#11: The First Right Whales We've Seen!

Early in the morning on August 23, we left the dock for the first time in days and headed across the Grand Manan channel. A wall of fog greeted us as we entered the Bay of Fundy, and we stopped to listen for whale blows. While we were drifting around, a seagull landed on the bow of the Nereid and amused us for a bit (to be fair, birds hardly ever land on the Nereid). We joked that this interaction would be the highlight of the day.

Relieved this isn't the only photo we have for this post... Photo: Philip Hamilton
Fortunately, something much more exciting would happen. After hours of a back and forth battle with fog and even rain, we finally found two right whales together- the first right whales that our team has seen in the Bay of Fundy! 

Catalog #2615, "Reef." Photo: Philip Hamilton

The whales were not easy to work, and the higher sea state did not help, but we obtained the photos we needed to identify the individuals! Catalog #2615 is a male named "Reef," born in 1996. Catalog #3651 is also a male, born in 2006.

Catalog #3651 at the surface, with #2615's fluke poking out of the water. Photo: Philip Hamilton

The rest of the survey didn't turn up any other right whales, but we were happy to have seen two of them- much, much better than a seagull!

Catalog #2615 goes down on a dive. Photo: Samantha Emmert



#10: Every Roseway Trip Has Its Thorn

The Roseway team patiently awaited in Yarmouth for a mechanic to drive from Halifax to inspect our generator on Tuesday, August 18. He arrived in the afternoon and promptly got to work. Unfortunately, he delivered some bad news to us after a few hours: the entire generator would need to be replaced. This is not a quick nor inexpensive fix.

Taking a close look at the generator.
 Sadly, the decision was reached that the observers would travel back to Maine while Captain Joe stayed in Yarmouth with the Shelagh until the generator could be replaced. We packed our bags, comforted Joe as best we could, and made our way to the Nova Star ferry early in the morning.

Upon boarding, we were excited to see this clever ad from NEAq and one of our funders, Irving!

The Nova Star ferry was a very comfortable way to travel from Yarmouth to Portland, ME. While the transit took about 10 hours, there were ways to stay entertained: a gift shop, a lunch buffet, and scheduled presentations and activities. Luckily, there was also plenty of room for us to stretch out and nap. 

The lounge seating we chose had loads of room for us to spread out.

Since we chose seats near the windows overlooking the bow, we were able to keep an eye on the water. The fog monster was real and persistent throughout the trip, which brought a small amount of consolation- had we been able to survey from the Shelagh, we would have had a very difficult time finding whales. For brief moments, the visibility would increase a bit and we held a casual watch, which paid off- we saw one humpback, several dolphins, and a few pilot whales!

Keeping a watch for right whales, just in case!

When we reached Portland in the evening, our colleague Dan met us with the work truck and all six of us piled in for the four hour drive to Lubec. Fog covered the road and the going was slow, but we made it to Lubec in one piece around midnight. A few days later, Joe and Jerry would bring the Shelagh back to Campobello Island- the generator can't be replaced before the second Roseway expedition, so the next team will have to make do without it.

Foiled by this guy...

...but still smiling!



#9: We'd Prefer the Cookie Monster!

In case our readers are curious why we have been so quiet recently, check out this article on the "fog monster" that has descended on both the Bay of Fundy and Roseway Basin. Although the fog is beautiful, and perhaps would be welcomed by our friends in the heat wave further south, it makes finding whales very difficult!

Philip and Brigid on the bow in the fog hoping to hear or see a whale. The RADAR was on for safety so we had to sit on the deck to avoid its harmful radiation.

The fog is a common issue here in the Bay of Fundy; we had particularly long bouts of it in 2008 and 2012. Our fingers are crossed for a change in the weather pattern that has kept this moisture around for days now.



#8: Trying To Get Our Ship Together

With the weather looking improved and our plankton net onboard, the Roseway team decided to leave Cape Sable Island and head back out to sea on August 13.

