#24: Last days on Roseway Basin and an exciting surprise!

After a terrific day with right whales on September 13, we retreated to the wharf at Sable Fish Packers on Cape Sable Island, NS, to nestle among the fishing boats and wait out another couple of days of bad weather. By Monday, the weather had moved through, finally clearing on land, however the fog lingered offshore.

Fog clearing at Cape Sable Island. Photo: Moira Brown

Nestled among the fishing boats. Photo: Moira Brown

On Tuesday morning, September 16th, we headed out at first light, full of anticipation of more right whales. But they had vanished from where we had seen them the week before; it has been like surveying for melting ice cubes this year! Nonetheless, we forged ever hopeful surveying the Roseway Basin critical habitat traveling on north-south tracklines from east to west. We spotted right whale flukes in the waning minutes of daylight, and stopped there for the night on the western corner of the critical habitat. Our sleep was interrupted when the currents took us east to within 2 nm of one fishing boat and with others close by. The Captain was raised by the team on watch to steer us to the west away from other boats.

Sunrise on Wednesday was clear and calm and gave us hope for one last good day. Only 10 nm south of the end of our last trackline, we decided to add some additional east to west lines in case the right whale in the distance the afternoon before was still in the area. We surveyed to the east and ran into patches of fog (again); traveled north a couple of miles and then back to the west, the fog bank persisting to the south.  Upon reaching our starting point for the day, we turned north with a plan to survey all the way to Yarmouth, Nova Scotia, where we would spend the night. The team’s mood was quiet—we had been hopeful of more right whale sightings on this last day.  

Conditions had become so calm it was hard to detect whale blows. The team on watch radioed down to the Captain to slow the boat—flukes had been seen. Meanwhile a team member on the deck getting ready to replace the team on watch called to the captain – there’s a right whale right beside the boat! Sure enough, a small animal was just rolling around at the surface. We swung the boat around, and starting shooting photographs and video footage. Before long a much larger whale surfaced and the broad white scar on her right flank sealed the id: it was Calvin (Catalog #2223)! The smaller whale was her calf!

Calvin's large scar helps identify her. Her calf swims beside her in the background. Photo: Kelsey Howe

It was September 17th, 23 years and 12 days after Calvin’s mother Delilah had been killed by a ship in the Bay of Fundy. Calvin was less than a year old at the time and survived early weaning and then later two entanglements in 1994 and 2000; the latter one serious enough to require intervention by whale rescue teams. This sighting in 2015 was with her third calf and was remarkable in many ways.

Hanging out on Roseway Basin. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Mother calf pairs are quite unusual on Roseway Basin; only seven have been recorded since 1985 prior to Calvin and her calf this year. It was the second sighting of Calvin and her calf this summer. The previous one occurred on August 20 near Pomquet Beach near Antigonish, NS, in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence, when they were photographed by biologists studying piping plovers.

The curious, playful calf. Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

Calvin has become an icon for the struggles of the North Atlantic right whale from the impacts of vessel strike and gear entanglement and is yet again an icon for a trend of changes in patterns of habitat use over the last four years. The New England Aquarium team and the public values her so much, we made Calvin one of the whales available to sponsor through our sponsorship program!

Click "play" to experience what it was like to be near this pair! (viewable in HD)

Following our return from the survey, I traveled to Saint John, NB, and stood below the skeleton of Delilah to speak to a reporter about our sighting of Calvin, quite an emotional location to tell a story we never dreamed of in 1992—that the little calf would survive and go on to be now a three-time mother.

Taken almost 23 years after Calvin's mother was killed by a ship strike, Calvin has now birthed three calves. Photo: Kelsey Howe 

We had one more right whale sighting at the end of this day, bringing the total of right whales seen on our second Roseway trip to 17! Our surveys are over for this year, and the winter will be spent pouring over the photos and data, and planning for 2016.  The research team on the Shelagh would like to extend our gratitude to our Captain Joe Howlett for making all of our trips safe, fun and successful!

Captain Joe gets a closer look at Calvin and her calf! Photo: Marianna Hagbloom

- Moe

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