#22: The Final Fundy Push

Early on September 22 as we were surveying the Bay of Fundy, we spotted the flukes of a large, diving whale and soon realized there was more than one whale in the area. We found two humpbacks and photographed them. As we were working them, we spotted a right whale close by, identified as Glacier (Catalog #1402).

Glacier's back scar is visible where the water starts to wash over his back. Photo: Samantha Emmert

Glacier is a 31-year old male last sighted in 2013 off the Northern Florida coast. He is named for a large white scar on his back that looks like melting glacier. When we first found him, he was fluking in a unique way that resembled tail slashing, and he also lobtailed briefly. We followed Glacier and soon found a second right whale, Comet (#1514). The two surfaced near each other at one point, but did not seem to be associated.

Comet took a minute to rest at the surface. Photo: Johanna Anderson

Comet is at least 30 years old and was last seen in 2014. He also has a distinctive scar on his back, from which he derives his name. By the end of the day these were the only right whales we found, but we did see a total of 202 harbor porpoise, as well as a few other humpback and minke whales.

The wind unexpectedly died down on the morning of September 25, so we decided to head out for our last afternoon on the Bay of Fundy. A team of six went out on the Nereid to survey North and East, and a team of two joined Chris on his boat, Jupiter, to survey South and West.

On the Nereid, we saw very few animals during our first few hours on the water. Then, Kelsey saw some whitewater in a seaweed patch, which typically indicates of the presence of an animal. We slowed down to identify the creature, and it turned out to be a right whale! It was behaving strangely, waving the tip of its fluke back and forth just above the water, then sinking for long periods of time without fluking.

We have a potential ID for this younger whale, but as of yet, the ID is not confirmed. Photo: Kelsey Howe

We had a difficult time getting ID-able photographs during this encounter and ended up staying with the whale for about an hour, without much success. We also saw a second right whale fluke a bit further away and photographed it from a distance, but were unable to relocate it. Even though these two sightings were frustrating and hard to work, we were excited that there were whales in the Bay! After leaving the whales, we continued our survey but did not see much more than harbor porpoise, puffins, and a basking shark breaching in the distance.

The Jupiter surveyed some new areas for the season and made a pit stop to check out the historic lighthouse on Gannet Rock (built in 1831!). Though they didn't have any luck in finding right whales, they did get some close looks at a pair of humpbacks, one of which lobtailed several times!

This humpback picked the perfect setting to lobtail. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

While crossing the Grand Manan Channel, we all were treated to arguably the most spectacular sunset of the season.

And it only got better.... Photo: Brigid McKenna

The wind looks like it will be blowing hard for the rest of the week, so sadly, the 25th really was our last day out on the water. The Nereid will be hauled out of the water and the field station will be packed up this week. The whales were few and far between this season, but we did our best to find the ones that did venture into the Bay of Fundy.



#21: Here We Go Again...Roseway Basin

After enduring a myriad of issues on our August Roseway Basin trip, including battling the fog monster and a broken generator, we placed all of our hope for whales on the September trip. Things could only get better…right? 

We had a slightly different crew this time around: Hilary Moors-Murphy from Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO), Jen Gatzke from Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC), and Jerry Conway from Canadian Whale Institute (CWI) joined Captain Joe, Moe, Marianna, and me. We loaded the Shelagh and departed Campobello Island late in the afternoon on September 7th and headed southeast. 

Leaving Campobello Island and East Quoddy Lighthouse behind.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.

The plan was to steam through the night, arrive at Roseway Basin at dawn the following morning and begin surveying from there. The two takeaways from that first night: the Shelagh can handle some rough seas, and that eating lasagna for dinner will come back to haunt you in a Beaufort 6.

The seas slowly improved as we worked the southern part of the Basin on our first survey day.  We had a few dolphins, but besides that, it was relatively quiet out there above the surface of the water.  As the sun set, we decided to take a listen under the water.  Hilary, who specializes in acoustics, brought along a hydrophone array for us to listen to underwater ocean noise (and right whales vocalizing) in real time.

The hydrophone.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom

Essentially, she tossed the hydrophone over the side of the boat and slowly let out meters of cable.  From specialized acoustic software on her computer, she was able to record and actively scan for a variety of species-specific whale calls.

