Friday, December 25, 2009

Aerial Surveys begin in the Southeast U.S.

Aerial surveys began the beginning of December in the right whale calving area in the Southeast United States. There are a number of teams ranging from North Carolina to Florida that cover as much area as they can on every good weather day. Winter always brings its challenges, even in the relatively warm south. Our seas in the Bay of Fundy change from very calm to feather white - so much wind that the entire surface of the Bay is white from wind whipped waves.

No right whale calves have been spotted yet that I know of but you can keep up with the New England Aquariums aerial team on their blog ( I will endeavour to post any sightings of our adoptive whales as I hear about them and update the family trees. Right whales have complicated family trees with many fathers for each female and her calves.

While another banner year would be fabulous (last year's 39 was a record breaker), it is impossible to know at this point how many calves will be born. We can just keep our fingers crossed that the number of calves will be above average and keep the population growing. The latest population figure for 2008 is 438, a spectacular growth but still incredibly fragile.

Pico returns

On January 5, 2009, a right whale was spotted off the island of Pico in the Azores. Well-known for the sperm whales that occur off the Azores, right whales are a rare sighting so when one was spotted it created a lot of excitement. Photographs of the head of the whale were matched by the New England Aquarium researchers to a female #3270 of unknown age, first added to the right whale catalogue in 2002. The bonnet callosity of this whale closely resembled the shape of Pico Island and as is the tradition with naming right whales, a group voted on a selection of names, agreeing on Pico. I was rather proud that I had suggested the name.

Pico had been seen in the Bay of Fundy by the New England Aquarium researchers in late Sept. 2008. All of her previous sightings had been from the Great South Channel, Georges Bank, Gulf of Maine, Roseway Basin and the Bay of Fundy so the Azores sighting was a complete surprise. You can look at pictures of Pico and also her sighting history on the North Atlantic Right Whale Catalog This website lists all the identified and catalogued right whales in the North Atlantic.

In the latest newsletter from the New England Aquarium, Pico has been spotted again, back in the Bay of Fundy. That is a straight line, round trip, cross-Atlantic swim of over 7000 kilometres in a year.

Interestingly, there have also been right whale sightings in recent years off the Canary Islands. No other information is available at this time about these sightings.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Right whales in November

Many years some right whales remain off Grand Manan and the Bay of Fundy well into November and sometimes into December. In late January of this year, three right whales were seen off Point LePreau, above Grand Manan. However, this year, only two right whales have been seen since October 20.

Where have they gone? Three juvenile whales were seen off North Carolina on November 8 but the largest numbers have been seen off Cashes Ledge, Jeffrey's Ledge and Jordan Basin in the lower Gulf of Maine. Most sightings of right whales in the winter in the Gulf of Maine, Cape Cod area are from aerial surveys, either through the National Marine Fisheries Service or the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, MA. Winter conditions in areas where right whales might be located are often severe and beyond workable conditions for small boats so aerial surveys are used and can cover a much wider area. Details of right whale sightings in the Gulf of Maine to Long Island, NY from the North East Right Whale Sighting Advisory System can be viewed at:

Another unique method of locating right whales is through listening posts or buoys located on or near the ocean floor. Checking the website as I write, two buoys have picked up right whale calls along the shipping lane for the port of Boston within the last 24 hours: If you would like to hear some right whale calls, click on the "Explore Whale Sounds" tab.

Winter aerial surveys of the calving areas from North Carolina to Florida will begin in a couple of weeks and will continue to March. Hopefully it will be another good year for right whale mothers and calves.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Right whales seen on aerial survey

I have been working with Fisheries and Oceans to look for right whales off Grand Manan. This is to alert lobster fishermen to their presence so they can take voluntary measures to avoid having the whales entangled in their lobster gear. Our first two flights yielded many humpback whales and finback whales but no right whales, however the November 7 flight resulted in two right whales spotted toward the end of our flight. We also had 23 humpback whales, 18 finback whales, 2 basking sharks and 1 unidentified whale (dove before we could get a good look at it).