Kim Davies, working on the MEOPAR WHaLE project, discusses our tracklines with Moe after delivering a plankton net.

However, as Captain Joe was doing an engine check, he discovered that our fresh water pump had failed. Moe and Joe were able to get a ride to purchase a new pump from a nearby shop, but installing it gave us a little problem which left Joe a bit wet.

Joe takes an unexpected shower.

Since most of us couldn't lend a useful hand during this process, members of the team were kept occupied by going for walks on the beach, reading, and practicing knot tying.

Reading party!

With fog having rolled in during the repair and most of the day now gone, we stayed one more night and left at 5 AM on August 14. However, the thick fog was still out there- so much fog, in fact, that we spent most of the day searching for a break in the blanket.

Listening station in the fog.
Since we couldn't see anything, we did listening stations in the hopes that we would hear whales breathing, breaching, or slapping at the surface. Finding a clearing, we were finally able to start surveying around 4:15 PM. Two feeding humpbacks and some leatherback turtles were sighted.

What fog looks like.

The night was spent at sea, with a watch rotating every two hours. Under a clear sky, distant fishing vessel lights could be seen from miles away- signs that we were no longer cloaked in thick fog. As the sun began to rise, Joe went to start the engine and discovered another problem: our generator wasn't working. While not being able to make coffee or toast was worrisome, our ship's electronics (such as GPS) run on 12 volt from the generator too, which, believe it or not, are more necessary than a cup of hot coffee. The Shelagh was going to have to head to Yarmouth to get assistance. Luckily, being at the western edge of Roseway, some time was shaved off our transit. We surveyed for about four hours before approaching port, seeing several groups of harbor porpoise along the way.

Joe's eggs and sad "raw toast."
Parts for the generator were ordered today, and will be brought down from Halifax tomorrow for installation. Yarmouth is a charming town which has been keeping us entertained as we wait- shopping, a yoga class, and visits to the library, coffee shops and a nearby golf course have helped to keep our spirits high. I'm sure you can imagine though, how thrilled we will all be when we see our first right whale....

The Shelagh at dock in Yarmouth.



#7: Meet Sam!

This season we've invited new faces to the team to introduce themselves and provide a little background on what led them to our research program. We first met Brigid, so now it's time to meet Samantha Emmert, who will be working in the Bay of Fundy on the R/V Nereid and offshore on the R/V Shelagh.
I am a recent graduate of Duke University (T'15) with a Bachelor of Science in Biology and Evolutionary Anthropology. The path that brought me to The Whale House in Lubec begins five years ago in Cape Cod where I was a summer intern at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. My internship provided my first exposure to marine mammals, specifically the aquarium's rescued harbor seals, as I assisted with husbandry. One of the seals, Bumper, was blind and I became fascinated with his ability to flawlessly imitate behaviors trained to other seals. Although Bumper was not trained in these behaviors for fear that his blindness would make any efforts futile or dangerous to him, he was capable, perhaps through the use of his vibrissae (vibration-sensing whiskers), to learn from the movements of other seals.

Samantha at the helm.

Two summers later, inspired to learn more about marine mammal health and rehabilitation, I interned at The Marine Mammal Center in Sausilito, CA, with assistance from a DukeEngage Independent Project grant. This experience introduced me to cetaceans through the Center's stranding operations and participation in necropsies. I then spent my junior year at the Duke UNiversity Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC. Soon after I arrived at the lab, bottlenose dolphin strandings related to the morbillivirus Unusual Mortality Event began in the area. Throughout my year at the lab, I assisted Dr. Vicky Thayer with the strandings and necropsies and conducted a research project with Dr. Andrew Read on patterns in the die-off. While at the lab, I also took two field biology classes which made me fall even more in love with being on the water: Tropical Field Biology in Panama, and Marine Invertebrate Zoology in the Bahamas. In the summer following my junior year, I was a Summer Student Fellow at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution where I worked with Dr. Michael Moore studying bottlenose dolphin breath sounds. This first exposure to marine mammal acoustic studies led me to conduct my senior thesis on short-finned pilot whale acoustics with Dr. Andrew Read. As a result of these experiences, I pursued the opportunity to participate in the right whale field season with commitment to a career in marine mammal conservation and the hope to gain field experience and contribute to the science that fuels conservation for one of the most endangered marine mammals.

