#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

1 comment:

  1. Amazing that you documented Bowhead whale, in the Bay of Fundy. I have had the opportunity to spend time documenting Arctic bowhead whales off Baffin Island, they are a beautiful animal. Hopefully we humans will come to their aid and protect them from the threat of increased shipping and possible oil spills on both sides of the Arctic Ocean. I have posted a four-part series about my time with Arctic bowhead whales at: http://frametoframe.ca/destinations/arctic-expedition/photo-essay-search-arctic-bowhead-whales