#26: Night of the Living Dead Whale!

As the end of October approaches, many cultures around the world will be honoring their dead during observances like Allhallowtide and Dia de los Muertos. Although the North Atlantic right whale population offers us a large pool of deceased individuals to remember, this year we have reason to celebrate the opposite: Catalog #4160, who was thought likely dead, is indeed alive! *cue spooky music* Let me explain:

December 2010: Sea To Shore's aerial survey team discovers Gannet (#2660) with a new calf (#4160) off the coast of Georgia. About a month later, the healthy pair is seen by the Florida Fish & Wildlife aerial survey team- Gannet nurses her son and he grows larger.

Gannet lies on her back, cradling her new calf in the waters off Florida. Photo: Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission. Taken under NOAA Research Permit #549-1759.

April 2011: Gannet and her calf have migrated safely from the Southeast all the way to Cape Cod Bay, where they are seen together by the Center for Coastal Studies.

July 2011: The calf is seen in Cape Cod Bay again, but this time Gannet is nowhere to be found. A calf alone at seven months old does not bode well, as calves will often nurse for up to one year before weaning. The outlook for this young whale is made much worse by the fact that #4160 now has numerous large wounds from an entanglement in fishing gear. The entanglement event is a possible cause for the separation of Gannet and her son. This is the last sighting of #4160, and his survival seems unlikely.

Gannet's calf, #4160, alone and with raw entanglement wounds. Photo: Center for Coastal Studies. Taken under NOAA Permit #932-1905.

September 2011: Gannet is sighted in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and in the Bay of Fundy during this month. She has not reunited with her calf. Gannet bears large entanglement wounds, new since the April sighting- it's possible that mom and calf experienced their entanglements at the same time. This is the last sighting of Gannet.

A sighting of Gannet in the Bay of Fundy proves that she, too, had recently suffered a severe entanglement. Photo: Tracy Montgomery, New England Aquarium.

Fast forward to August 2014: The Shelagh crew patiently tracks a whale that is traveling subsurface on Roseway Basin. After several attempts, photographs are finally collected before the whale disappears on another 18 minute dive. It's noted that the individual has entanglement scars and looks young.

#4160, photographed for the first time in three years. Not an easy target, either! Photo: Philip Hamilton, Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium.

It wouldn't be until we were back in the office that we would have time to work on figuring out who that young individual was- matching is tricky work when the last photos you have are of a calf from three years ago! But the callosity pattern was there, the right lip ridges matched, the entanglement wounds had healed but the scars lined up- we had seen #4160!

Images on the left were taken by Center for Coastal Studies in July 2011 (under NOAA Permit #932-1905). Images on the right were taken by Canadian Whale Institute/New England Aquarium in August 2014. Looks like a match!

Though he isn't the healthiest looking animal, the fact that #4160 is alive amazes us! He represents a flicker of light during these past few months of darkness. Over the past six months three new entangled whale cases were discovered (with 12 cases currently open), and since July, four dead right whales have been found; while cause of death is unknown for two of the whales, the bodies of the other two were wrapped in fishing gear.

Gannet still has not been seen since September 2011, but now that we know #4160 is still kicking we are more optimistic that she may prove herself to really have nine lives (based on scarring history, we know that Gannet has been entangled at least four times). For now, we are content to focus on the fact that #4160 is alive- and there wasn't even a Dr. Frankenstein or a spell for resurrection involved (that we know of, anyway!).



#25: Return to Roseway Basin

After some time spent in Lubec after our first Roseway Basin voyage, the team prepared to depart for another two week trip offshore. On September 7, we pushed off the dock on Campobello Island and headed across the Bay of Fundy towards Yarmouth, N.S. During this transit we saw (but were unable to photograph) one right whale; we were disappointed but not surprised that we didn't see more, as the Nereid team had seen only a handful of whales during their last couple of surveys.

A rolling, flipper slapping humpack. Photo: Kelsey Howe

Nearing sunset, our observers spotted several playful humpback whales, and since we hadn't seen much action all day we steered the Shelagh towards them. We all had a blast photographing and watching them as they flipper slapped, lobtailed and interacted with each other. With flukes under the rising moon and sinking sun, it was a picturesque way to end our survey for the day.