Hilary deploying the hydrophone off the stern.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.
Kelsey and Hilary looking for right whale calls.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.

Hilary deployed the hydrophone occasionally throughout the entire trip, but unfortunately the most we ever heard was a distant sperm whale and a few dolphin clicks and whistles. Nevertheless, it was great to have an alternative searching tool, especially when the fog rolled in on September 9th, eventually forcing us to head for the town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia for a few days.

The adorable town of Shelburne, Nova Scotia.  We appreciated getting to explore a different port of call this time around.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom

Shelagh at the dock in Shelburne.  Photo credit: Marianna Hagbloom.

Tune back in to find out what Roseway had in store for us on the second leg of our trip! Trust me, it is worth it.



#20 Bay of Warmth (Part 5): GSL Right Whales!

This is Part Five of a series of posts about surveys taking place in the Baie de Chaleur in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Click on the links to read Part One, Part TwoPart Three and Part Four!

After a beautiful afternoon with near ideal survey conditions we began our long trek from Bonaventure Island back to the Stonehaven dock. We encountered the (presumably) same fin whales again in the same area and continued our return in relatively quiet conditions. That is, until about 5:30 PM. We were traveling along the Quebec side of the bay and spotted a blow off the bow followed by a fluking dive. It was what we all had been waiting for: a North Atlantic right whale! This being the GSL team’s first sighting and all the excitement aboard the R/V Callisto was palpable. We quickly went into action exchanging our binoculars for cameras, recording time and coordinates, and keeping watch for it to reappear. We did not have to wait long for it to resurface and the rest of the sighting consisted of it curiously approaching our boat and diving at short intervals. We discussed the familiarity of its scars and callosity and concluded quickly that we recognized this individual: Catalog #1278.

Dorsal fluke scars of Catalog #1278 Photo Credit: Brigid McKenna

First seen in the Great South Channel in 1980, this adult male has an extensive sightings history in every known habitat over the last 35 years. One of the most interesting realization we had was that he was photographed about 4 miles from this site close to a year before, and had been seen a few times prior in the Gulf of St Lawrence. With no dedicated right whale effort in the Bay of Chaleur it is possible that this and other whales visit this area more frequently than documented and that this habitat could be more used than we thought.

Catalog #1278 off the stern of the R/V Callisto. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

We had one more survey day the following Thursday before returning to Lubec, and had our second whale of the trip encountered another old male very close to our first sighting (~6 miles), identified as Catalog #1307.

Catalog #1307 travelling west into the bay. Photo Credit: Brigid McKenna

This individual was first seen in 1974, and also has been observed in every known habitat over its 40 year sightings history. He actively avoided our boat, which may shed some light as to why he bears far fewer scars than #1278.

Fluking dive of Catalog #1307 off of the Quebec coast. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

Unfortunately high winds on Friday and Saturday prevented us from another survey prior to leaving. Given that both whales we observed were swimming into the Bay of Chaleur it is quite possible that more whales arrived after we departed. Hopefully with more effort and data collection we can figure out the significance and usage of this bay to North Atlantic right whales. 



#19 Bay of Warmth (Part 4): Gannets Everywhere

This is Part Four of a series of posts about surveys taking place in the Baie de Chaleur in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Click on the links to read Part One, Part Two, and Part Three!

While hauling the R/V Callisto, Alex noticed an adult northern gannet with limited movement at the boat ramp. Upon approach he saw that there was a hook stuck in its wing with line originating from its mouth; the line wrapped the wing in such a way that it could not extend it and who knows how long it had been entangled like this. We knew that we had to do something to help this individual.

The injured gannet at the boat ramp. Photo Credit: Alex Loer
We promptly devised a plan to safely secure the bird and gathered the appropriate tools (gloves, wire cutters, towel and sunglasses as safety goggles) to remove the hook and monofilament line. Alex blocked its access to the harbor and distracted it so Monica and I could carefully capture it.

Monica assessing the hook in the gannet's wing. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

We successfully cut the hook and removed as much line as we could, and were happy to see the gannet flee to the water with its wings lifted. 

