Yet, those kind of seas don't just provide uncomfortable working conditions—they also make it extremely difficult to find and follow whales: the revealing blow of a whale gets pushed down by strong wind and dissipates more quickly (making it hard to see in the first place, but it also increases the difficulty of identifying the species); blows and body parts can be hidden in the trough of the waves; white water from a surfacing whale can blend in with the crests of the waves. We had our work cut out for us!
|We categorized this sea state as "big."|
On our first full survey day, our search in a sea state 7 turned up some dolphins and one unidentified large whale—not exactly how you want to start your research cruise. But our second day seemed more promising; around 11am, we sighted a right whale and decided to follow it. Our plan was to see if it would start feeding, at which point the WHOI team would collect samples to see what it was eating. Over the next several hours, the sea state worsened and the travelling whale always seemed to be out of our reach. Even though the whale did not appear to be feeding, the WHOI team conducted four sampling stations along the way so that they would have some data collected near a right whale. Unable to collect useful photographs by the time the sun set, we had to call it a day.
|A fun game, like "Where's Waldo?" Can you find the right whale? Hint: look in the center!|
Suddenly our last survey day was upon us, and we needed it to be a good one! With calmer seas, sighting conditions were favorable, and around 10 am the observers spotted two right whales!
|Catalog # 3611 makes an appearance. Photo: Tracy Montgomery|
|Catalog #3611 and #3803 at the surface. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom|
As we followed these two whales, we noticed a couple of other right whales in the distance, but we were unable to get close to them. After the WHOI team collected some samples, we motored in the direction of a breaching right whale on the horizon. As we neared where it was last sighted, a right whale breached again, and then began lobtailing—lifting the muscular peduncle and fluke out of the water and slapping it against the surface! It was soon joined by a second right whale, and they engaged in a surface active group (SAG) for over one hour! We were again able to photograph these two whales, and identified them as #3620, a six year-old male, and #3460, an eight year-old male. A third right whale fluked nearby, but it didn't join the SAG. As darkness fell upon us, we said farewell to the pair and all the other right whales that we knew were in the area but were unable to document.
|Catalog #3460 and #3620 surfacing together. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom|
Our trip into the Outer Fall made it clear why this area is so difficult to survey; our right whale sightings shows us that this area is still promising to be an important winter habitat. While we didn't witness any large aggregations, our survey was early in the winter and the water temperature was relatively warm, so perhaps we were in the right place but at the wrong time. Our team is determined to continue to find inventive ways to brave the winter seas in our quest to learn more about this potential mating ground, so hopefully you'll hear about more adventures like these in the future!