#21: Roseway by Air

With the Bay of Fundy season coming to an end, we were all excited at the prospect of a final chance to see if anything had changed while we were waiting on land for the weather to cooperate. While the Shelagh crew was making plans to check out the Bay, the main cause for excitement was the promise of a long-awaited aerial survey, as the stars of weather, airplane and crew had finally aligned: we were going to see Roseway Basin from the air! The plane we used is a Cessna Skymaster O-2A - a military plane with a push-pull configuration that has seen some action in times of war, and such a cool looking aircraft that enthusiasts always comment on it!

Our plane in the hangar in Yarmouth, N.S.

Preparing for an aerial survey is much more complicated than preparing for a vessel survey, but once the team was given the green light, things swung into action quickly. Two NEAq observers- Orla and myself- met up with our two pilots, Dan and Don, in Bar Harbor ME on the evening of Friday, September 27. The plan would be to survey on Saturday, sleep in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia that night, survey on Sunday and then head back to Bar Harbor.

Conducting a survey from a plane is different from a boat in many ways. The plane is small and holds four people- there's only so many ways you can shift your body. Everyone in the plane has passed a ditch training course so that you know what to do in case of an emergency landing (and because of the water temperature during these flights, we wore an immersion flight suit and a life vest the entire time, adding to the difficulty of getting comfortable). We flew at 1000 feet in the air, and were shuttled around at 100 knots as opposed to 12 knots at sea level, so we needed to make a species count and identification quickly. Photographing from the plane is also a challenge- the pilot opens their window, banks the plane hard as you aim the heavy, long lens through the space, and there's about 10 seconds to get your shot before you've passed the target. But, there are plenty of perks to seeing the ocean from the air- covering a huge amount of ground in a short amount of time, observing behaviors without influencing the animal, and seeing all those creatures under the surface that you have a slim chance of seeing from a boat. Aerial photographs of whales are an important part of our research as well, since they offer a complete view of the animal's body.

The tape on the strut aids in measuring distance (miles) to the sighting.

As the morning sun peeked over the horizon on Saturday, we made our way to the airport near Bar Harbor. Our plane was pulled out of the hangar and our preparations for the flight began. The first leg of our trip would involve setting up to survey- flying to Yarmouth to fuel the plane, clearing with customs, and relaying our flight plans to the FAA and MAFF. We took off around 8 AM and got beautiful views of Mount Desert Island and the surrounding islands before continuing over the Gulf of Maine.

Dan and Don at the controls as we fly over Mount Desert Island.

After landing in Yarmouth, we had to rearrange some equipment. The airport staff was incredibly kind and welcoming, and let us safely store our personal gear that was unnecessary for the flight. With our plane fueled up, we got into the air to begin our tracklines west of Nova Scotia, covering Grand Manan Banks and Lurcher Shoal. Before we even began our first trackline, Orla sighted two right whales- Van Halen (Catalog #1146, seen on Roseway Basin earlier this season) and Marble (#2602)- engaged in a surface active group (SAG). We circled over them and were able to photograph these two older males socializing in the calm sea. 

Van Halen taking a breath while Marble rolls at the surface. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

A few minutes after we left the two right whales, a third right whale was sighted swimming under the surface, but we were unable to photograph it because it was difficult to resight and we couldn't invest much time looking for it- with our survey starting off with a bang, we would surely come across other whales to photograph. Yet, by the end of our second trackline (each trackline was 70 nautical miles long!), we had not come across any other right whales. We landed for lunch and fuel, and were back up in the air in under an hour. After completing two more long tracklines, we hadn't added any other rights whales to our sighting log. Feeling good about the amount of ground we had covered, we landed in Yarmouth, got a taxi to our hotel, ate dinner and worked on the data we had collected.

On Sunday morning with another early departure planned, our taxi driver was kind enough to make a stop vital to the success of our survey: Tim Horton's for coffee! With the plane and ourselves properly fueled, we worked on other preparations as we waited for fog in the surrounding area to move. Once the ceiling had lifted, we got into the air and began a new set of tracklines, covering Roseway Basin from east to west. We saw lots of sharks in the morning- mostly basking sharks, but some white sharks! As we neared the end of our third trackline, two right whales were sighted and we were able to photograph one of them- Crater (#1609), a male born in 1986.

Crater was named for the divot scar on his right side. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

As we landed for lunch, we reworked our tracklines to cover the most ground we could with the few hours we had left. We were able to survey the rest of Roseway Basin and part of Brown's Bank, and found a small cluster of right whales! There were five or six whales within a mile of each other, and two of them were belly-to-belly in a SAG.

The whale on the left is upside down, showing a white belly. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

We landed in Yarmouth to refuel and load all of our personal gear back on the plane. Crossing the Gulf of Maine once more, we made a stop at the airport in Bangor, ME to clear with U.S. Customs before flying to Bar Harbor. We were happy to shed our flight suits as we started unpacking our equipment from the plane and loading it back into Orla's car. The rest of the night was spent doing data, and sleep came easily once we were done!

These two aerial surveys were conducted later in the season than we originally intended, but still provide a critical puzzle piece to this year's unique season. We are hoping to run another survey this fall, and will be surveying by air again next year. In conjunction with our vessel surveys, we can gain a more complete understanding of how these waters are used by right whales throughout the summer and fall seasons, and if next year proves to be as challenging as this year, covering as much ocean as possible in the search for these whales will be incredibly valuable.

- Marianna

1 comment:

  1. Wow! What an experience and opportunity to observe. I follow your research very closely. The pictures and updates are so appreciated. Thanks so much for sharing and for what you all do.