Imagining life as a right whale

I have thought often about what it might be like to be a right whale, but of course I only have my human senses to compare it to. From my perspective, I think about what it might be to spend life mostly in the dark (at night or at depth), having to find enough of the rice-sized copepod plankton to feed a hungry belly, finding a mate that can't be seen, and keeping a one ton newborn calf well-fed and safe.

An example of minor entanglement scars. Photo: NEAq

Clearly right whales are well-adapted to manage all of the above, but what concerns me most are the things they are not adapted to: the chronic noise pollution from the extensive vessel traffic that transits day and night throughout their range which masks their vocalizations and limits their ability to find each other; the fear that must be palpable when one of those vessels gets louder and louder as it unknowingly steams towards them but can't be seen—which way to turn to escape the deadly hull and propeller?; and the panic that must set in when, while searching for food at depth with a mouth wide open, an unseen rope attaching a buoy at the surface to fishing gear at depth becomes caught in the long baleen plates hanging from the roof of the mouth, causing a frantic struggle to get to the surface to breath and to hopefully escape from the heavy gear and constricting ropes.

Catalog #2301 entangled in 2004. This whale had rope through the mouth which was tightly bound around the flipper, an entanglement that ultimately lead to #2301's death six months later. Photo: NEAq.

This latter scenario of entanglement is the focus of a recently published paper by myself and colleagues here at the New England Aquarium. In this paper we reviewed up to 30 years (1980-2009) of photographs for each individual right whale, looked for evidence of entanglement related scarring on all different areas of the body, and noted which animals were witnessed carrying rope likely to be from fishing gear. We determined that 83% of this small population has evidence of at least one entanglement interaction, with some animals experiencing as many as seven entanglement events.

Due to dedicated survey efforts, many whales are sighted and well-photographed from one year to the next, making it possible to notice when new scars appear in a relatively small time frame. Using this well-documented part of the population, we determined that annually, on average, 26% of these animals had obtained new entanglement scars or were carrying gear.

A total of 1,032 unique interactions were documented, resulting in minor to moderate scarring for many right whales, but serious and often fatal entanglements for 86 individuals. And the rate of serious entanglements has increased over the 30 year period.

An example of significant entanglement scars. Photo: NEAq

The entanglement issue remains the most serious conservation concern facing this small population. Expanded fishing effort along the eastern seaboard over the past several decades and the use of stronger ropes and heavier gear is just one more insult we have imposed in the oceanic realm, where it can be all too easy to ignore the impacts. Right whales are in a very real sense a "canary in the coal mine" for understanding what is happening offshore. And we will continue our efforts to work with government and industry to try to find solutions to this complex issue.

If you are interested in reading the recently published paper for more details, it is available for free at the Marine Ecology Progress Series journal.

Amy Knowlton


#24: BOF 2012 By The Numbers

2 months
18 team members
1 house
3 survey boats
20 survey days
of those survey days aborted or cut short due to wind or fog
0 right whale poop samples
known North Atlantic right whale calves born in 2012
1 unique 2012 right whale calf sighted
3 days of mom/calf pair recordings by acoustic team
299 whale calls recorded by acoustic team
20+ dozen eggs eaten by crew
1 bowhead whale
1 orca
2 sperm whales
1 right whale trapped and freed from herring weir
45 unique individual right whales sighted
80 sightings added to the catalog

A short video filmed from the bow of the R/V Nereid, showing the 2011 calf of #1243 breaching in the Bay of Fundy on 21 August 2012.

Compare to BOF 2011 By The Numbers!



#23: One Last Peek at the Bay

We took advantage of fair weather on September 28 to relocate our research vessel to its winter home at James Rich Boatyard in West Tremont, Maine. The good folks there have been taking care of the R/V Nereid since the mid 1990s.  During the off-season, the Nereid will get her usual painting and buffing and as well as a new depth sounder.

The last weekend in Lubec was spent packing up all the research equipment and data. The team headed back to their offices at the Aquarium in Boston on October 1, eager to finish up the season's photo analysis to determine how many individual right whales were accounted for in Fundy. Two of us stayed on for an extra week, hopeful for one more clear day to sneak back out into the Bay to see if there were any lingering right whales. Wednesday, October 3, dawned clear and bright, although with a little more wind than forecast. Amy and Moe borrowed the FRC (Fast Rescue Craft) from the Campobello Whale Rescue Team for one last survey.

Amy (left) and Moe on the 24 foot long FRC Hurricane used by the Campobello Whale Rescue Team to respond to entangled whales in the Bay of Fundy. The sailboat to the left is the Jolly Breeze, a whale watch boat from St. Andrews, NB. Photo: Chris Slay.

