#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. YAY! What a diversity of sitings. Nice job folks!

  2. Have there been re-sightings of any of the sperm whales seen between 2010 and now?

    1. Hey Zach! Good question! We did have one match between 2010 and 2011. However, we weren't super diligent about photographing sperm whale flukes in 2010, so there may be more individuals returning than we realize. We also don't go off our tracklines for all sperm whale sightings, so again, there could be individuals that haven't been photographed. We did have one sperm whale on our second survey, but it popped up off our stern and we didn't want to go backtrack to get it. Monica did investigate into the sighting that we had on our first survey and did not find any matches to previous years. Still early in the season for us, so we'll keep the blog updated if we have any sperm whale matches!

  3. So cool. I watch every day for your updates. Keep up the great work. I've been to the Bay twice, so I know how special it is, NW

    1. Isn't it a beautiful place?! We're very lucky that we get to spend two full months here. Thank you for checking in with us, NW! Hopefully we'll have some exciting updates soon... as for now, we're stuck on land for a couple days with some intense fog.