The newly freed northern gannet hastening away from our team. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

On Tuesday, August 25th, we had a great forecast so decided to travel to the northern opening of the Bay of Chaleur in an attempt to make it as close to the Gaspé Peninsula as time and weather would allow. We encountered some fin and minke whales, but other than that the survey was relatively quiet. We reached Percé in the afternoon and stopped for a quick lunch break and to take in the beautiful views.

Percé Rock off the Quebec coast. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

Here we got to watch northern gannets on Bonaventure Island, the largest colony in North America.
Males are competitive for prime nesting sites and are the principal nest builders using mud, grass, seaweed, and feathers. Northern gannets are monogamous and long term pairs often use the same nest for years and potentially mate for life. Both parents incubate the single egg and are active in feeding the chick.

Gannets nesting on the cliffs of Bonaventure Island. Photo Credit: Alex Loer
It was amazing to see the white bodies crowding the cliffside and the active scene on the island and in the air. As we watched the gannets on and around Bonaventure we pondered (and hoped) that the one we had helped earlier in the trip was there and reunited with its mate. After this refreshing break we continued our tracklines back towards our dock and scanned the water for what we had come to find- a right whale.



#18 Bay of Warmth (Part 3): Heading Offshore for Right Whales

This is Part Three of a series of posts about surveys taking place in the Baie de Chaleur in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Click on the links to read Part One and Part Two!

With three full days of survey in excellent conditions and no right whales to be seen we were rejuvenated by a report from our colleagues in the air.  An aerial survey had found a group of approximately 15 right whales about 40 miles offshore of Miscou Island, New Brunswick.  Miscou marks the separation of Baie des Chaleur with the Gulf of St. Lawrence. In order to travel to the reported location in the R/V Callisto we needed a day of preparation.  The sighting was far from our wharf (about 80 miles) and we quickly realized that moving the Callisto and launching from Lameque Island  (via Miscou Harbor) made more sense. However, the drive would take over two hours on dark, secondary roads well before sunrise if we wanted to be on the water at first light.  We had been warned many times from the locals about the real threat of moose on the road and car accidents. We took advantage of a windy day on land and packed our food cooler, equipment and the boat and drove to Caraquet (about halfway between Janeville and Miscou Harbor).

With our rented life raft in place we were ready to head offshore. Photo: Monica Zani
Alex and Brigid navigate the narrow, sandy cut between Miscou Island and Lameque Island called Fox Den Gully. Photo: Monica Zani

In Caraquet we rented a life raft  and booked a hotel room for the night.  Our morning offshore would begin very early as we planned on leaving the hotel around 5:00 am to continue our drive to Miscou Harbor.

Two fin whales swim in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Photo: Monica Zani
 The weather proved amazing for our trip offshore and spirits were high that we would be able to find the small aggregation that had been sighted just three days prior by the aerial survey.  However, after a full day of survey we only logged fin whales, minkes and a few sightings of tuna.  Feeling disappointed at what we thought was a sure thing we headed back to shore discouraged but thankful for the gorgeous weather and sighting conditions.
The entrance to Miscou Harbor via Fox Den Gully is narrow but extremely well marked. Photo: Monica Zani

Keep reading! Click here to read Part Four!.


#17 Bay of Warmth (Part 2): Lets Get on the Water!

This is Part Two of a series of posts about surveys taking place in the Baie de Chaleur in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. Read Part One here.

Once we arrived in our temporary home of Janeville, New Brunswick we quickly went to work getting things ready for survey.  We unpacked, set up equipment, launched the boat, checked the weather and met about various trackline strategies.  Even though we were in an area completely new to us we had some advantages.   The biggest advantage was that we had colleagues in the general vicinity conducting aerial surveys for right whales. We hit the ground running with one day on land followed immediately by three long boats in a row.  

Monica (left) and Brigid (right) on watch during survey in Baie des Chaleur. Photo: Alex Loer

With such a small team we had no breaks while on the water.  We rotated from two hours of observation to one hour at the helm and back to two hours of observing.  In addition, we had no dedicated data recorder which meant driving and recording was done by the same person.  This was challenging in rougher sea states.

