We have also received several reports of right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence this summer--an area that seems to be important to some right whales but which has not been well surveyed. It's a big ocean and there are many other places that right whales could be. We hope that many will make their way to the Bay of Fundy soon, but wherever they are, we hope they are finding all the copepods they can eat!


#2: First right whale!

As researcher Philip Hamilton told us over dinner recently, being a whale biologist means you need to have the patience of a Buddhist monk and the adrenaline of a professional athlete. This mantra is applicable during our field season in several ways, two of which are when we are on the water looking for right whales, and when we are on land, checking for good weather days. Three wet, foggy days had passed by since our arrival, and it appeared as though a fourth day on land was in sight.

Returning to Lubec after fueling the Nereid in Eastport, we are welcomed by a wall of fog.

However, as it sometimes does, the weather forecast turned in our favor! On Saturday, Philip woke us for a slightly later departure (7:00 AM off the dock) so that we could make sure we had the fog beat. And indeed, there were good survey conditions on the Bay despite some haze. We began our survey with few sightings, mostly consisting of harbor porpoise and seals. Around 11:00 AM at the southern end of our first trackline, we came across a humpback mother and calf pair! The calf appeared to be nursing- disappearing underneath its mother's body and popping up on the other side after a moment. Not long into our observation of the pair, the calf started flipper slapping and then breached several times! 

Breaching humpback calf. Photo by Meagan Moeyaert. 

An hour and a half later, we shut down the R/V Nereid so that we could have a ten minute listening station. During these ten minutes, the team scans the horizon in all directions and listens for whale blows. The highly visible spout that we use to identify large whales is created when water washes over and in a whale's blowhole(s). When the whale exhales, it gets sent up into the air in a certain way based on the blowhole configuration specific to the species. Having calm seas is fantastic for our work, but it can also make it difficult to sight those spouts since there's less water washing over the blowhole. Since large whales have such huge lungs, the sound of their inhales and exhales travels long distances, and we can often hear the whale without actually seeing the spout. As we were listening, Philip heard a whale and we discovered a sperm whale close to our vessel!

Sperm whales have a single blowhole, located on the left side of their head- this makes them easy to identify because their blows appear angled.
Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

It was motionless at the surface, so we were able to observe it for a few minutes and take some photographs before it fluked on a terminal dive. This whale has a very distinct fluke with a scar around the notch and some chips out of the edges, so it will be easy to match it if we see it again.

Sperm whale flukes. Photo: Philip Hamilton

Having checked off several different species of marine mammals with no right whale sightings, our hopes were still very high that we would find what we were looking for. Amy and Philip were keeping watch on the bow when just after 3:00 PM, they sighted flukes. When we saw the characteristic V-shaped blow of a right whale, a cheer went up around the boat and everyone sprung into action with our adrenaline pumping. The whale was identified as Catalog #3808, a female born in 2008. She was playing in a seaweed patch- lazily rolling around, posturing (lifting head and tail out of the water at the same time), and popping up with seaweed on her head. 

#3808 playing in the seaweed! Photo: Philip Hamilton

#3808 was certainly charming and it would have been entertaining to observe her longer, but we left to continue our trackline and see what else was in the area. By the end of our 12-hour day on the water, our first survey of the season did leave us with some noteable large whale sightings, but with only one right whale.

First right whale sighting for our team this season! Photo: Amy Knowlton

Now back in the office, we realize that #3808 has a very cool line of mothers that we can trace due to diligent survey efforts and genetic analysis. #3808 is the offspring of Catalog #1408, a whale named Columbine who was born in 1984. Columbine is the daughter of #1118, Zipper, who was born in 1977. Zipper is the daughter of Catalog #1007. This means that we can trace four generations of females, making #1007 a great-grandmother! Unfortunately, #1007 hasn't been seen since 1986 and so is presumed dead, but it's great to know that her great-granddaughter is looking healthy and has migrated safely to the Bay of Fundy. Hopefully, there will be some others joining her very soon!



#1: Back in the field

For New England Aquarium right whale researchers, this is one of the most wonderful times of the year: The Bay of Fundy field season! This marks our 33rd year of conducting right whale surveys and research in the Bay. Our 2012 team members hail from all over North America: Massachusetts, Vermont, Maine, New York, Washington, Ontario, and New Brunswick. Every day that the weather permits during the next two months, we'll head out on our trusty research vessel Nereid into the Grand Manan Basin right whale critical habitat in the lower Bay of Fundy.

During a typical survey, we'll record counts of marine mammals and sharks, take photographs and record behavioral information of each individual right whale observed, and collect biopsy samples from specific right whales for our genetic database. And of course if we see a right whale defecate, we'll be right there with our pooper scooper to collect a sample for hormonal analysis!

August 1, 2012. R/V Nereid waits patiently. Due to a lovely combination of rain, wind and fog, we won't be leaving the dock today.

In addition to the annual monitoring survey by the New England Aquarium team, our field station here in Lubec, Maine will also be home to a team from University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and Syracuse University. It will be this team's third year of collecting mother-calf pair acoustic and behavioral data in the Bay of Fundy, and we hope it will be a fruitful year for them! 2012 was a calving year of low numbers—seven calves were born into the population this winter, and we know that one of those calves did not survive. The Bay is popular with about 2/3 of mothers, so we should see several of these pairs this summer.

So far, only a few right whale sightings have been reported in the Bay of Fundy, most of those from around Nova Scotia in late June and early July. There have been a few sightings of sperm whales, which always make us go "Hmm..." In 30 years of surveying the Bay, our team had never seen sperm whales spending time here until 2010. These large whales also showed up last year, so this marks the third consecutive year of this species being observed in the area. Hmm...

Our monitoring surveys are supported by grants from Irving Oil (St. John, New Brunswick) and the Island Foundation (Marion, MA). If you would like to support our research, you can make a donation by sponsoring a right whale!

We hope you'll follow us this season on Twitter (#rightwhalescoop) and through our Facebook Group. Here's to another great season!