#20: When It Rains, It Pours

There is nothing quite like falling asleep to whale blows and then waking up to them in the morning. We had an amazing second day out on Roseway Basin and our third started out with dozens of scattered whales all around us. Some appeared to be feeding, so we spent the morning bouncing back and forth documenting as many whales as we could. We finally got back on our trackline just before noon, only to veer off of it soon after with more whale sightings. At one point we picked up two whales rolling around with each other, who we later identified as Catalog #3893 (a six-year old female) and #3570(a nine-year old male).  They were fairly preoccupied, so we were able to get a good close approach.

Catalog #3570 riding on the back of #3893.  Photo by Jessica Taylor.

Not long after we snapped some shots of our two SAG-ing whales, we picked up a sighting that every whale researcher dreads: an entangled right whale. We tracked along with Catalog #3946 (a four-year old female) for the majority of the afternoon, with a handful of disentanglement attempts. Another blog will be posted in the next few days with more details on the entire disentanglement effort and the whale at the center of all the attention.

Our first sighting of Catalog #3946's current entanglement.  Photo by Kelsey Howe. 

In the early evening we came upon a mom/calf pair!  This was really exciting since only two out of the 20 calves born in 2013 have been photographed since the spring in Cape Cod Bay, plus mom/calf pairs are an uncommon find in Roseway Basin. We identified the mom as Catspaw (#1632) and calf, the former of which has a unique sighting history. 

Catspaw with her plump 2013 calf in the foreground.  Photo by Jessica Taylor. 

Catspaw was first seen in 1986, but then went 12 years without a sighting from 1988 to 2000, so she was presumed dead for the majority of the 90s before being “resurrected” in 2000.  If a right whale has not been seen in six years, it is presumed dead until it is resighted alive or matched to a carcass. Every once and awhile these “presumed dead” whales reappear and with much glee are given the fitting status of being “resurrected.”  Since 2000, Catspaw has had three calves, with her current calf raising that count to four.  Her second calf (Resolution, #3532) was the first ever documented right whale birth, which happened to be photographed by our aerial survey team off of Florida back in 2005. It is also interesting to note that Catspaw is not a regular visitor to the Bay of Fundy (BOF), except during her calving years. Perhaps the lack of food in BOF this season has drawn her to other feeding grounds, which makes sense considering her calf is plump and sporting an incredibly large fat roll behind its head.    

After a long day of working whales plus some weird lighting, the calf looked a bit strange on our first approach.  Photo by Kelsey Howe 

The bizarre looking hump on the calf's back is actually a good thing!  Photo by Jessica Taylor 

To top off our unique and busy day, our last sighting before sunset was a blue whale. Since our crew does not normally encounter blue whales in BOF or Roseway, it took us a few surfacings to correctly ID the species. Blue whales are the largest known animal to have ever existed, measuring about 100 ft for an adult. We were able to identify the species by its small dorsal fin, which is located so far back that it was only visible when the whale fluked during a terminal dive. When we got back on land, we sent photos of this individual to Richard Sears of the Mingan Island Cetacean Study, an organization known for their long-term studies of blue whales. Richard was able to match this whale to a cataloged adult female of about 70 ft in length, who has been seen foraging in regions south of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (including a 2006 sighting in BOF), which are the typical stomping grounds of northeastern Atlantic blue whales.

Notice the tiny dorsal fin just before the peduncle.  The notch in the peduncle helped identify this particular female.  Photo by Kelsey Howe 

By the time the sun set in the west, we were exhausted, yet exhilarated by our day full of whales. We ended up photographing 20 right whales, with many more in the area (undocumented because our priority in the afternoon became the entangled whale.) In the last two days out on Roseway, we more than quadrupled our right whale count for the entire season, which is pretty cool.  

Stay tuned for our third blog from this Roseway trip to learn about entangled whale #3946 and our disentanglement efforts.