Brigid is logging data while at the helm.  Survey effort was logged electronically. Photo: Alex Loer
Sea State Zero! Photo: Alex Loer

Our first three days on the water were productive.  We didn't see any right whales but we felt good about our efforts.  Logistically speaking things were going great. We logged many miles of trackline data right from the start. We were quickly learning about the local wharfs, boat ramps and weather patterns of the area.  We felt confident and well seasoned, now we just needed to find some right whales.  Each morning brought new anticipation, excitement and a bit of nervousness.  With only eight boat days of survey budgeted each day without whales brought a new sense of urgency to our time.

 R/V Callisto is returning to Stonehaven Wharf at sunset. Photo: Alex Loer

Keep reading! Click here to read Part Three!.


#16 Bay of Warmth (Part 1)

If you are one of our many avid blog readers you will know that the past few years in the Bay of Fundy have been pretty sparse in right whale numbers. Last year, things looked hopeful when we first arrived in the field. Our first two weeks proved very busy and right whale sightings were common. However, after two weeks things turned desolate and right whale sighting became more rare for our team working in the Bay of Fundy and offshore (of Nova Scotia) on Roseway Basin.

The first right whale spotted during the 2014 field season.

Coming out of the field last year, as with the previous couple of years, we asked the same question: What can we do different next year?

This year we did do something different. Picking up and moving a field team is not easy. Doing something different from the 20+ years is also not easy. There are so many road blocks and logistics that must fall into place (funding, people, equipment, boats, housing and insurance to name a few) to take a small team into the field and into an area you have never studied before. However, that is exactly what we did. It was an exciting time and I'm excited to share it with you (over the course of a few blogs).

The second half of August I lead a small team into the field with the goal to collect boat-based survey effort in an area of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence. The main focus was a small bay called Chaleur Bay (or Baie des Chaleur in French) which translates into the "bay of warmth."  Historically, there have been a scattered number of sightings in the Gulf of St Lawrence. In the past two to three years there have been an interesting number of whale sightings (mostly single whales) seen in the Baie des Chaleur. Since we had limited time (2 weeks), limited people and a limited boat (day trips only) we decided (sometime in the winter and while Boston was hidden under multiple feet of snow) that the Baie des Chaleur had enough opportunistic sightings to warrant a small expedition in the summer of 2015.

All packed up and ready to head to Baie des Chaleur. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

Our Baie des Chaleur expedition started as most do, in a very non-glamorous manner. From Lubec we drove to Boston to rent a heavy duty truck for towing, pick up the R/V Callisto and headed to northern New Brunswick via Lubec.

The team was small and included myself, Brigid McKenna and Alex Loer.

Brigid,  Monica and Alex in front of the R/V Callisto prior to departing Lubec, ME. Photo Credit: Marilyn Marx

Loading up on provisions at the grocery store while in transit. Photo Credit: Alex Loer

 After three days of driving we finally arrived in the Bay of Warmth!

 We rented a little cabin in Janeville, New Brunswick, Canada to serve as our home base for two weeks. 
Photo Credit: Monica Zani

Our view from our cabin-the Baie des Chaleur! Photo Credit: Alex Loer

The next step was to hit the water and look for whales! More to come here on the blog, stay tuned.

— Monica

Keep reading! Click here to read Part Two.


#15: An Old Friend-Old Thom Returns to the Bay of Fundy

Our day started out gray, overcast and gloomy here in Lubec. As we loaded the R/V Nereid the fog horn from West Quoddy Light could be heard in the distance. Normally we hesitate heading out into the Bay of Fundy with the echo of the fog horn in the distance but not this day. The air was heavy, humid and a thick haze was cast over the town. There was no fog but the thick layer of humid, heavy air kept the fog horn working overtime.

The crew quickly went to work, gear stowed, computer hooked up and observers posted on the bow as the Nereid headed across the Grand Manan Channel with a  rolling ground swell and the uncertainty of the day ahead of us. We had the next 12 hours and 90 miles to remain sharp, on watch and vigilant in our efforts to document right whale presence or absence in this area.