Here is a view of the pilot and the fisheries officer in the plane, both watching for whales:

The two right whales were swimming southwest and may have been going out of the Bay. November 10 is the start of the lobster season around Grand Manan, Campobello Island, the Wolves and along the New Brunswick mainland. It is always an anxious time particularly when there are still large numbers of right whales in the Bay which potentially could get tangled in buoy lines or the lines that link lobster traps together in a trawl. During the summer and fall, the Bay is relatively free of fishing gear, unlike the coast of Maine, where lobster fishing is in full swing.
Here are two lobster boats loaded with traps ready to set on November 10:

We will continue the flights until possibly December, depending on what we find. The flights are also only flown is good weather which can be hard to find this time of year. Too many white caps can make it difficult to see the whales.

Here is a photo of two humpbacks taken during the November 5 flight. The orangish-brown streak is actually whale "poop". This humpback had been eating krill. Unlike in right whales, humpback poop is more liquid and disperses quickly, whereas right whale poop may float at the surface for quite some time and is often more solid. You can tell these are humpback whales because of the long white flippers, dorsal fin and balloon-shaped blow or spout.

Friday, October 30, 2009

There is hope

After viewing the gripping images of Chris Jordan,, of albatross chicks dying on Midway Island because they parents feed them plastic caps, lighters, etc. mistaking them for fish or something edible, it is hard to feel positive about the future of the oceans. However, when I opened a letter today from a mother living in New Hampshire, I see a glimmer of hope.

A family visited Grand Manan this summer, had a wonderful time and plan to return again. Obviously their visit to Grand Manan had a lot of meaning because their daughter upon arriving home decided that she didn't need any birthday presents and wanted her friends to bring money instead so she could use it to help save right whales. Needless to say her mother was very proud of her daughter as am I as well.

How old is this child? Seven years old and this is not the first time someone this young has decided that gifts can be used to help others and don't have to be things that you may want but probably don't need. We had a six year old girl last year do the same thing - give up presents so she could help right whales. This is the best kind of "regifting" that I know of and after looking at images of masses of products that are discarded daily, perhaps donating to your favourite cause may be the better way for give some relief to the strain we are putting on the oceans and all that make it their home.

Right whales gone from the Bay of Fundy?

On October 28 we did an aerial survey of the Grand Manan Basin where right whales are typically found. I had been out on October 25 by boat covering a small portion of this area as well. On both days, no right whales were seen, even though 20-25 were present close to Grand Manan (approximately 8 to 10 nautical miles) on October 20. That is how quickly things can change. We did see four fin whales and three humpback whales from the plane and three fin whales and three humpbacks from the boat, the latter in a totally different area. One of the humpbacks seen from the air was breaching - the splash is even more impressive from the air, and another was tail lobbing but they were separated by a couple of miles. It is hard not to make the relationship that these whales were possibly communicating with each other by making loud noises.

We have had a lot of wind in the last few weeks which can disperse the zooplankton patches. Right whales have also been showing up in the middle to lower part of the Gulf of Maine so perhaps the whales have started to move to their winter haunts. Aerial surveys will continue for a few more weeks, always dependent on the weather. Strong winds create lots of white caps which makes it more difficult to see whale blows or spouts and also cause a bigger distraction since the search image for a whale from the air is fleeting with little time to make a judgement on whether it is a wave or a whale.

Last year there were right whale remaining into December and some were even seen the end of January but every year is different and the distribution of right whales this summer was definitely not the "norm" which probably reflected a more scattered distribution of zooplankton.

Right whales do sometimes return after leaving the Bay. Their meanderings seem to be part of their lives with sometimes no where in particular to go but a huge ocean to explore, stopping to feed where ever they find dense enough patches of zooplankton.

Silt and her calf

On September 19, I was thrilled to see Silt (#1812) and her calf but did not expect them to be practically on shore. I and several other people were at Swallowtail Light doing some work on the keepers buildings. We were almost finished when we heard a noise. Looking down, there was Silt and her calf almost touching the rocks. The shore drops off steeply there so they could get in very close. They rolled around, enjoying each other's company before moving offshore, travelling along the ferry route to the north. We had no idea where they had come from, seeming to appear out of the blue but no doubt had been travelling close along the shore.