#19: A Cornucopia of Whales

Knowing that our weather window for our third offshore trip was one to be grasped quickly, the Shelagh team left the dock in Campobello Island around midnight on Tuesday, September 17 and transited across the Bay of Fundy overnight. When our team of five researchers awoke for sunrise on Wednesday, we were close to German Bank, southwest of Yarmouth, N.S. Our first day of survey passed by quietly, as the only large whales we sighted were three humpbacks and three fins. As we neared the southwest corner of our survey box for Roseway Basin, the sun had neared the horizon, and we left ourselves to drift under the brilliant Harvest Moon as we rotated through night watches.

#1239 was our first right whale for this Shelagh trip. Photo: Moira Brown

On Thursday morning, we motored the short distance back to where we ended watch on Wednesday evening. Just before 9:00 AM, we photographed one right whale that we identified as Catalog #1239, but another three hours passed until our next right whale sighting. Our excitement grew as we monitored our position- we were nearing the "honey hole" of Roseway Basin, which has historically held high numbers of right whale sightings. It took us another five and a half hours of patient surveying until we finally found that pot of honey, but never has a horizon full of right whale blows been so sweet.

Approaching the SAG. Photo: Kelsey Howe

We got right down to business with a surface active group (SAG) of 10-15 individuals, and at the center of attention was Phoenix (Catalog #1705). Phoenix is so-named because of her recovery from entanglements, and is a successful reproductive female who has birthed four calves, an inspiring story that makes her a fitting whale for our sponsorship program. Her most recent calf was born just last year, which is potentially why she appeared to be grey and have poor skin condition- nursing a calf for months while the mother herself fasts drains her resources. After weaning the calf, there is usually at least one year of "resting," and ideally during this time period the female will regain blubber reserves and a better body condition before becoming pregnant again. The whales did appear to be feeding, so hopefully Phoenix was also finding plenty to eat.

Phoenix, on the left. Photo: Kelsey Howe

A plankton tow in the evening revealed lots in the water column! 

We stayed with the SAG until it broke up about half an hour later, and then moved around to try to document other whales in the area that we hadn't already captured in our data. There were whales in all directions and distances, and we worked until the light was so low that we couldn't photograph anymore.

Fluking in the sunset. Photo: Jessica Taylor

Even though our cameras were put away, we stayed on deck to listen to the whales that were blowing around us. We felt so lucky to be watching right whales off the starboard, fluking in an orange sunset under Venus and Saturn, while off the port side, whales swam under the full moon and Uranus.

A beautiful way to reflect on our successful day! Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

We slept well that night, and it was a good thing, too. The following day would turn out to be our busiest day of the year—possibly our busiest day of the past two seasons! We'll be following up with all the details soon...


#18: Soccer Shenanigans

When weather keeps us on land and the lack of whales/internet problems frustrate us to no end, all that pent up energy needs to go somewhere; therefore, a common August pastime is a good, friendly game of soccer to liven up Lubec life.  Soccer captain and "professional" player Philip Hamilton will rally the troops (sometimes a group as small as 4 or as large as 14), and we will all head over to the high school soccer field.  

Photo by Bill McWeeny

We improvise a bit without proper goals (water bottles for goal posts) or sidelines (no out-of-bounds), but that is all part of the fun! We regard rules more as guidelines (we are scientists after all!), so usually halfway into the game, certain people start using tactics more commonly witnessed during a game of rugby, hockey or wrestling.  But major injuries are few and far between, so fun is had by all.  

Photos by Bill McWeeny

During the last week of August, when several families of team members were in town visiting, we marched over to the field and had a great game that was generously photographed by Bill McWeeny.  We thought you all might enjoy a look at what we do to keep spirits up and laughter plentiful.  

