Right Whales, Wrong Weather

I will be the first to admit that I’ve never really been on a boat.  And that I’ve never been to the Atlantic Ocean.  And that I’ve never actually seen a whale in real life.  So when I had the opportunity to help out with the mom/calf study this season in the Southeast US, I was beyond thrilled!

I left a very snowy Syracuse a few days ago, and I had no idea what to expect with this type of fieldwork.  All my previous experience has been land based, and for the most part, irrespective of weather.  Well, turns out that you don’t actually get to see any whales (or even go out on the boat) when the weather isn’t that great.  We’ve been pretty unlucky here so far.  Wind, rain, fog…we just can’t catch a break.  We did go out on the boat this past Saturday though.  We tested some equipment and played with cameras and laser rangefinders.  No whales on Saturday, but we did spot some dolphins near the boat and some ponies on the beach.  Plus, I managed to squeeze in a lovely evening walk on the beach near our house.

The past couple days have been spent getting the rest of our equipment prepped and, at least for me, learning how to use all of this equipment (CTD, digital recorders, video cameras, fancy camera with super huge lens – much more complicated than the little point-and-shoot Sony I got for Christmas four years ago).  I also got a crash course in North Atlantic Right Whale identification.  There’s an online catalog of all of the known individuals with photos and drawings of their distinctive markings, and there’s even a matching game if you want to try your hand at matching some whales.  It’s pretty fun once you get into it, but it can also be a terribly time consuming and exhausting process.  My first day of whale matching was full of ups and downs, but Jess (fellow grad student) and I ended up correctly matching about five or so whales….which counts as a success in my book!

It looks like the weather is going to clear up and be lovely this weekend, so hopefully we can get a few good days in on the boat!  I can’t wait to see a whale IN REAL LIFE!  And hopefully see a precious little baby whale.  Although “little” is a relative term…these babies are about 13-17 ft. long.

Leanna Matthews                                                                                                                            PhD Student, Parks Lab

Welcome to Fernandina Beach, Florida

Finally in the field again! It is the start of a new year and our team is back out in the field. This time we are in Fernandina Beach, Florida, on Amelia Island, 25 miles Northeast of Jacksonville, Florida. At the start of every field season there is always a start up process. For this trip, Dana Cusano and I flew in from Syracuse, NY with four enormous bags of gear, along with two carryon bags and two life saver colored hard sided pelican cases. Somehow we managed to wrangle all the luggage to the curb, and thanks to a rush on cars at Enterprise we were able to get a complimentary upgrade to a rental vehicle large enough to store all our bags. The Sugar Bowl game was in Jacksonville, Fl on January 2nd, a fact we were unaware of, which explained both the high cost of plane tickets and the low available stock on rental cars.

After a quick lunch, we drove to the house on South Fletcher Avenue where we met up with Jessica McCordic, a new Master’s student in the lab, and Lisa Conger, a scientist from NOAA. The next few days passed quickly in a blur of food shopping and equipment testing, along with all the normal snafus of missing small, but very important, items in the field kit.

After 2 days were were joined by Leanna Matthews, a new Ph.D. student in the lab. At the last survey there were already 13 mother calf pairs in the southeast, so we are hoping for a banner year! The team is assembled, the gear is ready, and now we are just waiting for the wind to drop enough for us to get out on the water. Fingers crossed.

A view of the sunset from the deck

-Dr. Susan Parks

Farewell Fundy!

It is officially the end of the season, so that means it is time to pack up and head out. We didn’t see many right whales this year, and only one mom/calf pair, but I would still call it a success. Some data is definitely better than no data, that’s for sure. Hopefully we will have a lot of calves born this winter so next year will be even better!

Stay tuned for our winter season in Florida, January-February 2013!

Eavesdropping on #3390

There’s something about being on an all-female research vessel, searching for a right whale mother and calf pair in the grey palette of the Bay of Fundy, that makes you think about our gender. More specifically – motherhood. How exactly does the relationship between a mother and her calf evolve? Can this rate be observed (and subsequently measured) from studying their behavior and vocalizations? As we round out our third year of a this five-year project, we are finally starting to accrue data to tackle these questions. Our research goal: study the interactions between right whale mother/calf pairs over the calf’s first year. We accomplish this by following them from their winter calving grounds off Florida and Georgia to their springtime feeding areas off Massachusetts, and finally to their summer mating grounds here in the Bay of Fundy (BOF). Our research tools: concurrent behavioral and acoustic sampling from a small boat platform. Our current BOF subjects: Catalog #3390 and her calf.