The Mullholland Lighthouse on Campobello Island NB, captured by Sam during a particularly picturesque moment.

During our first week, we familiarized ourselves with Lubec, the Nereid, and our data collection methods. This includes learning how to estimate distances at sea and how to match photos of individuals to the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog. The weather was too foggy and windy to get out to the Bay of Fundy until August 7, when we finally got out on the water and put some of our new skills to work!



#6: First Peek at Roseway Basin

The Roseway team left for their first offshore adventure on Monday afternoon. As we cruised through the Bay of Fundy, we worked to set up our bunks, review safety procedures and familiarize ourselves with the vessel. With the goal of getting to Roseway on Tuesday morning, we steamed through the night, rotating teams of two at the helm while others slept.

Sam tries on a survival suit.

We started surveying at the western edge of the Basin once some fog had cleared up, and surveyed throughout the day. We completed one full track line and nearly half of another. Sadly, we did not find any right whales (same as our colleagues back in Lubec). Many common dolphins were seen, but few large whales were sighted: 3 fin, 3 minke and 3 humpbacks. We spent some time in the afternoon practicing our photography skills with a humpback.

Ventral fluke pattern of the humpback whale we spent some time with

Having kept an eye on the weather, Moe and Joe knew that Wednesday was not looking favorable; in fact, a system was approaching with strong winds, rain and fog. Heading in to port so soon after leaving was a bit disappointing, but getting beat up at sea would have been worse. We docked at night alongside fishing boats, and got a good night's sleep.

The Shelagh tied up at Cape Sable Island

This morning, Sam spoiled us with a pancake breakfast, we refueled the Shelagh, and our data protocols were reviewed. The port is covered in fog and rain showers have passed over us several times. We're checking the forecast, and hopefully will be back on Roseway sooner than later!



#5: Roseway Adventure Underway!

This is our third consecutive year of working with the Canadian Whale Institute (CWI) to survey for right whales in Canadian waters offshore, with the purpose of searching for new potential habitats as well as conducting systematic surveys through Roseway Basin, a known right whale habitat. Our research vessel for these offshore trips is the comfortable liveaboard Shelagh, generously made available to us by the co-founder and Chairperson of CWI, Sarah Haney.

Like in 2014, our voyages will send six team members to sea for approximately two weeks. Onboard this first trip is Moe, Kelsey, Marianna, Sam, Molly, and Captain Joe. You can check where the Shelagh is as we sail the open seas through her AIS, and you can also follow our track with the Spot we will have onboard. When we need fuel and/or water, we'll be docking in Cape Sable Island, NS, where we'll also pick up a plankton net on loan from Dalhousie University to do plankton tows.

The crew for the first 2015 offshore trip!

You may have read in the news recently that there is a large collaborative effort by scientists to use new technologies in the search for right whales. As a part of this work last year, our team deployed and retrieved passive acoustic recorders in Roseway Basin, while the MEOPAR WHaLE team sent autonomous gliders that can detect large whale calls in real-time. These gliders are unique in that they can determine the species behind some of the calls, and report their findings when they surface from the depths. This year, the gliders were deployed on July 28 and have been reporting whale detections in Roseway Basin. You can stay up-to-date with this information by checking this glider site!


#4: First Day on the Water!

After our office was all set up and we had completed most of our on-land training, the weather finally improved and we headed out to sea on Friday. Even though I have been doing this work for 29 years, I am still astounded by how much equipment and gear we take each day!

Sam, Molly, and Brigid waiting for the R/V Nereid to dock so we can load our gear and equipment for the day.

