#10: When Whales Appear in Your Backyard

After hundreds of survey miles with no right whale sightings, Catalog #3513 and her calf appeared in the Bay of Fundy last week. Never in our wildest dreams did we think that they would make their way over towards Lubec, ME, home of our field station!

Right whales close to home; the town of Lubec in the background. Photo: Philip Hamilton

The team was on land on Wednesday due to fog in the Bay, so we were all available to hop on the boat when we received a report from whale watch boat Quoddy Link Marine of a right whale mother and calf pair by Wilson's Beach, on the western side of Campobello Island, N.B.! This is a highly unusual location for right whales, and only a handful in the history of the research project have ever swam over this way. The team rushed into action, loading our research equipment onto the R/V Nereid and zipping over to the last reported location of the whales. 

The Nereid crew, eager to document this sighting! Photo: Moira Brown

After getting a good look at the mom, we knew it was #3513- her and her calf are the only whales the team has documented in the Bay of Fundy so far this season. The calf is one of 20 born this year, and looks plump and healthy. 

Mom and calf together. Photo: Johanna Anderson

We stayed with the pair to monitor their movement and behavior as they swam south towards Lubec. Word of the presence of the whales spread fast, and many people on both water and land got great looks of the pair during this rare event! We maintained radio contact with the Coast Guard and whale watch boats, and passing vessels were respectful of our requests to slow down and keep a healthy distance of the pair. It was a unique situation to have right whales quickly crossing back and forth across the U.S and Canadian border- countries with different laws about the amount of distance required between humans and right whales.

At one point, the calf surprised us with two breaches! Photo: Philip Hamilton

We were all hoping that the pair wouldn't cross under the Roosevelt International Bridge, which connects Lubec to Campobello Island; the shallow waters and the maze of fishing gear that exists there could have resulted in trouble (right whales have an extremely high rate of entanglement- 83% of the population has been entangled in fishing gear at least once). Fortunately, the whales didn't go near the bridge, and after circling near a small island called Popes Folly, the mother began to lead her calf back north towards Eastport, ME.  The whales were last seen continuing northward and haven't been resighted in the area, so hopefully #3513 was able to safely guide her calf back into the much larger Bay of Fundy.

Here's a little video footage of the day!


# 9 20 Days and 20 Nights

We arrived at our field station in Lubec, ME, on August 1st; it has taken us 20 days before our first Bay of Fundy right whale sighting. Granted, the offshore team (on the Shelagh) documented right whales last week, but the crew working in the Bay of Fundy has basically been starving for a right whale sighting! 

Mom and calf as they head down on a terminal dive (mom rasing her flukes out of the water). 
Photo: New England Aquarium/Kara Mahoney-Robinson. 
Our sighting was of a Mom/Calf pair (Catalog  #3513), and while we would love to brag about finding these right whales on our own, we can’t. We are very appreciative to our colleagues from the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station who, not only found the pair, but stood by for at least an hour for the R/V Nereid to arrive!  

Catalog #3513 swims in the Bay of Fundy.  Photo: New England Aquarium/ Kara Mahoney-Robinson 

Right Whale #3513 is an 8 year-old, and this is her first calf.  Hopefully we will see them again soon (update on this pair here!) and will be able to continue to document the calf as it grows larger and weans from its mother.


#8: The Right Whales of Our First Offshore Trip

In the previous blog, Monica did a great job of summarizing our first offshore trip in brief day-by-day segments; we were able to call the Lubec field station at the end of every day using a satellite phone with a report of how the day went and what we saw. We were not fortunate enough provide our team members back on land with tales of countless right whales—surprisingly, we had only four right whales over our six day survey in areas where there have been plenty of right whales in past years! Despite the shortage of whale sightings, the trip went even smoother than we dreamed. Most days, we had light winds, calm seas, and no fog. Our Captain Joe, familiar with the seas we were surveying, was amazed that the conditions were so favorable. It felt a bit like Mother Earth sent us a block of nice weather to cushion the blow of such few whales.

Finally getting to work some whales on the 
Shelagh! Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Our big day of sightings was August 17, when we found three right whales around the southwest corner of our Roseway Basin survey box. Two of the whales were in a Surface Active Group (SAG), where Derecha (Catalog #2360) was the focal female with SOS (#2135) giving her much attention.

Derecha lifts her head while being active in the SAG. Photo: Kelsey Howe

SOS chases after Derecha in the SAG. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Another whale, Van Halen (#1146) was milling around, and when Derecha and SOS weren't in a SAG together, all three whales were moving erratically- so much so that we thought there were more than just the three whales!

Van Halen surfaces, showing his peduncle scars. Photo: Kelsey Howe

On August 19, we came across our fourth right whale, Dropcloth (#1271). He was to the northeast of where we had whales on the 17th, and seemed to be travelling in an easterly direction.

Dropcloth heading east. Photo: Amy Knowlton

All four whales seen on this trip were old-timers. SOS was born in 1991, making him 22 years old, and Derecha was first seen in 1993, making her at least 20 years old. Even older are Dropcloth, first sighted in 1978, and Van Halen, first sighted in 1977, making them at least 35 and 36 years old respectively.