The morning was atypically warm for September and the windshield of the Nereid fogged as we passed the warm air mass flowing off the island of Grand Manan. Trackline one was to the east and along the edge of the shipping lane. We saw no ships and an equal number of right whales. By trackline two the crew was well into second breakfast, or was it first lunch? Sightings of harbor porpoise and Molas (ocean sunfish) kept us sharp. Soon an odd shape lay at the surface but the difficult light conditions had the observers straining to determine what it was, debris, a log, trash...

The unexpected sighting was that of a leatherback sea turtle! The leatherback turtle is the largest of all sea turtles species and is a known jelly (jellyfish) feeder. While it's common for leatherbacks to be seen off the coast of New England and Nova Scotia, they are uncommon in the waters of the Bay of Fundy. Needless to say the sighting was different, exciting, and caused much talk among us. After a few photos it was time to get back to work and back on track.

A Leatherback sea turtle resting at the surface. Photo Credit: New England Aquarium/Molly McEntee
Trackline three dragged on as we checked off the miles, the sun made a brief appearance and so did the Oreos. In the distance a shape was spotted. What was it? No blow was seen but a single, dark shape/figure was seen, gone and then visible again. Body parts (a term we use when we see flukes, bodies and flukes at a distance and often it indicates a right whale surface active group - SAG)? Was it a right whale? Briefly distracted by a breaching basking shark we continued to head to the mysterious figure. We had such high hopes. Then, without much warning we all saw it, a brief pause, a moment of silence among the crew and then someone broke the silence...."killer whale"!

The excitement was electric, of the six researchers aboard only three of us had the opportunity last year to see a killer whale on our last day of the season. Johanna quickly noticed a small notch on the trailing edge of the whales enormous dorsal fin- it was Old Thom. A known orca among the whale watches and researchers of the Bay of Fundy, Old Thom is more like a legend, a name you know but a figure you may wait years to see.

                          Killer whale Old Thom is recognizable by the small nick in the trailing edge of hid dorsal fin.                            Photo Credit: Johanna Anderson

When we arrived Old Thom was flipper slapping. Photo Credit: New England Aquarium/ Dan Pendleton

Thom quickly became interested in the R/V Nereid. Photo Credit: New England Aquarium Dan Pendleton
As Thom approached the Nereid we deployed a hydrophone to see if we could hear any vocalizations (we didn't). We also attempted to get some underwater footage of Old Thom. The video below shows Thom's interest in our research boat. The wire seen is the hydrophone, which Thom seems to have some interest.

— Monica


#14: The Basking Shark of Lubec

On the morning of September 2, we received a few calls from our colleague Chris, relaying information from members of the community about a live animal that had stranded far out on Mowry Beach in the Lubec channel, just a couple of miles from our field station. Chris and a local marine patrol officer went to the shoreline and used binoculars to identify the animal as a basking shark.

Marks in the ground show the shark had been thrashing.

We piled into our truck around 8 AM with a few buckets, tools and a measuring tape. When we arrived, the tide was still going out, and we walked about half a mile out on the mud flats to get to the shark. The shark was on firm ground consisting of mud, sand and rocks. The claspers (identifying the animal as a male) were a bit bloodied, and indentations in the ground showed where the caudal fin (tail) had been sweeping back and forth. Towing the animal to water at this point was out of the question, as it would have done more damage than good to its body.

Looking into the gills.

There were a few locals toting buckets of water from a large pool of sea water to the shark. The idea behind this was to try to keep the shark wet, since it was already a warm morning, and to try to provide oxygen by forcing water over the gills. Since the shark had been stranded for hours already and high tide wasn't until noon, we knew the likelihood of the shark surviving was slim, but we figured we might as well try to do what we could to keep him alive. Our team joined in the line to pass full buckets to dump on the shark, which measured about 24 feet long.

Taking measurements.

The tides in this region are known to be the largest in the world, and they move very rapidly. Eventually, we had to clear the area as the water started rising. Two of the Aquarium boats and the marine patrol boat arrived on scene, and tied line around the caudal keel (tail stock) of the shark.

It was difficult to leave when the tide started coming in. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Finally, there was enough water around the body to cause less damage when moving him, and the teams were able to get the shark to the deeper part of the channel. Though they "walked" him around to get water flowing through the gills, he never started moving and was eventually declared dead. He was tied up to a nearby beach for necropsy.