Photo by Bill McWeeny



#17: Battling the Weather

The month of September brings a minuscule amount of good weather for vessel surveys, so whenever we are presented with the opportunity to log some hours on the water, we take it! Our teams set out on both Saturday and Sunday for partial survey days, running as long as we could until the winds made the seas unworkable. If the amount of hope and eagerness our teams hold could drive right whales into the Bay, we'd be up to our ears in sightings. Unfortunately, like the good weather days, right whale numbers continue to be minuscule, as we did not have any sightings this weekend to boost our current tally (by our team: seven sightings in the Bay of Fundy, an additional four on Roseway Basin).

We did, however, observe a sperm whale on both Satuday and Sunday, and we listened to its clicking using our hydrophone. This was the first sighting by the team for the season, but we had heard reports of a sperm whale in the Bay earlier this August. This marks the fourth year in a row that at least one sperm whale has been seen in the area.

Odd wounds. Photo: Johanna Anderson

Humpbacks were also spotted this weekend, and we were able to photograph one large humpback with some very peculiar wounds on its body. We'll be sending the images to an expert and the curators of the Humpback Catalog, who may have an idea of who this whale is and how it got these markings.

From Canadaolympic989 at en.wikipedia, released under the GNU Free Documentation License.

On Wednesday, the Shelagh will once again make its way offshore with five researchers and Captain Joe. This trip will take us to the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, Roseway Basin, Browns Bank and perhaps even the Northeast Channel- the survey plans are likely to change with the weather. The Shelagh will probably hove to at sea most nights, but dock in Yarmouth or Cape Sable Island, N.S. when needed, and be away for 6-10 days. Hopefully the weather will cooperate as best as possible- we're all interested to see what's out there!



#16: Back to School- Of Sorts

We are approaching that time of year when the long days of summer wind down and we begin to think about getting back to the old routines, and as it turns out, we are not the only ones doing so.

It is at this time of year that many North Atlantic right whales begin to think about migrating south, especially pregnant females who will head to waters off of the Southeast U.S. to give birth in late fall and early winter. And in this unusual year with right whales exploring different habitats, we're not sure where they'll show up, but it's likely that many will be within 50 miles of the East Coast.

The eastern seaboard of the U.S. and Canada is host to some of the highest levels of shipping traffic worldwide. Add to that  the number of commercial fishing nets and traps along the coast, and you can see it can be quite the perilous trip for these whales. As a matter of fact, collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear are the leading causes of mortality in the right whale population. Keeping right whales out of harm's way as they move through these busy coastal areas is analogous to children crossing streets to get to school after a carefree summer, and there can be cause for concern.

Right whale mom #3513 and her calf on August 20, 2013 in the Bay of Fundy. 
Photo: Joy Hampp

We've been working hard to find ways to minimize there risks to right whales by working together with the shipping industry to shift shipping lanes and lower ship speeds in the critical habitats, launching acoustic buoys that can detect whales and warn ships of their presence, and devising new types of fishing gear that could reduce or even prevent entanglements. These programs have shown both success and great promise.

With support of our corporate, foundation, government partners and individuals who have stepped forward to sponsor a whale, we are confident that with time, the yearly migration of the right whale will be as safe for them as heading back to school is for our children. Without the need for crossing guards!

Click here to sponsor a right whale and support our research!


#15: Right Whales Aren't Mythical Creatures

Last Friday, our team of eight decided to divide and conquer for the first weather window we'd had in days. The Shelagh was sent offshore with four researchers to survey the Grand Manan Banks, Lurcher Shoal, and the southwestern coast of Nova Scotia, for what would have been a two day survey. Unfortunately by the end of Friday they had not encountered any right whales, and an already rough sea state with a worsening forecast caused the Shelagh to head back to home port late Friday night. They returned to the Lubec house in the early hours of Saturday morning, exhausted and a bit battered...but negative data is still worthwhile data (at least that's what we say to make ourselves feel better), so their survey effort adds another important piece to this season’s puzzle. 