Here is a picture of where the whales were first seen (X) and where they went:

I went and got a friend and her daughter who were visiting and we watched from another vantage the whales slowly swim along, holding our breathes to see where the whales would surface when the ferry passed nearby - fortunately not in the ferry's path.

I realize Silt isn't one of our adoptive whales but every right whale is special and this certainly warmed our hearts.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Another great grand calf for Kleenex

The New England Aquarium saw #2123 and her calf today after the team dried out from heavy rain and wind as a storm moved through the area this morning. #2123 was born in 1991 and this is her fourth calf (2001, 2003, 2006, 2009). She is the daughter of Drippy-nose (AKA Sonnet in the right whale catalogue) and grand daughter of Kleenex. Her first calf died which is why there is only two years between the first calf and the second calf but since then she has been on a regular three year cycle, pregnant for a year, nursing for a year and one resting year.

Philip Hamilton of the New England Aquarium commented that the calf was so large that it looked like a juvenile. The transfer of energy from mother to calf is tremendous with the females loosing a substantial percentage of their body mass while nursing their calves. The resting year is necessary to regain the weight lost.

#2123 is the only grand daughter of Kleenex who is old enough to have calves. Kleenex has only one other daughter who has had a calf but she still has a large family with her eighth calf also born this year.

After I had sent a photograph of a calf that I had taken to Philip, it was determined we had both seen #2123's calf, the calf being alone when we sailed by. This is a head on photograph of the calf's head which can used to track this whale throughout its life:

This is a photograph of the calf lying on its side flipper slapping. This behaviour creates a loud bang and may be used by calves and mothers to alert each other of their presence when they are separated, if their calls go unanswered. During the summer, the mother often goes off to feed while the calf remains at the surface. The calf's eye is clearly visible.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Another entangled calf

We had the Calvineers out today. We didn't find Calvin and her calf but hey were happy with the right whales we saw. The Calvineers are grade 7 and 8 students from the Adams School in Castine, ME.

Bill McWeeney, a teacher at the school, initiated the group to help his students understand about right whales, their lives and the issues they face daily in the ocean. The group is named after the right whale Calvin because of her amazing ability to survive despite being orphaned at eight months of age and being entangled at nine years of age. She carries the scars of that entanglement on her right side and tail but the knowledge imparted by her brief existence with her mother, Delilah, has allowed her to become a successful mother herself, following Delilah's fluke prints along the eastern seaboard.
We found a large group of right whales and a surface active group with the focus being Slash. Her calf was outside the group and I managed to get a photograph of the recent wounds from an entanglement. The New England Aquarium research team had seen these wounds and were interested in more photographs. I was pleased that we were able to locate the calf and I could get a few quick shots. This is the second calf that has been entangled this season. Baldy's calf also bears scars across the face and body when it became entangled but managed to break free. A mother has also been entangled, Mavynne, and successfully disentangled by staff of the Center for Coastal Studies. However, the fate of her calf is unknown.
This is a photograph of the right side of the leading edge of the tail of Slash's calf with the skin scraped off. There are also cuts across the tail stock. Calves often don't lift their tails very high so it was fortunate to see this much of the tail.

Entanglements are all too frequent in these whales and the ugly scars are a testament to their pain and suffering. Ship strikes are also a major issue and I was able to capture an image of Slash's partially amputated tail beside a normal, unscarred right whale tail. A boat propeller cut through Slash's tail leaving this massive scar on the underside of her tail and part of the fluke missing:

Monday, September 14, 2009


Quoddy Link Marine made a trip to right whales on September 13 and found Boomerang amongst 40+ right whales. Although the fog was thick, it lifted enough for them to find the whales including Boomerang, Baldy's grand calf, daughter of #1503. A long trip from St. Andrews, NB, to where the right whales are currently located in the eastern side of the Grand Manan Basin, but well worth the trip.