Our efforts were rewarded with the sighting of two right whales! The two whales were travelling together, and Amy collected photos before they disappeared from sight.

Two right whales in the Bay of Fundy, October 3, 2012. Photo: Amy Knowlton

Near the end of the day, we joined up with the S/V Jolly Breeze and friend Chris Slay on the R/V Jupiter to enjoy some time with a rare species in the Bay of Fundy, an orca!

Old Thom in the Bay of Fundy. Photo: Amy Knowlton.

This lone male orca has been seen several times in the Bay of Fundy in 2012 and was seen during our surveys of Roseway Basin in August 2010. A male as determined from the large dorsal fin, this whale is identified by the two knicks in its dorsal fin near the top, and is an individual known as "Old Thom." A catalogue of orca sightings in the Atlantic is maintained in St John's Newfoundland. This rare sighting rounded out a season of unusual observations, including a bowhead whale, sperm whales, blue sharks and white beaked dolphins.



#22: Scarred for Life

The Right Whale Research team has been documenting and analyzing fishing gear entanglements and the subsequent effects on health for years. By better understanding how entanglements occur and the serious consequences they have on the population, we can make recommendations for measures that help reduce the risk of entanglement. We hope you will support our work by sponsoring a right whale or making a donation to our program.

On September 24th, two eager crews headed into the Bay of Fundy on the R/V Nereid and R/V Callisto. The last survey we attempted was September 21, but we didn't make it very far before turning back due to strong winds and rough seas. As the Nereid motored along our tracklines, we saw many fin whales (our grand total for the day was 12!) and sighted our first right whale, Catalog #2201, just before 11 AM.

#2201 surfaces with mud on his head after a deep dive that took him to the sea floor. Photo: Monica Zani

An hour and a half later, we came across our second right whale for the day. From a distance, we noticed the color orange on the whale... seeing any color other than black for body, white for cyamids, or brown for mud on a right whale always makes your heart beat a bit faster with concern. As we got closer, our worry was justified- this whale had lots of raw scars on its peduncle and flukes that were covered with orange cyamids. Orange cyamids appear on healthy newborn calves, but if they are copious on an adult, it's likely because the individual is in poor health or is carrying open flesh wounds. The wounds on this whale were consistent with those caused by an entanglement in fishing gear with linear wrapping cuts caused by rope. Presenting a dip in the back right behind the blowholes, it was also visibly thinner than a normal, healthy looking animal.

#3610, with a new scar on the head... Photo: Kelsey Howe

... and a dip in the back behind the blowholes, a sign of blubber depletion. Photo: Kelsey Howe

With choppy seas, it was difficult to get a good look at who this whale could be. Adding to the challenge of matching this whale, this individual had a new scar and heavy cyamid coverage on its head, making the callosity look a little different than normal. This year, our team has been experimenting with a brand new tool: the E-Catalog. The E-Catalog is an exported version of our photo-id database, downloaded as a (very large) file onto a laptop computer that researchers can take with them into the field to help them match individuals in real time. The E-Catalog was programmed by Parallax Consulting, LLC, with funds from NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, and leverages the programming architecture of DIGITS- our matching and data processing software. This is slightly different than the paper Catalog that we normally take with us on the boat, which allows researchers to look up head codes and see composite drawings of individuals. Now with the E-Catalog, we can still search for individuals by using head codes, but we can also input any other features that can help narrow down the search, such as the size of the lip callosities or any identifying scars on the head, body or flukes. In addition to showing the composite drawing, the database also shows select photographs of the whale (called "primary" images, they are the best representative images available, chosen by our team). The E-Catalog is intended to help speed up the process of matching whales in the field, which is especially important if a whale is entangled, injured or sick. Quick matching is also handy for when we need to know if a biopsy sample needs to be collected from a whale before it swims out of sight!

Philip Hamilton uses the E-Catalog to match a whale while in the field.

After trying a few different combinations of head codes with the E-Catalog and comparing the photographs we just took with the primary images, we discovered who this whale was: Catalog #3610. This whale was first observed in January 2006 and is of unknown age. Unfortunately, this is not the first time #3610 has been entangled. First seen carrying gear in September 2006 in the Bay of Fundy, this whale traveled all the way down to the Southeast U.S. where it was seen in January 2007. Much effort was made by several teams to follow the whale, and a disentanglement team made of several members of the Atlantic Large Whale Disentanglement Network worked to make some cuts in the gear and remove as much of it as possible. In April 2007, #3610 was seen again and confirmed to be free of all gear.

After healing from its 2006 entanglement, #3610 had minor scars on the peduncle and flukes
Photo: Jonathan Cunha

The last time #3610 was seen by any observer (that we know of so far) was March 28, 2012 in Massachusetts Bay by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. At that time, the whale did not have any new peduncle scars and was not carrying any fishing gear on its body, so we have some time-frame of when this entanglement occurred.