#3390 is the the only mother sighted thus far in BOF. Researchers aren’t sure of her birth year, but she was first observed in 2003 as a juvenile. She has suffered three fishing gear entanglements, leaving her with noticeable white scars on her peduncle (tail stock) and flukes. Her calf, an almost-weaned male, is her first known offspring. Thus far in our field efforts, I’ve had the opportunity to follow #3390 and her calf three times in the southeast U.S. calving grounds during the winter, and now this summer, three times in BOF.

Notice the increase in separation distance between #3390 and her calf from Southeast U.S. to BOF









Deploying hydrophones (microphones designed to record or listen to underwater sound), we are able to eavesdrop on the subsurface behavior of these elusive individuals. In the southeast, we recorded roughly 12 hours with #3390 and her calf. The number of potential calls we can attribute to this pair are in the single digits. So far here in the northeast, we’ve recorded just shy of 5 hours with #3390 and her calf. The number of potential calls we can attribute to this pair are well in the two hundreds!

It’s clear that the lapse in time has revealed a more vocal mother and calf pair. Time has also shown a larger calf, now bulked up with his mother’s fat reserves; greater separation distances between the mother and her calf, as the mother feeds on scattered zooplankton patches and the calf prepares to be weaned; and more interactions between both the mother and the calf with other right whale individuals in the population.

Combining concurrent acoustic and behavioral data, we can start to ask questions about what exactly these vocalizations are revealing. Are they reunion events, as the mother and calf find their way back to each other in the void of the ocean? Are they separation events, as the calf prepares to leave the mother and explore? “Be back by 10PM, Mom.” Or perhaps they are teaching events, as the mother tries to pass on the right whale repertoire so the calf can communicate with the population at large? As the BOF season wraps up, we’re looking forward to analyzing our data to shed some light on these questions. The more we understand a year in the life of right whale mother/calf pairs, the more we can do to ensure their protection. In the interim though, we’ll keep listening…

-Sarah Mussoline, Research assistant, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Dead in the water…

We started the morning bright and early. Finally we were going out after being in for more than a week! We were all set and ready to go when…the engine wouldn’t start. Surely this was just a fluke, we haven’t had any problems this field season! So we tried again…nothing. Just the disheartening sound of an engine desperately trying to turn over and failing miserably. Fortunately the Callisto was going out today as well and were still on the dock as we were attempting to disembark. Two boats tied together and one set of jumper cables later, we had the engine started. Great! We waved to the Callisto as they departed, still yelling our thanks…

…and then the engine cut. Sarah ran to the house to grab the battery jumper we had brought with us, but we were not very confident in how well it was charged. When we tried it though, it worked. And we were off!

We were soon out into the Bay and on our track lines, surveying for any signs of right whales. We stopped for a listening station (without turning off the engine, just to be safe!) but heard nothing. So we continued on until we got that same old call that trusty #3390 and her calf were nearby. We sped off in that direction full speed and eventually came upon a fluking whale not too far off our bow. Great! Got them! We pulled back a little…

…and then the engine cut. Awesome. Grace turned the key to start it back up, and we got no response. Super. We pulled out the battery jumper, and it was dead. Fantastic. It was official. We were dead in the water!

Now when you think about it, being dead in the water is a pretty scary thing. When you lose the ability to move, you also lose the ability to get away from situations that are unsafe or uncomfortable. Luckily for us (and I use the term luckily rather loosely here) the sea state was only a 2 or so and the swells weren’t too large. Otherwise we could have been tossed around like a toy boat in a bubble bath. With waves. Also luckily for us, we had plenty of friends nearby. We quickly called the Nereid to relay our position just in case our electronic batteries died too. Soon after, we got calls from the Callisto, Jupiter, and the Eukita ready to help however they could! Luckily again, we had kept the jumper cables on the boat. One of our better decisions that day, to be sure! The Callisto was the winner, being faster than the Nereid and closer than the other two boats.

And so we waited. At least we had some company.