One playful humpback! Photo: Kelsey Howe

We continued transiting towards Yarmouth- this destination was an important one because an AIS specialist lived there and our boat's AIS wasn't working properly. We tied up at the Yarmouth dock around 3:30 AM on Monday.

The Shelagh tied up in Yarmouth.

Once our AIS had been tinkered with and operating correctly, it was the weather that kept us ashore. We made the most of our time by doing boat chores and exploring downtown Yarmouth, which many of us were visiting for the first time.

Captain Joe reconfigures our AIS wiring while modeling our stylish Right Whale shirt!

We had high hopes as we left the Yarmouth dock on Wednesday morning, as the forecast was calling for light winds in the afternoon. As it often goes though, the light winds were not very light and we had a rough time at sea with very few sightings. Large swells continued the next day and made our time on Roseway Basin uncomfortable- the motion in the ocean was not favorable to our stomachs! With increasing high winds in the forecast, we found ourselves back in port late on Thursday night- this time at Cape Sable Island. Our local friend Wanda took us grocery shopping and introduced us to Dan's Ice Cream Shoppe in Barrington Passage (their ice cream is fantastic and officially "Right Whale Researcher Approved!"). In return, we attempted to take Wanda out to look for whales close to shore on Saturday, but the seas were not favorable and we didn't stay out very long.

The buoys (pictured on the right) snuggled safely back on the boat. 

At 4 AM on Monday, we departed Cape Sable and began surveying Roseway Basin when the sun rose. Along the way, we retrieved the two hydrophone buoys that we had deployed on our first Roseway expedition. The acoustic tracks that were recorded will be analyzed for whale vocalizations, so we're all curious to learn how many right whale calls were heard!

Sawtooth at the surface. Photo: Johanna Anderson.

Our first and only right whale on Roseway Basin was seen the following day. He was visible from a couple miles away because he was repeatedly breaching. The team was thrilled to have a right whale sighting, but we all laughed as soon as he fluked- we had a sighting of "Sawtooth" (Catalog #3714), named for his memorable sawtooth fluke edge. Sawtooth had already been seen a few times by the teams in the Bay of Fundy, so while we weren't documenting a new whale for the season, it was great to document the movement between the two habitats!

Notice the "sawtooth" fluke edge. Photo: Kari Signor.

Because there was a right whale in the area, we decided to do a plankton tow to see if there were any copepods in the water- copepods make up the majority of the right whale's diet. Spooning our sample into the storage container, it looked like there were some copepods, but the experts at Dalhousie University will inspect the sample thoroughly to determine what exactly was in the water column.

Moe and Kelsey handling the plankton tow sample.

Leaving Roseway Basin and transiting across the Bay of Fundy, we would come across another right whale. Sadly, this right whale would turn out to be severely entangled in fishing line. As of yet, Catalog #3279 has not been seen again. You can read about this encounter here. While it was a depressing way to end our voyage, all in all we had a successful trip- we collected a plankton sample, retrieved both hydrophones, and surveyed the most ground we could with the weather we were given.



#24: Our work in the Christian Science Monitor!

This week's edition of the Christian Science Monitor features our Right Whale Research Program on the cover and in the article "The Whale Savers!" The author, Doug Struck, spent time this summer interviewing researchers at our field station and even went out with the survey team on our research vessel Nereid

Mr. Struck details the history of the Program, the work we currently do to maintain and curate the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog, our research techniques and our collaborative efforts to understand and protect this species the best we can:
"But the North Atlantic right whale has perplexed researchers trying to understand why the increase in its numbers has been slow. The gap in knowledge isn't for lack of trying. Researchers spend months every year cruising the waters or flying in planes looking for the whales. They have used dogs on boats to help in the effort. They have scooped whale poop for analysis, listened in on the whales’ watery conversations, and fired crossbows at the animals to get a plug of skin. 
They have mapped the mammals’ genes, reached with long poles to capture whale breath, helped untangle the animals from fishing lines, stuck suction cups on them to record their dives, and taken hundreds of thousands of photos.  
They also have spent countless hours in meetings with governmental agencies and shipping companies to reduce the aquatic roadkill of whales from ship traffic."
Pick up a hard copy or read the article online, and also check out the Editor-at-Large's commentary blog post on environmentalism and whales.