Meanwhile, back in the Bay of Fundy, the remaining four team members took the R/V Nereid out for a spin. It started off as any other survey this season: early and with a healthy amount of cautious optimism. We had just reached the northern portion of our tracklines when we received a radio call from the R/V Euchaeta (used by basking shark researchers with the Grand Manan Research Station) with news that garnered raucous cheering from our boat: the Euchaeta was about six miles southeast of us with at least three right whales!  

The Nereid motored in that direction as quickly as we could (while maintaining proper surveying speed, naturally), and more cheering occurred when the first v-shaped blow of a right whale was spotted. At the surface were two right whales traveling together, with a single whale not too far off. The pair of whales included Manta (Catalog #1507) and Tux (#3401), 28 year-old and 9 year-old males, respectively.  

Our first September whale!  Photo: Kelsey Howe

Over the last three decades, Manta has been seen often in the Bay of Fundy and Cape Cod Bay, and was one of the handfuls of whales we photographed during our field season last year.  

Fun fact: Tux was named for his white belly pattern with black “buttons.”  
Photo: Johanna Anderson

The third whale proved to be an important sighting; Kingfisher (#3346) is a 10 year-old male, who was severely entangled in fishing gear at the young age of one. A disentanglement attempt soon after he was first sighted with gear in 2004 eventually helped him shed the majority of it, yet a wrap of multiple lines still remains around his right flipper. Over the past nine years he has been seen regularly, and assessments from these sightings show that his health is not in decline. Due to his stable health condition and the tricky location of the entanglement, he has been downgraded to "monitor" status (entangled, but not life-threatening). During our observation, Kingfisher wasn't spending time at the surface and the wind has started to pick up, so conditions wouldn't have been favorable for a disentanglement attempt anyway. However, we made sure to collect plenty of photographs so that his current body condition and health can be evaluated. From our perspective on the boat he seemed in good condition, which is impressive considering his entanglement case is the longest on record for any whale in the North Atlantic. 

Kingfisher surfaces from the deep. Photo: Kelsey Howe

It was great to have documented these three whales since they appeared to be traveling south out of the Bay (even against the tide), so the chances are slim that we will see them again this season. By 2:00 PM, we hadn't come across any other right whales, and our sea state had deteriorated to where it would be nearly impossible to photograph whales if we did find them, so we decided to head for home. It was a long, wet and sloppy two-hour slog back to Lubec, but despite all of that, we were in a good mood. Working a handful of whales during a sparse field season feels a bit like hitting the jackpot. Plus, it is always comforting to know that our study species still exists!

Kingfisher lifts his flukes high for a terminal dive. Photo: Johanna Anderson

- Kelsey


#14: From Marineland to Lubec

As a first-timer here at the Lubec Field Station, I have a different perspective on this mystifying season. My background includes 13 winter (December to March) field seasons in the right whale calving grounds of the Southeast U.S. (SEUS), observing right whales from the shoreline and from the air. As program coordinator for the Marineland Right Whale Project, sponsored by Associated Scientists at Woods Hole, I work with 200+ citizen scientist volunteers who conduct shoreline surveys from St. Augustine to Daytona Beach in NE Florida.

Marineland Right Whale Project scientists and volunteers follow a right whale mother and calf 
to collect data and photographs as they swim along the shore near the Town of Marineland
Photo by: Sue Osborne, Marineland Right Whale Project
The Project also uses an Air Cam for right whale aerial surveys. The completely open cockpit, slow-flight characteristics, and quiet twin-engine operation make it ideal for nearshore documentation of right whales and their calves. I was hooked on my first flight in 2002 and earned my pilot's license that year, solely to fly the Project's Air Cam. My aerial survey experience also extends to three seasons of flights in the Northeast, from Long Island, NY to Halifax, Nova Scotia, as an observer for the National Marine Fisheries Services' Atlantic Marine Assessment Program for Protected Species (AMAPPS).