New wounds on the dorsal body and peduncle of #3610. Photo: Maria Hall

These wounds on #3610 are from fishing gear that wrapped around the peduncle. They will heal into significant scars. Photo: Kelsey Howe

Due to the match, we were able to tell that this whale needed to be biopsy darted. #3610 was difficult to follow because it didn't stay at the surface long and would sometimes travel east, and sometimes north. Deciding that we didn't want to stress the whale any more than needed, we stuck with it for one last surfacing. Even though we had estimated where it would come up fairly well, we were still too distant to collect a sample, and we allowed the whale to continue on its journey into the Bay.

Moira Brown on the bow, ready to biopsy dart #3610.

The good news is that this whale did not appear to be carrying any gear, and now that it is free from whatever was entangling it, it can start to recover. Hopefully, it will be photographed by other research teams over the next several months, which will allow us to study and track the healing process. If we see this individual in the Bay of Fundy next summer, we hope to find it looking fat and with well-healed scars.

We finished out our day with one more right whale sighting around 5 PM- Catalog #3192. The Callisto had a successful day for the season, photographing five individuals. Between the two vessels, we had one duplicate whale, which brought our total to seven unique whales for the day- not a bad tally for our last day on the water of this interesting field season!



#21: Calvineers Educate Downeast Schools about Right Whales!

The CALVIN Project was started eight years ago, with the mission of "Endangered Species Recovery Through Education" and a focus on North Atlantic right whales. Members of The CALVIN Project are called "Calvineers," and consist of 7th and 8th grade student scientists from the Adams School in Castine, Maine. Earlier this year, this amazing group was recognized for their hard work by becoming finalists for Oceana's Ocean Heroes Award!

Calvineer student scientists spend one hour a week in school studying whales and how they relate to the topics they study in science class, ranging from anatomy and physiology to Newton’s laws and the study of sound waves.  They also volunteer an hour after school each week to do a research project of their own on a current topic related to right whales. 

Calvineers doing research on a Thursday afternoon.

Each Calvineer has a scientist mentor from the Right Whale Consortium who they can e-mail with questions and comments about their topics.  Topics being studied include: stress hormones, entanglements, health assessment, ship strikes, necropsies, fishing gear, acoustics, scarring, food, habitat, laws and regulations, ethics and so on.  Each Calvineer produces PowerPoint slides explaining their topic and how it figures into the right whales’ current situation. All the slides are woven together into a PowerPoint presentation that revolves around the life story of the most famous right whale of all, Calvin- Catalog #2223.  Calvin’s life story was chosen as a theme because she has experienced all the joys and pitfalls that the modern right whale faces.  Calvin was present when her mother was killed by a shipstrike, and Calvin herself was once severely entangled.  Calvin has also spent many tranquil seasons in the Gulf of Maine and has given birth to two calves.  She knows what it is to be a modern right whale in an urban ocean.

Calvin, the most famous right whale of all! Photo: Kara Mahoney Robinson

The student scientists do the PowerPoint presentation themselves. Each Calvineer talks about her/his research as their slides are displayed.  The talk is informative with many details about the whales, the scientists and the regulations in place.  The presentation ends with a message from Calvin herself and suggestions of ways the average person can help right whales recover from being endangered.

These students never miss an opportunity to educate people about right whales. So, when a teacher from Whiting School in Maine dropped by the Research Station in Lubec one day and inquired about a presentation for her students about right whales, the request was immediately passed on to me since I was volunteering at the station and, more importantly, I am the Principal Investigator (PI) for The CALVIN Project.  Soon an all-day trip to Lubec area was planned for the Calvineers so they could present their story about right whales to students at the Whiting School, Lubec School, and the Edmunds Schools too!

On Monday, September 24th, twelve Calvineers piled into two mini-vans and a truck at 7:00 AM.  In the bed of the truck was a 7-foot model of a right whale based on the necropsy data from Calvin’s mother, Delilah (Catalog #1223). The model is one-seventh the size of Delilah, who was 49 feet long! The two and a half hour drive to Lubec from Castine went fast, as the students entertained themselves with word games and road games. A few read over their notes to be sure they were prepared for the presentations.

Calvin's 1/7th model is loaded into the truck.

The Calvineers arrived at the Lubec School in plenty of time to set up. Grades 3-8 came to the presentation- about 45 students and teachers in all!  Two right whale scientists working at the NEA Research Station, Grace Conger and Dan Pendleton, along with Claudia Pendleton, the cook from the Research Station, also sat in.  The other research scientists would have loved to join, but they were braving the seas on their boat, looking for right whales!