Our new friend the Greater Shearwater. Photo: Dana Cusano

Finally our help arrived. We tied up alongside the Callisto for the second time that morning and they managed to give us another jump. It was definitely time to get home and we were eager to do so before our engine shut down again. So we set off at full speed to the dock with the Callisto not far behind to help us when we got there, which we certainly would need. Docking is definitely something we wouldn’t be able to do if we were dead in the water again! The engine only cut two more times on the way back (only…) but we were able to get it started up again without any problems. We tied up to the Callisto at the dock one last time and they guided us in gently. We were back! And without any real damage to anyone or anything, except of course the Selkie

As of yet, we don’t know quite what is wrong. Probably a bad battery, but maybe a combination of other factors as well. Here’s hoping that our last week in the Bay won’t be spent tied up at the dock. More soon…and hopefully good news! If nothing else today was definitely an adventure, and a lesson in the value of always being prepared!

The sounds of success

When we got a call over the radio today that there was a mom/calf spotted not too far from where we were surveying, we sped off as fast as we could towards the location we were given. When we arrived and found a right whale, we were a little surprised. Here was the calf of #3390, but all alone! The calf didn’t seem too concerned and was simply lolling about at the surface, doing slow rolls and lazy flipper slaps. This was a perfect opportunity to get the hydrophones in the water and record some calls!

Well what did we hear, you ask? The beautiful sounds of success. For only the second time this season, we were recording high quality calls, and lots of them! Just in case you have never had the privilege to listen to right whales, here is a short clip of what they sound like. Now you can boast that you know what it sounds like to be in the water with a right whale!

Calls from the calf of 3390

We were with the calf for almost 2 hours before he met up with mom again. We stayed with the pair for a little while longer before they bid their farewell. The sea had gotten pretty choppy and the wind had picked up, making it much more difficult to keep track of the whales. After a VERY bumpy ride back, we arrived home exhausted and pretty pleased with ourselves. All in all, a great day!

Strangers in the Bay…

Well we have been stuck on land now for a few days due to some pretty windy conditions, but last we knew we still only had trusty #3390 and her calf in the Bay. We are hoping the other mom’s are just running a little late and will join in soon! There have been other surprises to keep us on our toes in the meantime though, and I’ll take this day off as an opportunity to share what we have seen. Some interesting species have been spotted this year that are “strangers” to the Bay. Some have not been seen in years, some are seen only every few years, and some have never been documented here at all! (I do note however that just because they have never been documented before does not necessarily mean they have never been here; it may be that they have been here and never spotted, or spotted but never documented. This is always a difficulty when working with animals that spend most of their lives out of our sight. Regardless, it is still very cool!).

Our first stranger of the year was the sperm whale. Up until 2010, sperm whales had not been seen in the Bay of Fundy since the 1980’s. While the Bay is technically included in their home range, sperm whales prefer deep water where they dive down to catch squid. In fact, they routinely dive to depths greater than 1,300ft with some animals off of the coast of Japan reported to dive to almost 2,800ft! This makes a sperm whale sighting here in the Bay very unusual, and very interesting!

Photo: National Geographic

Another stranger is the white-beaked dolphin. While this dolphin is technically not a total stranger, it has only rarely been seen during the many years that researcher’s have been doing surveys in the Bay…that’s 33 years for the New England Aquarium! This obviously makes sighting these dolphins very exciting. Check out the New England Aquarium’s blog for great pictures and even a video!

Photo: BBC

The next species on our list is not a whale but just as neat to see…the blue shark! While the Bay is included in the home range of this shark, according to scientists at the Grand Manan Whale and Seabird Research Station there has never been a documented sighting here. Again, this does not necessarily mean they haven’t been here; since sharks don’t need to come to the surface to breath, they are even harder to keep track of than whales sometimes! However this year we are seeing them, and we are seeing quite a few, which is definitely a new thing! While they only get to about 13ft, not nearly as large as the basking sharks that are common in the Bay, they are still very cool to see! I think all sharks are pretty neat though…

Photo: Andy Murch

Last but certainly not least, the most unusual stranger we have encountered this year is the bowhead whale. Yes, that’s right, a bowhead! These large baleen whales are actually in the same family as the right whale and even look very similar. One of most notable differences is that bowhead whales lack the callosities that make right whales so distinguishable. The usual distribution of these whales is almost exclusively in the Arctic, although a bowhead was spotted off of Cape Cod earlier this year. That is possibly the most southern documented sighting of a bowhead! No one is sure yet if it is the same whale, but either way this is all pretty amazing! Check out the blog from the New England Aquarium for more details.