Once again, we'd like to express thanks to those of you who donate to our program, sponsor a right whale or purchase right whale gifts- our projects discussed in the article and the people we hire to do them depend upon your contributions!


#23: Salps

From reading our blog you are aware that so far this season we have documented two newly entangled whales this summer/fall in the Bay of Fundy (Catalog #3279 and Catalog #4001).  The last couple of weeks of the field season have been frustrating since we have been plagued with high winds, rain and fog.  Inclement weather can be very frustrating so when we were faced with a small weather window we jumped at the chance to get on the water.  After days of high winds, we were able to sneak out a half day on the water thanks to our friends at  Campobello Whale Rescue Team (CWRT).  With two small and fast boats, a couple of extra people and a full disentanglement kit aboard we were able to survey most of the Grand Manan Basin in an afternoon. With the priority to search for either of the entangled whales, our afternoon was a joint effort between New England Aquarium, CWRT and Coastwise Consulting .

The afternoon proved to be gorgeous.  Unfortunately, we never found either of the entangled right whales.  However, we did find salps!

Salps are barrel or tube shaped planktonic, filter feeding tunicates.  Salps feed on Phytoplankton (plant plankton) and can respond quickly to phytoplankton blooms by budding off clones at astonishing rates.
A closer look of a salp chain in Amy's hand.  Photo: Monica Zani

We had been seeing salps for a few weeks and on one occasion the salps were so thick in spots that water appeared to have a purple tint to it.  I felt as if I were to hop off the boat I would be held up by a gelatinous sea of salps.

Amy and Monica stop and take a closer look at salps in the Bay of Fundy. Photo: Chris Slay/Coastwise Consulting

Though these look like such simple creatures, "salps appear to have a form preliminary to vertebrates, and are used as a starting point in models of how vertebrates evolved. Scientists speculate that the tiny groups of nerves in salps are one of the first instances of a primitive nervous system, which eventually evolved into the more complex central nervous system of vertebrates" (via Wikipedia, sourced from this paper by Lacalli & Holland). Isn't that amazing?!

And while you're learning about salps, why not check out their bizarre tunicate relatives, pyrosomes. Unless you're grossed out by 60 foot-long gelatinous tubes, you won't regret checking out this article and video (which also features our salp friends!). 



#22: When in Doubt Eat PIZZA!!!

A large fire is built to heat the oven to over 500 degrees.

The last couple weeks of any field season is filled with mixed emotions.  Frustration - where are the whales? Overwhelmed - we have so much to do before closing up the field station. Defeated - I didn't accomplish everything you wanted to during the field season. Everyone has a different way of dealing with all these feelings.  My answer to all of this is to fire up the pizza oven!  Pizza seems to make everything better, or at the very least it seems to make everyone happy.

Burning for over 6 hours it's almost pizza time.

We are very fortunate that many years ago two of our cooks built a brick and clay pizza oven in our backyard.  With clay from a local farm, the oven took many days of careful layering and curing to construct.  Many years later we are still enjoying the novelty of having our own clay pizza oven.

Toppings are set out and labeled for easy pizza assembly.

Pizza night at the field station is no small undertaken.  A fire needs to burn for at least five or six hours prior to cooking in order to properly heat the clay and brick to allow cooking at a temp over 500 degrees Fahrenheit.

A freshly created pizza sits atop a cornmeal covered board prior to cooking.

Dough and sauce is made in the morning and by the afternoon a small group of us are grating cheese, chopping toppings and organizing it all for quick and easy assembly.  Once the oven is hot it cooks for about one and a half hours before cooling down.

Finished pizza line the table and are grouped into three sections (vegan, veggie and meat).
We had many Birthdays to celebrate this season  and we found it easier to just keep the banner up.