Presenting at the Lubec School.

After the presentation, the Calvineers fielded questions from the crowd.  Some of the best were: “Why are they named right whales?”; “How old do they live?”; and “What kind of teeth do right whales have?”  The Calvineers sometimes do not know the answers to questions but are quick to turn the question over to their PI or other scientists in the crowd.  At this presentation, someone asked if right whales are in the Gulf of Mexico (because they wondered if the oil pollution affected them.)  Hanna said only one or two right whales were ever documented in the Gulf of Mexico but she did not know which whale it was. NOAA scientist Grace Conger informed the crowd that the whale was Derecha, Catalog #2360.  Derecha is actually one of the whales referred to in the PowerPoint, so we all learned something new that day!

Our audience at the Lubec School.

The Lubec School gave the Calvineers a free lunch (they still do exist!), and then they were off to the town of Whiting for their second presentation. The Whiting School of 30 K-8 students was joined by about 50 5th-8th grade students from the nearby Edmunds School. The second presentation was as good as the first and the students had even more questions for the Calvineers! 

The Calvineers answer questions from students from Whiting and Edmunds Schools.

After 20 minutes of Q&A, the Calvineers ended with a slide that listed what people could do to help right whales. Here is a brief list of some things that you can do to help right whales:
Just because the presentations were done, however, the day was not over for the Calvineers! We took advantage of the fact that we were near the Eastern-Most Point in the United States- West Quoddy HeadThey visited the lighthouse there, and afterwards explored the small waterfront town of Lubec, watching scores of seals feeding in the strong currents while collecting in the littoral zone between the 20-foot tidal range.  

Exploring West Quoddy Head.

The Calvineers found their way to the New England Aquarium Right Whale Research Station, got a tour, and played various forms of tag in the large backyard. At five o’clock sharp, the dinner bell rang and the Calvineers settled in at the very table the NEA researchers do every evening- there was plenty of room for all fifteen of us! Claudia had cooked up the dish the Calvineers had voted on: Macaroni and Cheese. But this wasn't just any kind of Mac and Cheese- it was Claudia’s special creation, and so the two large baking dishes disappeared in no time.  Along with the homemade garlic bread and fresh salad, it was quite a meal. Two Calvineers cleaned the table and loaded the dishwasher just like the scientists do. The final touch has become a tradition for Calvineers (Editor's note: and for the lucky researchers too, when we're fortunate enough to have Bill visit!): the PI passed out delicious, homemade peanut butter cups to all to signal yet another “job well done” on their part.

Eating dinner at the NEA Research Station.

The Calvineers were on their way back to Castine by 6 PM and were all delivered to their respective homes around 9 PM.  It was another long day for the Calvineers but they all could go to sleep knowing they had reached another 100 people, and perhaps that might be the tipping point that gets right whales off the endangered species list.


#20: Where have you been and where are you headed?

Have you ever stood on a shoreline, seen a large ship and wondered where they are departing from and where they are headed?  The Automatic Identification System (AIS) is an automatic tracking system used by certain classes of ships for identifying and determining the location of vessels electronically. Data is exchanged with nearby ships and AIS base stations. AIS information supplements the mariners radar, which continues to be the primary method of collision avoidance for mariners. The carriage requirements for vessels is set by the International Maritime Organization, and they require AIS to be fitted aboard international voyaging ships of 300 gross tonage or more and all passenger ships regardless of size.

AIS has proven to be very useful in marine mammal studies. In the right whale world, AIS tracks were used to see how ships were moving around the Roseway Basin Area to be Avoided, an area off Nova Scotia where right whales tend to aggregate. AIS data is also used along the eastern seaboard of the U.S., where seasonal speed restrictions are in place  to help reduce the risk of ship strike to the whales in the right whale calving ground in the southeast U.S., along their migratory corridor in the mid Atlantic, and in feeding areas around Cape Cod . The data allows researchers and the federal government to see which vessels are going "over the speed-limit" and the ships can be fined based on this evidence. In January 2012, NOAA penalized three vessels who violated this law.

In the Grand Manan Channel. September 24, 2012. Photo: Moira Brown

Follow this link to find your location and see what ships are travelling by you! Click on vessel details to learn more about the ship, wind speed, wind direction and air temperature. On our small research vessel Nereid, we have an AIS receiver integrated with our GPS navigation unit and marine radio. When we steer out across the Grand Manan Channel, we can look at the radio screen and determine if there are any large ships operating in our area.  The information provided includes distance to the transmitting vessel, the vessel's heading and speed, and the distance and time to the closest point of approach. This really enhances our safety especially when navigating the Bay of Fundy in fog!