The Air Cam flying a right whale survey off Flagler Beach, Florida. The pilot is in front and the observer/photographer 
in back, both wearing exposure/flotation suits to stay warm and for overwater safety. 
Photo by: Jim Hain, Associated Scientists at Woods Hole
Thus, I arrived in Lubec at the beginning of August with lots of whale and dolphin exposure, but very little of it from a boat. The prospect of encountering dozens of right whales in a single day also figured to be a novel experience for me. The section of Florida coastline we survey in the winter is in the southern end of the SEUS right whale critical habitat, where we average 30+ right whale sightings for the entire season. Surveying for hours without seeing right whales is a common occurrence. Rather than be disappointed with the absence of right whales in the Bay of Fundy, I am thoroughly enjoying the opportunity to absorb the beauty of this body of water at a leisurely 12 knots, Nereid survey speed. It's my first time to see fin, humpback, and minke whales up close, to hear the powerful whoosh of their blows, to watch fifty white-sided dolphins leaping and splashing around us, and to meet scores of seabirds, including the iconic puffin, who make this place their summer home.
Even the wind, rain, and fog that have kept us in Lubec contain an upside, giving me time in the office to improve my understanding of how right whales photographed all along the Atlantic Coast are identified by matching them to whales already in the catalog using the DIGITS program. Since I prepare and submit the data and photographs from the Marineland Project's winter sightings, this gives me a much clearer understanding of the process and the value of this remarkable, collaborative database. Regardless of whether right whales appear in my remaining time here or not, the six weeks I will have spent in this alluring part of the world will benefit the collaboration between our programs and the data we share and, certainly, provide superb, lasting memories. 

-Joy Hampp


#13: Tales of Life Offshore

Today, a team of four researchers depart on the Shelagh for a two day survey offshore. In the past couple of weeks, we’ve posted a few blogs about where the first Shelagh crew surveyed and what we encountered along the way, but there is a whole other aspect that we haven’t covered yet.  In the best possible way, offshore life is simplistic.  The everyday distractions are nonexistent and you live by the rules of the sun, wind, and sea.  

It doesn't get any better than this.  Photo: Philip Hamilton

On a typical day, our trusty Captain Joe would be up by 0530(L) to navigate the boat towards our starting waypoint (wherever we left off the night before).  Our first watch of two observers and one recorder would start working by 0700(L), once there was enough daylight to effectively survey.  Then our research team of five would rotate through the three “on-watch” positions every hour throughout the day.  Once we picked up whales, it was all hands on deck for proper photo and data collection.  But if you were off watch without whales around (which, unfortunately, was more frequent than not), then the the hour was your own to entertain yourself on a 45 foot boat; therefore, the most common activities were eating, napping, or reading.

 Off-watch activities were riveting. Photo: Bill McWeeny

Making lunch. Photo: Philip Hamilton

We would maintain this rotating watch schedule until around 2000(L), when the light would get too low to properly survey.  After shutting down the engine and hoving to for the night, part of the crew would prepare dinner (often a delicious, pre-made casserole dish), while the rest would organize the data and download photos.  

Working so hard, even the beautiful sunset cannot distract us! Photo: Philip Hamilton

After dinner, the night watch would begin at 2200(L). We would rotate every hour and a half to keep an eye on the radar for passing ships. This wasn’t really an issue until our final night when we hoved to near the entrance of the Grand Manan Channel.  Let’s just say that certain shifts that evening were more exciting/nerve racking than others, as several ships passed within a quarter of a mile of the Shelagh! In the morning, we’d wake up and do our survey rotation all over again.

To some, this scheduled life may seem mundane, but with a great crew and beautiful weather, we kept ourselves entertained with homemade music videos, stories, and loads of good humor. Once you get into the groove of things, there is really nothing quite like starting and ending your day with brilliant sunrises and sunsets, all with the hope that sometime in between, our seemingly elusive right whales would grace us with their presence. We're hoping that this second Shelagh trip is as successful as ours, but with even more right whale sightings!

