#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...

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