#3: Testing out the waters

Despite the forecast of a busy field season complete with five research projects, the first few days here in the Whale House were fairly calm and quiet! Eight researchers gathered to refresh their memories on protocols and equipment as the last of the house cleaning tasks were completed (how does a house that hasn't been occupied for 10 months get so dirty?!). Knowing that we all arrived with the itch to get out on the water, Philip (our captain for the week) had been keeping an eye on the weather for our first survey. After three days of thick fog and occasional rain, August 4 promised us a clearing into the Bay of Fundy, and so we all went to sleep on Saturday with hopes of waking up to the absence of the fog horn.

5 AM sure can roll around quickly! After consuming necessary cups of coffee and loading equipment onto the Nereid, the team got off the dock around 6:15 AM. We crossed the Grand Manan Channel with a few sightings of harbor porpoise and sighted some whale blows well in the distance. As we passed North Head on Grand Manan Island, the blows revealed a few fin whales, and so we continued to head east. After several hours of survey and many more harbor porpoise later, we came across a large ocean sunfish (Mola mola) and got to spend a few minutes in close proximity to the heaviest bony fish in the sea!

A close approach by the first mola of the season! Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Ocean sunfish don't look like your typical fish- they have no real tail, small pectoral fins, and large, extended dorsal and anal fins. We often see these intriguing fish during our surveys, and because they use their long fins instead of a tail to move, observing their unusual way of moving never gets old! When basking at the surface, the dorsal fin breaks the surface of the water and can initially look like a shark's fin. After a few seconds, the fin (and so the fish itself) will lay horizontally against the water until it rises vertically again. Even though this is normal for them, to us, it makes the ocean sunfish look like a wobbling, struggling pancake at the surface. Combined with its small rounded mouth, the sunfish has unknowingly become a source of amusement for the team (I don't feel too badly admitting this, since even mola researchers have referred to their subject as "goofy" and "the Eeyore of the fish world"). However, these fish are fascinating creatures in so many ways and like the right whale, hold many mysteries that scientists are still trying to solve! Check out this underwater video from Smithsonian Magazine to experience the ocean sunfish in its habitat:

We didn't know it at the time, but the close encounter with the ocean sunfish would turn out to be the one of the main highlights of our first survey! After miles of trackline we did encounter a couple more fin whales, but that species were the only large whale we sighted. We decided to head north towards the Wolves islands so that we could squeeze in a little more survey before the seas became too rough—with the wind kicking up and the tide running strong, our sea state was rapidly increasing. Once the Nereid had become a little too "bouncy" and our observers on the bow got their feet more than just metaphorically wet, we chose to end the survey. Although we didn't sight any right whales, we had a great trip that let us work out some kinks and get back into the swing of things. And when we do come across our first right whales, it will make those sightings even sweeter!


Check out previous mola mola sightings!

1 comment:

  1. Wow! That is awesome. I wish i could also have close encounters with them. You may not able to have a close encounter with the whales but this is just as awesome. Here's hoping that you will finally get to encounter them the next time. I enjoyed the video.

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