Sunrise watch. Photo: Bill McWeeny
- Kelsey


#12: A Dance with Dolphins

During our six days offshore in August, we surveyed the Grand Manan Banks, Lurcher Shoal, Roseway Basin, and part of Brown's Bank. That's a lot of ocean, and we certainly had plenty of sightings to keep us on our toes! Over the course of those six days, we counted 27 ocean sunfish, 6 basking sharks, and 36 leatherback turtles! Personally, I was very excited to see leatherbacks. I've watched these huge turtles haul themselves out of the Caribbean Sea to lay their eggs at Sandy Point Refuge, located on the island of St. Croix, USVI. The mortality rate of hatchlings and juveniles is very high, but even the small possibility that one of the leatherbacks I was seeing on Roseway had been born from one of the clutches laid on St. Croix was very exciting to me.

A leatherback surfaces for a breath. Photo: Kelsey Howe

Aside from our four right whales, other large whales did make an appearance. We counted 4 fin whales, 11 sei whales, 15 humpback whales, and 19 minke whales. We tried to photograph as many humpback whales as we could, as we submit them to a humpback whale catalog for identification.

A humpback goes down for a dive. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Another exciting sighting was a small group of about 7-10 pilot whales (commonly known as "blackfish") that passed right by the Shelagh. Their large, broad dorsal fins and bulbous heads were what initially distinguished them, but another unique identifying feature were their flukes, which were raised before disappearing on a long dive. Their flukes looked so small and dainty in comparison to the rest of their bodies!

A typical pilot whale dive depth is 30-60 m, but they are capable of diving to at least 600 m! Photos: Amy Knowlton

We had our fair share of dolphins and porpoise as well; approximately 122 white-sided dolphins, 151 common dolphins, and 310 harbor porpoise! The most thrilling dolphin interaction I've ever had occurred on this trip- three common dolphins bow riding the Shelagh, right under our feet as we stood on the bowsprit!

Common dolphins bow riding. Photos: Marianna Hagbloom

At some moments, they chose to coordinate their movements, and they would dance back and forth across the bow of the boat, zigging and zagging in sync with each other. Other times, they expressed their individuality by swimming away to leap out of the water, or (my favorite) swimming upside down. It was exhilarating to watch how effortlessly they moved, and to see these wild animals having fun!

Oh, you know. Just swimming upside down. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

We were able to document this behavior on film (courtesy of Philip Hamilton):

While observing these dolphins swimming below us, we noticed that they would occasionally turn on their sides. In this position, they seemed to be purposefully looking at us. Could they recognize us as living beings, separate from the vessel? I like to think so.

What are you thinking?? Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

After a good 15-20 minutes, the three dolphins started swimming further away from the boat, and before we knew it, they were gone. Right before they disappeared, I heard a high-pitched whistle from one of the dolphins. I had never heard dolphins communicating unless there was a hydrophone involved, so I wasn't sure if I was just imagining things, but I later read that it is possible to hear common dolphins above the surface (listen to two examples here!)! The next morning while I was laying in my bunk, I even heard some whistles through the hull of the boat! So while we didn't have the right whale sightings we were hoping for, we all came away with a greater sense of awe and curiosity about the ocean, both of which researchers in our line of work can never have too much of.



#11: A Little Help From Iceland...

As we've mentioned in earlier posts, the right whale sightings have been few and far between this past August, so we've begun to ask for help in looking for them.

Photo: New England Aquarium

We recently reached out to the University-National Oceanographic Laboratory System (UNOLS), a consortium of academic institutions and national laboratories involved in oceanographic research, and were put in touch with their research vessels operating in the North Atlantic. One of those ships, the R/V Marcus G. Langseth, is working south of Iceland, and their science team has enthusiastically embraced the effort of keeping a lookout for right whales! In fact, Langseth team member Jóhannes Jóhannesson wrote a blog post describing their new search for our missing whales- check it out here! Thanks again to Jóhannes and the rest of the team for helping to expand the search for right whales!

We plan to contact other UNOLS ships in the near future and hope that right whale sightings come pouring in from these areas that aren't typically surveyed!