Working to move the shark to deeper water.

Early the following day, five researchers from the Grand Manan Whale & Seabird Research Station (GMWSRS) arrived in Lubec to perfom the necropsy. Though these researchers study this species, very few necropsies have ever been performed on basking sharks since they don't typically strand or wash ashore, let alone in great condition. This necropsy would be taking place on a specimen less than 24 hours after death! The examination was going to provide a goldmine of information and allow the team to learn things that have never been documented before.

The necropsy team makes preparations to begin.

Chris and Marianna met the GMWSRS team and led them to the location of the shark. After doing a visual inspection of the external body, accurate measurements were taken. The first cut was made at the caudal keel (tail stock), and the team worked their way forward. The shark had beautiful red and white muscles, and many samples and photographs were taken to study their structures.

Collecting samples.

The body cavity was cut open to sample the internal organs, and we learned just how large a basking shark liver can be (VERY LARGE!)! A few of the gill rakers, reminiscent of whale baleen in appearance and function, were removed, along with the eyes. A representative from a museum near Bangor was onsite and will be creating a display using these parts, along with the skin from the large pectoral fin.

Gill rakers.

The shark appeared to be healthy, but histology will be run on the collected samples to see if anything unusual was going on internally (toxins, pathogens, etc) that may have contributed to the shark's stranding and/or death. It's possible that what ultimately killed this animal, though, was a lack of oxygen and a lethal quantity of lactic acid, which builds up when a shark becomes stressed, particularly if it is oxygen deprived. With no skeletal structure either, the weight of its own body may have been a contributor. Though it was tough to watch such an amazing creature die like this, we are assured that the body was not wasted; instead, scientists learned so much from this necropsy that this single animal has propelled their knowledge onto an entirely different level.

Basking sharks have very tiny teeth!

Thanks to all the members of the community for their efforts to help this animal when it was stranded, and for their support and interest during the necropsy!



#13: Two More Right Whales in the Bay!

As we sailed into the Bay of Fundy in the early morning of August 28th, I felt a mixture of hope and excitement for the possibility of again experiencing the rare event that had occurred a few days before during a survey: sightings of one of the most endangered whales in the world. Fog and bad weather had kept us in on recent days, and the presence of a reporter and a cameraman from CBC made us even more anxious for the third right whale sighting of our season. Our day began with observations of the typical but amazing sightings that we have in the Bay of Fundy. We saw a large splash from a breaching basking shark, a glimpse of a fin whale (the second largest animal on the planet!), and numerous harbor porpoise popping in and out of the waves. It was around 9 AM when our wishes for another right whale encounter came true.

Fluking right whale. Photo: Kelsey Howe

When a right whale is spotted, everyone on the boat instantly jumps into action. Cameras are passed to the two observers on the bow, the "whale watcher" takes notes about any behaviors and works to identify individuals, and the rest of the team carefully watches to keep track of the whale as well as look for others nearby.

Lots of mud on the head of #3991! Photo: Kelsey Howe

A right whale with broken callosities and a mud-covered head was found peacefully skim-feeding at and just below the surface. When feeding, right whales open their mouths and glide through the water so that their baleen traps tasty plankton. When they dive down to layers of plankton at depth, they sometimes hit the seafloor headfirst and get covered in mud. To find out what species of plankton this whale was eating, we dragged a net from the stern for a few minutes to collect a sample and it quickly filled with plankton.

Tux, Catalog #3401. Photo: Amy Knowlton

We followed the whale, identified as Catalog #3991 (a female born in 2009), and soon she joined a second right whale, identified as #3401, Tux. Tux is a male born in 2004 to #1701, Aphrodite. The pair traveled together and seemed playful, as some rolling was observed. We stayed with them until we had enough photographs to match them to individuals in the Catalog and to visually assess their body condition.

Tux and #3991 travel together. Photo: Amy Knowlton

Although we did not see more right whales the rest of the day, we saw a pod of over 100 white-sided dolphins, several large ocean sunfish and jumping tuna. We hope for more right whale sightings on our next day out!