Tagging North Atlantic right whales on the calving grounds in the southeastern United States in collaboration with the Duke University Marine Lab.
The official SEUS 2017 field season started on February 1st and ended on the 20th. A lot happened – and didn’t happen – over the 20 days I spent in Fernandina beach, Florida. I was over the moon knowing that was about to see North Atlantic right whales; but I was also very anxious as I knew I would be around people I’ve never met, doing something that I had never done before but dreamed of doing since I started working with marine mammals – tagging whales. Moreover, while this was my first tag operation, the field team I was being added to has been tagging all sorts of whales all over the world for at least 6 years. Pretty intimidating, right? Well, I had a great time with the field team (on board and on land) and learned A LOT with everyone. Sadly, despite all effort, we only found one mother-calf pair. But mum and calf were very cooperative and we successfully deployed the tag after the first attempt.
NARW mother-calf pair at SEUS area. Successful tag deployment attempt on mum. Photo by Susan Parks.
We were all very satisfied with the deployment, and hopping for more interesting information about our target species. However, on tag-recovery day, an unexpected turn of events: it turns out the calf might have crushed the tag and therefore we might never have access to the one single 2017 SEUS DTag data…
It is like they say: whale happens.
The lovely, precious and notorious tag crusher. How can anyone be mad at 6 tonnes of pure right whale love? Photo by Susan Parks.
Wednesday, February 19:
Once I was back on the Barber, we began surveying. It wasn’t too long before I saw some splashes and a large black body: a right whale in the distance! When we arrived, we found #2503 (Boomerang) and her calf. The calf was surfacing several times before mom came up, making it difficult to predict when and where she would surface for a good tagging attempt. After working with her for a while, we decided to give everyone involved (including the whale) a break for lunch.
Fortunately, she had settled down a bit for the afternoon, and we were able to get a tag on. Over the course of the day, the calf treated us to two curious approaches, including one toward the end of the tag deployment where it splashed a bunch of water into the boat after surfacing very close to our starboard side. The calf then surfaced with its mom some ways away, and the tag had just come off. Hopefully it recorded something from the curious approach!
Tuesday, February 18:
As if all of that wasn’t exciting enough, the next day we had glassy smooth seas and spent the morning helping our friends on the R/V Selkie track down an overnight acoustic tag that had been deployed the afternoon before. Soon after, a survey plane had a sighting of a mom/calf pair (#3157) that was so close we could already see the plane circling to take photos. We went to that sighting, where the mom was logging at the surface for long intervals—a great opportunity for tagging! We puttered in for an approach and tagged her. She barely seemed to notice, and after a few minutes’ dive she resumed her previous behavior of logging and resting at the surface.
The tag was programmed to stay on overnight, and I hopped on the Stellwagen to help track the whale. Luckily, she didn’t really seem to have intentions of going anywhere quickly. In fact, she only moved a couple of miles and essentially made a big circle before the tag came off around 11pm. The next morning, we woke up and met the R/V Richard Barber.
Monday, February 17:
We met the Stellwagen about 60 miles to the southeast of Fernandina. After a quick crew change, we surveyed and found more spotted dolphins. We got a few more biopsy samples, and I got to practice my dolphin photography skills—in case you were wondering, dolphins are a LOT faster than whales, and it definitely took some getting used to.
After finding and sampling a few different groups of dolphins, including some offshore bottlenose dolphins, one of the survey planes relayed a sighting of a mother/calf pair of right whales farther inshore. We traveled toward the sighting when we got another call from a group working with Florida Atlantic University who had sighted an additional mom/calf pair closer to our location. It was getting late in the afternoon, so we went to the closer sighting. Unfortunately this mom (#2746) was a little too wily for us. She waited until we were almost ready to tag, then sank down at the last moment. At this point, it was late enough in the afternoon to call it a day and head home, hoping for better luck tomorrow.
Sunday, February 16:
Given our unusually long window of nice weather, we decided to try our luck offshore. On the way, we happened upon a mom/calf pair that we have seen before this year: #2040 (Naevus) and her calf. Since we had already tagged this mom, we left her and her calf and continued on our journey towards the southeast. The ocean was fairly quiet on the way except for a few loggerhead sea turtles, a handful of birds, some clumps of Saragssum seaweed, and two shiny Valentine’s Day balloons (which we of course picked up). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, we saw some dolphins up ahead. At first I thought it was just a small group of bottlenose dolphins, but as we got closer, I saw that there was something slightly different about their coloring. As it turns out, these were spotted dolphins! This being the first time I had ever seen spotted dolphins, I was ecstatic. I also happened to be on the bowsprit when we first found them, giving me a gorgeous view of the individuals who decided to hitch a ride in our bow wave. The Duke team took a couple of biopsy samples before we left the dolphins to rendezvous with the R/V Stellwagen.