The first day at sea each year is always particularly exciting as we have no idea what we might see. It was a beautiful day with calm seas and clear skies. An hour into the survey, we had our first large whale sighting near Grand Manan island-  a minke whale lunging through the water and surfing in our wake. Little is known about these small (30 feet), enigmatic whales and it was a great way to start the day.

We found no right whales that day, but had some interesting sightings of other animals throughout the day including a fin whale, 3 humpback whales, a large basking shark, and great looks at an ocean sunfish (Mola mola). This odd animal came close enough that we were able to plunge our Nikon CoolPix into the water and get the video below:

This is what the scene looked like from above water!

Observing the mola. Photo: Sam Emmert

While out in the Bay, we talked with our colleagues from the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station who did a plankton tow recently and they reported very little plankton in the water column. No plankton means no right whales. But conditions can change quickly out there, so we are hoping the plankton resource will improve and right whales will come into the Bay soon.

As we approached shore at the end of the day, we received a report from our colleagues at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center that they had seen 25 right whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence- the first aggregation of right whales reported since they left Cape Cod Bay in May!

It is a dynamic ocean and conditions are frequently changing. Soon, our team will split up and begin the search for right whales in different areas than BOF. Although sad to see our colleagues go, we are all excited to see what they will find.



#3: Meet Brigid!

This season we've invited new faces to the team to introduce themselves and provide a little background on what led them to our research program. First up is Brigid!
Hi! My name is Brigid McKenna and I am one of the seasonal research assistants on the NEAq right whale team. This is my first full field season here in the Bay of Fundy, though I'm not completely new to the team. Last year, I helped out on the R/V Nereid for a few weeks shortly after I finished my masters at the University of St Andrews

Brigid and Walter (dog pictured at left) have been a wonderful addition to the team.
I started participating in marine mammal research in 2010 through Whale &Dolphin Conservation (WDC), with a focus on Gulf of Maine humpbacks. Since then I have been involved with another humpback research program at the Center for Coastal Studies (CCS), spinner dolphin work in Hawaii through the SAPPHIRE project (Duke & Murdoch Universities), and have recently been collecting data on right whales at CCS on both vessel and aerial platforms. I am really excited to be back in Lubec this year with my dog, Walter, and ever more stoked to be going out on the water to see right whales in this habitat.



#2- The Hearty Right Whale

As I type, we are settling in to our field station in Lubec, Maine. Seasonal staff and interns are arriving, we are setting up our equipment and readying our boats. The weather looks bad for a few days, but we are hoping for our first day at sea after that. We are all excited and curious to see what is out in the Bay of Fundy.

Setting up our field station can take a few days!

But I am writing now to share some happy news! Back in January of 2013, the right whale community was stunned when a well known right whale, Wart (Catalog #1140), gave birth in or near Cape Cod Bay. Wart had the right time of year, but a very different location for most calving females who calve off Florida and Georgia. We were all concerned that the cold northern waters would be too much for the newborn. We knew the calf survived for at least several months as we reported on the Aquarium blog. But how would this little one do once separated from its mom?

Wart's 4 month old calf playing in Cape Cod Bay on April 28, 2013. Photo taken by Amy Knowlton/New England Aquarium under NOAA Permit #14233. 

Well, recently we discovered that Wart's 7th calf is doing just fine! It was seen on January 5, 2014 in Cape Cod Bay, and then several times on April 25th, 2014 still in Cape Cod Bay. It was feeding and looks very healthy.

Wart's 2013 calf #4340 feeding in Cape Cod Bay April 25th, 2014. Photo taken by Christy Hudak/Center for Coastal Studies under NOAA Permit #14603.

The photos were good enough that we were able to Catalog this whale as #4340. You can see photos and past and future sightings by searching for the Catalog number on the Catalog website.

Who knows, maybe #4340 will be waiting for us out there in the Bay of Fundy.