Our lack of right whales offshore was a very interesting observation, and has raised even more questions, which Philip will discuss in a future post. And while we didn't see many whales, we did see some other cool species which we'll be sharing with you in a follow-up blog!



#7 Some Good News...WHALES!

As I type this the R/V Nereid is surveying the Grand Manan Basin in the Bay of Fundy. I’m back at the field house waiting for Internet technicians to arrive to help sort out some of our own going Internet problems. Working in the field has many challenges and keeping a field house in good working order (including Internet) is just one of those many challenges. However, it also seems that finding right whales this season is a bigger challenge then any of us anticipated.

Meanwhile the offshore researchers on Shelagh also have their work cut out for them. They have been covering approximately 100 nautical miles of trackline each day. The following is a quick summary of their trip so far.

 Day 1: (August 16): Left Campobello Island around 5:00 AM and headed for Grand Manan Banks   via Grand Manan Channel. Cut across the mouth of the Bay of Fundy and ran about 2/3 of their planned tracklines on Lurcher Shoal. The only large whales seen the entire day were two humpbacks and two fin whales. Spent the night in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia.

 Day 2: (August 17): The crew left Yarmouth prior to sunrise and continued tracklines of the remaining 1/3 of Lurcher Shoal. From Lurcher they headed to Roseway Basin. In addition to reporting lots of leatherback turtles, jellies and common dolphins the team found five right whales on the western edge of Roseway! Spent the night at sea.

    Catalog # 2360 Derecha was seen by the crew of the Shelagh on August 17. Deracha is an adult female first seen in 1993. This photograph was taken in 2010 but we will be sure to post a recent one once the team arrives home.
Photo: New England Aquarium

 Day 3: (August 18): Full day of survey in absolutely amazing sighting conditions. The crew had a sea state 2 most of the day and worked near the NE corner of the Roseway Basin. While the team did report seeing 2 Sei whales, a few mola molas and basking sharks they also noted a lack of birds. The crew spent the night at sea.

 Day 4: (August 19): The crew was up and on watch by first light. The working conditions were more difficult and work continued in a sea state 4 and 5 for most of the morning. Despite the difficult conditions the crew documented another right whale! The crew headed into Cape Sable Island by the afternoon for fuel and a solid night of sleep.

 Day 5: (August 20): The crew reports no right whales.  They spend the night at sea. 

The approximate route of the Shelagh on her offshore cruise to find right whales.
Tracklines are not to scale and right whale locations are approximate.

 In my last post I asked folks if they had any questions for the crew of the Shelagh. We got some great questions and many will need some time to answer. The questions have given us some great ideas for future blogs and so we will try our best to answer them all. For now I’m going to answer the questions that were the most appropriate to ask the crew while speaking via satellite phone.

Question: Are your bunks big? Can you stretch out and roll over?
Answer: (Philip reports)While the bunks are not overly spacious they are comfortable. Everyone can roll over and Kelsey (the tallest member of the team at 6’1”) reports that she can lay flat and stretch her legs out.




#6 Bon Voyage!

Very early Friday morning five members of our right whale research team departed in search of right whales outside the Bay of Fundy. The team will be offshore for the next six to 10 days and will be surveying for right whale habitats in Canadian waters southwest and south of Nova Scotia. The team is planning on surveying approximately 600 miles of trackline. The planned trackline will take them through some known and some lesser known right whale habitats. The goal is to not only find right whales but to collect data to better understand right whale habitats and the movement of the whales between them and the Bay of Fundy. The trips will transverse Grand Manan Banks, Lurcher Shoal, as well as the second known right whale critical habitat, Roseway Basin.

 The trip is funded by a grant to the Canadian Whale Institute (CWI) from the Habitat Stewardship Program of Environment Canada. CWI has provided us with the Shelagh for the trip and we hope to do at least two offshore trips this season (one in August and one is September). The crew from the Shelagh is planning to check in with the Lubec field station at least once a day so you will need to stay tuned to see what they might find. In the meantime, the remaining crew here in Lubec, ME, will continue to survey the Bay of Fundy for right whales. How exciting it is to have the resources this year to survey both the Bay of Fundy and offshore habitats at the same time?

     The science crew aboard the Shelagh. From left to right: Marianna Hagbloom  Philip Hamilton,
Kelsey Howe, Amy Knowlton and Bill Mcweeny.  Not pictured is Captain Joe Howlett. 
 Photo:  Monica Zani

Do you have a question for the crew of the Shelagh? I will pick one question each day from one of our readers to ask the crew during their nightly check in. I will then answer the question in a future blog post.

  The Shelagh tied up in Campobello Island, N.B. Canada the day before depature.
   Photo: Philip Hamilton



#5: How Many Miles?

How many miles of trackline does it take to find a right whale?  Sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, right?  Unfortunately, it’s actually how some of us are starting to feel up here at our field station in Lubec, ME. Okay, to be honest, we have been out in the Bay of Fundy only three days so far this season, but we are anxious to find right whales. The reality is that we are working and surveying long, hard hours, and collecting amazing and important data. Data collected that shows the absence of whales in a habitat is just as important as data that shows the presence of whales (even if it makes our days a little less exciting).