Between the dolphins and the Stellwagen, though, there was a blow in the distance followed by a pair of flukes: we found ourselves a right whale. Upon closer inspection and confirmation from the offshore survey plane, this single adult whale was entangled and had line trailing behind it.
We got a DTAG on it so that the Stellwagen could keep up with the whale until the disentanglement team could get to the location and add their satellite telemetry buoy. Once the DTAG came off and the telemetry buoy was on, the Stellwagen steamed even farther offshore on an overnight trip to swap out some autonomous recorders.
For more information on what happened with the entangled whale after we left the scene and over the course of the next morning, check out this article by the Savannah Morning News.
As I sit here listening to the wind rippling the flag on the deck and watching the gray waves roaring on the beach, it’s hard to believe that the weather was ever nice enough to tag whales. Luckily for us, though, it was! Sunday we managed to get a tag on a mom (#2123, “Couplet”) that stayed on for a little more than two hours. The tags are programmed to come off at a preset time for retrieval, but we think this one was knocked off early by the calf rolling around on mom. Calves seem to spend a lot of time on their mothers’ backs, especially here in the calving grounds. It probably saves the calves a lot of energy to get some nudges here and there from mom, but it’s also not particularly helpful in keeping suction cups attached to a whale’s back.
If that wasn’t enough, on Monday’s trip we had glassy seas and an incredibly cooperative pair of whales. The mother (#2040, “Naevus”) was spending lots of time at the surface, probably because her calf kept nursing. We monitored their behavior before going in to tag, and luckily she wasn’t too wary of the boat and let us get a great approach. After the tag was on, the whales treated us to lots of time at the surface, and we got some great looks at the interactions between mom and calf. This little calf must have been hungry—it was nursing frequently and sticking close to mom except for a couple occasions when something piqued its curiosity.
One of those things was our boat: after a bout of nursing behavior a few hundred meters away, both whales sank down and popped up right near the R/V Barber! The calf came in for a curious approach before joining back up with mom. Unfortunately, none of us got footage, but the view from the bowsprit is certainly something I’ll never forget. Something else I won’t forget is how funny it was to watch the calf trying to breach and slap its pectoral flippers when a group of bottlenose dolphins was swimming around the calf.
After a while, we left the R/V Stellwagen with the whales and headed offshore to see if that’s where the rest of the right whales were hiding. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case, but we did happen upon several loggerhead sea turtles who were probably enjoying the warmer waters near the Gulf Stream. The Stellwagen retrieved the tag with about 6 hours of recording, so all in all it was definitely a great day out there.
Yesterday the weather window slammed shut, so we’re stuck inside for a couple more days. But the whales are out there, and at least some of them are letting us put tags on, so I’m optimistic about the rest of the season!
For more information about Couplet and Naevus, check out our earlier post about the ongoing right whale pedigree project.
I have a new favorite thing: tagging whales.
This field season, I am working on a tagging project led by Dr. Doug Nowacek (Duke Marine Lab) with our very own Dr. Susan Parks as the Co-PI. The project aims to track as many right whales as we can to figure out just what they are doing and where they do it in Florida. The project is particularly timely given the Navy’s plans to use an undersea warfare training range adjacent to the winter calving grounds. The tags allow us to get more detailed information than vessel-based or aerial surveys alone, and the data allow the Navy to increase their understanding of how the right whales use this habitat and how to mitigate the effects of their training range.
So where do I fit in? Well, wherever is most helpful. I am here to learn everything I can about using DTAGs, including programming, downloading, and deploying. Yesterday we went out in search of whales and found a mother/calf pair. As per usual with right whales in the Southeast, they were keeping a low profile—we first saw the calf’s back just barely visible above the water about 500 meters away. With the warm air, it’s hard to look for the distinctive V-shaped blow, so we need to rely on other cues such as the broad black back of an adult or any white water created by a whale “speeding” by at 2-3 knots.
Once we caught up with the pair, we realized that they weren’t really traveling in a single direction, making them somewhat unpredictable. We had some helpful spotters in a survey plane above us to give us an ID for the mom (NARWC #2645) and keep track of the whales for a while, and eventually we made a tagging attempt. The whales sank down at exactly the wrong moment, remaining untagged.
At one point, the calf surfaced very close to the boat, and Matt, a grad student at Duke, got a great shot of its little face! Or very large face as the case may be.
So the whales got to keep some of their secrets for at least another day, but hopefully the fog will clear this afternoon so we can find some more whales!