News from the 2015 Right Whale Calving Season

The right whale calving season, which roughly spans December through March, is winding down. But nobody told the right whales that! In the last couple of weeks, two new moms were spotted with their young calves, bringing the current total up to 17 calves. Given the recent spate of new calves discovered, I am cautiously optimistic that there will be a few more to come.

Mantis and her calf. Photo by Sea To Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA Research Permit #15488.

The mothers this year are a mix of first time mothers and experienced mothers and grandmothers. There are four first time cows- the youngest is nine years old. Some of the older mothers include Mantis (Catalog #1620), Clover (#1611), and Aphrodite (#1701). These three are all 28+ years old and have had 13 calves previously among them!

Clover and her calf. Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA Research Permit #15488.

Calvin (#2223), a 23 year-old with such an interesting story that she's a favorite in our sponsorship program, gave birth to her 3rd calf! Her previous two calves were both first seen off North Carolina, so I wonder if this year’s calf may also have been born further north but was just undetected there this year. She and her calf weren't seen on the calving ground this year until February 22nd.

One of the moms has an interesting lineage. Smoke (#2605) gave birth to her third calf this year. A life size model of her mother, Phoenix (#1705), who is also in our sponsorship program, is hanging in the Smithsonian’s Sant Ocean Hall- the centerpiece of an excellent educational exhibit. 

Catalog #2790 and calf. Photo by Sea To Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA Research Permit #15488.

Lastly, the identity of one of the moms is still tentative because we only have distant images taken by an observer on a dredge back in the beginning of February! With so much survey effort in the area, we had expected her and her calf to have been seen again by now. The fact that the survey teams down there have not seen her serves as a reminder of what a large area the calving ground encompasses and how, even with regular, dedicated effort, it is likely that not all animals are sighted.

Wolf and calf. Photo by Sea To Shore Alliance, taken under NOAA Research Permit #15488.

Keep your fingers crossed for a few more calves! Last year there were 11 born, but we have had as many as 39 born in a year- so there’s precedence to hope for more!


A Tragic End for a Favorite Whale, Snowball

On June 29, 2014, the Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) was conducting their right whale aerial surveys north of George’s Bank when they came on an aggregation of 20 or more right whales. In amongst these whales was a right whale entangled in fishing gear and in extremely poor health. Rope wrapped across the top of the head, embedding itself there. Line lodged in the baleen exited the mouth and trailed behind the animal, having encircled the right flipper along the way. The whale’s skin was pale, and the head and body were carpeted with orange cyamids (these thrive on slower moving and/or injured whales). The whale was emaciated- its normally sleek, plump body was now sunken, with a deep depression on either side of the spine.

A badly entangled right whale in obviously poor condition. Photo credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center/ Peter Duley. Images taken under MMPA Permit #17355.

Upon landing, NEFSC shared the images with our right whale team to see if we could match it to the Right Whale Catalog. We spent countless hours trying to identify this whale, but the usual identifying features were so obscured by cyamids and new wounds that we were unable to match it. A Departmentof Fisheries and Oceans Canada team took to the sky in an attempt to relocate the entangled whale, but they were unsuccessful. The June 29 sighting was the last time this whale was seen.

"Rope wrapped across the top of the head, embedding itself there." Photo credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center/ Peter Duley. Images taken under MMPA Permit #17355.

Recently, I spent a day looking at photographs of this whale to see if I could find something that had been overlooked. It was an emotionally hard day- staring at lines cutting deep into the whale’s head and possibly into bone, thinking about how this poor animal was suffering.  Just when I was on the verge of giving up, I recognized a mark peeking through the cyamids. I knew that mark. With a sinking heart, I called up images of Catalog #1131, “Snowball,” and made the match.

Snowball was named for the "snowball scar" on the left side of his head. Image credit: Whale Center of New England.

Snowball is an old male in our population, and was one of the whales in our sponsorship program. He was named for a scar on the left side of his head that looks like he had been hit by a snowball that stuck there. We have been watching him since 1979 when he was first seen in Great South Channel east of Cape Cod. We saw Snowball almost every year from 1979 until May of 2010. His absence in our sighting record since then was unusual and our concern started to grow. Given his poor condition in June and the fact that we would usually have seen him every year, it is quite possible that Snowball had been entangled in this gear for several years.

Snowball, looking plump and healthy in 2007. Photo credit: Center for Coastal Studies, Right Whale Research. Copyright: CCS Image, NOAA Permit #633-1763, All Rights Reserved.

Snowball has almost certainly died since his June 2014 sighting—having slowly succumbed to infection or starvation, or both. His emaciated body would likely not have floated, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and leaving no chance of someone reporting his carcass. Every right whale death is tragic. But our long history with this individual and knowing the lengthy, profound suffering he endured makes his plight almost unbearable. The dramatic decrease in mortalities from ship strike means that for right whales, entanglement in fishing gear is now the leading cause of mortalities, and of their suffering. Though we continue to research ways to reduce entanglement, with 83% of the right whale population having been entangled at least once, we humans have found no effective way to mitigate this harm yet. We must do better.

Our last sighting of Snowball. 
Photo credit: Northeast Fisheries Science Center/ Peter Duley. 
Images taken under MMPA Permit #17355.

Snowball is gone. All that remains is our record of his life, the children whose hearts he touched through our sponsorship program, and our sorrow for what we humans did to him.


Seismic Oil + Gas Exploration: Marine Scientists Unite in Concern

The Obama Administration recently proposed a plan to open up areas in the Arctic and Atlantic Coast to offshore oil and gas drilling. Before any drilling can even be done, seismic surveys must be conducted, which explore the ocean floor to determine the size and location of oil and gas deposits. This is done through the use of  "seismic streamers," an array of compressed air guns and hydrophones towed by a vessel. Ocean Conservation Research hosts clips so you can see and hear an exploding air gun.

Map by National Geographic staff. Sources: BOEM, New England Aquarium, NOAA.

On March 5, 2015, a letter from 75 marine scientists from leading organizations including the New England Aquarium was delivered to President Obama as a comment on this proposal, urging him and his administration to reject the Interior Department's decision to introduce seismic surveys for oil and gas deposits in the Atlantic. Why the concern?

"To identify subsea deposits, operators use arrays of high-volume airguns, which fire approximately every 10-12 seconds, often for weeks or months at a time, with sound almost as powerful as that produced by underwater chemical explosives. Already nine survey applications covering the entirety of the region several times over have been submitted within the past six months, including multiple duplicative efforts in the same areas. In all, the activities contemplated by the Interior Department would result in more than 20 million seismic shots.
 "Opening the U.S. east coast to seismic airgun exploration poses an unacceptable risk of serious harm to marine life at the species and population levels, the full extent of which will not be understood until long after the harm occurs. Mitigating such impacts requires a much better understanding of cumulative effects, which have not properly been assessed, as well as strict, highly precautionary limits on the amounts of annual and concurrent survey activities, which have not been prescribed. To proceed otherwise is simply not sustainable."
Read the letter in its entirety.

The Interior Department has scheduled a series of "open houses" starting March 9, 2015 in varies cities in VA, GA, NC, SC, MD, NJ, and DE to receive comments from the public on the proposed drilling leases and seismic survey applications, and to hold additional general hearings.  Find the date for a meeting near you! The comment period for the proposed Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program closes on March 30, 2015. Learn more about the proposal and if you feel so inclined, voice your concerns with a comment!

Read the Aquarium's media release about the letter.