So far this season, we have logged 325 nautical miles (374 statute miles) and 27 survey hours. That’s approximately the distance between Boston, MA and Baltimore, MD! It has taken us three survey days but we feel good and confident in the coverage that we have given the Bay of Fundy in that time. Check out this map of our three day survey effort:

Map of R/V Nereid's three days of survey effort in the Bay of Fundy 
(map by Brooke Wikgren, GIS specialist)

Our last day out last week (August 7) was a great day. We had amazing weather, great visibility and we felt really good about our extensive tracklines (the green track) on the eastern side of the Bay of Fundy. At one point we came across a small pod of about 25 of Atlantic white-sided dolphins (see the little blip in lower left of the green trackline) that included three mom/calf pairs! It was a nice break from our long survey day to spend a little time in the presence of such quick and agile mammals. It certainly felt like a reward for our hard work and survey effort.

A mom and calf Atlantic white-sided dolphin swim side by side in the Bay of 
Fundy on August 7th. Photo: Philip Hamilton

Beautiful markings on the sleek body of the Atlantic white-sided dolphin!
Photo: Amy Knowlton

We are excited for this coming week. Hopefully we will get some good weather and will be able to continue surveys for right whales. Additionally, we are currently prepping for our extended offshore work beyond the Bay of Fundy. Be sure to stay tuned to see what our offshore team might find in other Canadian habitats.



#4: Fins and Humpbacks

On Tuesday, the team headed out for another survey, but made a pit stop near Grand Manan to pick up some special guests- a film crew from France! This film crew is from One Planet, a production company that creates films "dedicated to science, society, nature and the environment." They are currently working on a series of documentaries that focuses on unique ecosystems around the world, and are in the area to cross the Bay of Fundy off their list!

Our two vessels meeting at sea to exchange passengers.

The Nereid pulled aside their chartered vessel Midnight Adventure and we helped an interviewer, Noelie, and a cameraman, Yannick, aboard. They were eager to collect footage of any large whales, since the Bay is home to many species, but were especially hopeful that we might find right whales. We saw fin whales right off the bat and were able to get some close looks at them before heading out on our tracklines around the western side of the Bay.

A fin whale surfaces near the Nereid. Photo: Moira Brown

About two hours into our survey, we sighted a group of four humpback whales, including a mother and calf pair! The humpbacks were fluking at regular intervals, so we were able to estimate when and where they would surface, allowing us to get close enough to collect some great photos for a group that does humpback ID. As soon as Yannick stopped filming and we put the cameras away, the calf breached- isn't that the way it always goes?!

The pectoral fin of the humpback is visible as the white area to the left of the whale. Photo: Amy Knowlton

Going down for a dive! Photo: Amy Knowlton

Continuing through a very productive deep basin known as "The Groove" we saw many fin and humpback whales- our total count for the day was 17 fins and 13 humpbacks! We also saw a fair amount of different species of seabirds, including our first puffins, phalaropes and northern fulmars of the season. However, no right whales were observed on our survey, and so the film crew shot some more scenes of fin whales. Though we didn't find our elusive species, hopefully the viewers of the One Planet show will learn something new about right whales through the interviews taken on the Nereid with Moe.

As we headed back in to Lubec, we discussed our survey strategy for the next day out. The absence of right whales in the middle and western side of the Bay heightened our interest of investigating a different part of the Bay: The East!



#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!


#2: The team begins to arrive...

The summer migration of researchers has begun! The first wave of researchers is settling into the field station in Lubec, Maine. We are excited about the various research projects happening here this year- five in total! Thanks to funding from Irving Oil and the Island Foundation, we will be conducting our usual surveys into the Bay of Fundy on the R/V Nereid to collect photographic, genetic, and behavioral data on right whales. This is our 34th year - making it one of the longest, uninterrupted studies of any of the great whales! Later in the season, another team from the New England Aquarium will arrive to conduct work on collecting blows from right whales for hormone analyses.

Researchers appreciating the size of an adult right whale.

Within the next few days, a team from Syracuse University and the Northeast Fisheries Science Center will arrive to conduct their 4th season of mother/calf behavior and acoustic work in the Bay. They have already documented some mother calf pairs earlier in the year on the calving ground in the southeast US and in the spring feeding area in Cape Cod Bay.

The 2012 acoustic team leaving dock in the early morning.

Right whales are known to occur in other areas in Canadian waters. With funding from the Habitat Stewardship Program from Environment Canada, teams from the Canadian Whale Institute and New England Aquarium will be conducting surveys south and east of the Bay of Fundy to improve our understanding of other Canadian right whale habitats. An aerial survey team will be flying surveys between Roseway Basin and Bay of Fundy, as well as east of Roseway Basin. Roseway Basin has been an important habitat for right whales in the past, but surveys in the area have been sparse in recent years. The aerial work will be complimented by a team from Lubec heading out for several vessel based trips throughout the season. There has been a lot shifting in right whale movements this year- so it is a perfect year to have added these components to our research. There is a lot to look forward to- so stay tuned!

What will we find this year? Photo: Yan Guilbault