#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

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