Illistration by AnimalSpot.net

Keep checking back to see if we have discovered more rare and interesting species here in the Bay of Fundy and to check on our progress with our mom/calf research!

Welcome to the Bay #3390

Just as we were departing, we got a call from the Nereid: they had a mom/calf pair. #3390 and her calf, to be specific. It took us about an hour to get to where the Nereid was. As soon as we arrived we slowed down to begin our search. We heard a blow and got so excited we immediately started to take photo ID shots: pictures of both sides of the head which we can use to identify each whale. More on that later….After several photos our seasoned right whale expert and captain, Monica, stopped and said “Hmmm.” After consulting our onboard guide, she realized this was not our mom. After so many days of no whales, we didn’t stop to think that there may be more than one around! Luckily Monica knew what #3390 looked like and quickly realized our mistake so we didn’t waste too much time photographing the wrong whale (not that it wasn’t a beautiful whale, of course, just not the one we wanted).

Once we took a step back to regroup we saw a whale watching boat and lo and behold, they were watching our pair. All of our hard work searching over the past few weeks was rewarded with a very energetic and charismatic calf!

After a moment of awe, we snapped into action. We had jobs to do and data to collect! One of the hardest parts of field work is forcing yourself to look away from these amazing animals and get to work…Our Nereid helper today was Kelsey, so she helped out by doing our photo ID work (and taking the lovely photos above). The first thing I needed to do was get the hydrophone array in the water. Not a quick task. We have 100m of cable with three hydrophones spaced evenly apart that we attach to a long pole. The cable stretches out behind us and we tow it along, which is why it is called a towed array. One major problem is that with the array out we can’t stop but we can’t go very fast either. That means we are slow and not very maneuverable. Which is a problem when whales decide they are done hanging around and want to move on. Which of course #3390 decided at that moment. Unfortunately, the next couple of hours were a desperate attempt to keep up going 1.5 knots…that’s about 1.7 mph…

Finally we decided that it would be better to try and get some behavioral data without acoustics than no data at all. So we pulled in the array and sped up to catch our whales. We managed to get 10 minutes of video before mom fluked…and then calf fluked…and they were gone. Yes, the whales outsmarted us again, but it is still early enough in the season to be optimistic! They are here and we have found them, and that is good enough to keep our hopes high for another day.

Stop, look, listen…

The weather is finally beginning to clear up. Even though it was overcast, the sea was calm and we left the dock at around 0715 with high hopes. We followed some survey track lines for a while without much luck. So we decided to stop and do what’s called a listening station; we stopped the boat, shut off the engine, and simply listened. After 10 minutes or so we finally heard a blow. A whale was somewhere nearby, so now all we needed to do was find it! Everyone looked in the direction of the sound and we waited for the whale to take its next breath while we all held ours. When we finally heard it again, we couldn’t see anything. The overcast sky along with the light drizzle of rain and the fog in the distance were hiding the whale we knew was there. Finally someone saw the flukes of a right whale…good news, and bad. Yes we found the whale, but it was several miles away and it fluked. Usually when a whale shows its flukes as it is diving, it is heading down for a longer dive. For right whales, they usually go down for about 12 minutes on such dives, but the New England Aquarium’s boat the Nereid followed a right whale just a few days ago that was doing over 25 minute dives! We headed in the direction that it went down, but we had lost it.

We started up again and followed more track lines with no success. When we stopped for lunch we shut off the engine and heard another blow. We are quickly learning that sometimes it is better to just sit and be patient, and let the whales come to you! We tried to catch up with it but we only got a few photos of it before it too gave us the slip. At least we finally got to see a right whale up close!

At around 1700 we got a call from a research vessel that tags basking sharks. They had a mom/calf pair! Unfortunately, that mom/calf pair was pretty far away. It took us an hour just to get there and by that time the mom and calf had disappeared. After searching for about an hour, the sun was starting to set and we needed to start heading for shore. We may not have seen many right whales today, but we definitely know they are finally here! The weather looks good for tomorrow, so we will head out again with even higher hopes.

First day out

We took advantage of our first nice day to take out the boat, set up the gear, and test it all out. Good news is we seemed to have worked out most of the kinks. Bad news is we have no whales still. The weather doesn’t look great for the foreseeable future, but hopefully that will change. Some right whales would be nice too!