As previously mentioned this triad is three generations, all with calves this year. Thanks Danielle Dion for the photograph of the underside of Boomerang's tail with its distinctive scar. Unfortunately, all too often it is the massive scarring on right whales, usually from entanglement, that make individuals more readily identified when used in combination with the callosity patterns on their heads.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Baldy's calf from 1985 and Baldy's grand calf

We had an absolutely gorgeous, calm day on the Bay of Fundy. When we finally arrived in an area of right whales, it was so calm that the loudest things were whales breathing, after we reminded our passengers that whales can hear them screaming with excitement. It is interesting that it often isn't appreciated that whales have all the senses we do and can be disturbed by loud noises.
#1503 - born in 1985 to Baldy:

We watched several whales, some socializing, some napping, some feeding until we eventually found a mother and calf pair as we were at the end of our time. Fortunately I was able to photograph both the mother and calf and sent the photographs to the New England Aquarium researcher, Philip Hamilton, who spends many hours a day looking at photographs of right whales and matching them to the catalogue for North Atlantic right whales. He emailed me back very quickly and confirmed that the mother was #1503, Baldy's daughter born in 1985. Philip was pleased that the calf was with Baldy's daughter because they hadn't been able to photograph both together. It is not unusual for mothers to separate from their calves for a few hours while feeding in the summer and if you do not see the mother and calf when they are together, you can be left wondering who belongs to whom.
#1503's calf:

This is #1503's fourth calf, her first calf was born in 1995 when she was 10, about the average age for a first calf. She didn't have another calf until 2003 and then in 2006 and now in 2009. #1503's daughter Boomerang is also a mother this year, as is Baldy giving us three generations with calves in 2009.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Calvin and her calf

We were fortunate to find Calvin and her new calf September 10th. At first Calvin was by herself, having been feeding and also rubbing in the mud some 180 m below and then she reunited with her calf who also had a bit of mud on its head.

Calvin's 2009 Calf, first sen December 30th off Wrightsville Beach, NC during an aerial survey looking for right whale mothers and their calves:

Calvin's scars from when she was entangled in fishing gear stand out. She has a long scrape on her right side that healed with a long white scar. She also has a scar across the front of her upper lip below her bonnet callosity and several white scars on her tail and tail stock. Many scars on right whales heal with white scar tissue rather than the normal dark skin colour. Calvin and her calf about to dive:

The scar above and the scar on Calvin's upper lip are from being entangled in fishing gear when she was nine:

Calvin's side profile and her distinctive callosities. She is moulting skin on her head which gives the patchy appearance. She also had mud on her head from the bottom.

There are various theories about the mud, humpbacks also come up with mud on them at times. It could be that they are feeding on krill very close to the bottom, sometimes within a metre, or that they are rubbing their heads because of the whale lice or may use mud as we do, for a facial or it may be for some other reason. The mud is very thick and sticky and can remain on the whale's head for several surfacings.

The sighting of Calvin was also fortuitous for the New England Aquarium research team who have been trying to obtain a small skin sample from the calf which will be analyzed genetically and may result in the father being identified and also the sex of this calf.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Entangled mother released

September 4th saw the successful disentanglement of a right whale mother named Mavynne. She had been in the Bay of Fundy on August 28th but Friday morning was spotted by recreational fishermen and reported to the US Coast Guard at 7:30 AM. The disentanglement team from the Center for Coastal Studies responded and with the help of another recreational fisherman, eventually found the entangled right whale at noon.

The whale was free swimming but was moving slowly because of the weight of the gear it was towing and creating clouds of mud around it, probably from dragging the gear across the bottom. There were many wraps of line over the head and through the mouth. After several attempts to approach the whale, the team was successful in cutting a line across the top of the head. The weight of the fishing gear underneath the whale was sufficient to release all of the lines including the ones through the mouth. The team followed the whale for an hour to make check its status and never saw another right whale.

Photographs from the disentanglement attempt were sent to the New England Aquarium for an identification. The whale was quickly identified as a mother from this year, Mavynne, which sent shivers through everyone. We are hoping that her calf eventually found her as she called for her calf.

Mavynne is an interesting mother because she is the first known right whale mother to trade her calf with another right whale mother, Stumpy. In 1989 both were mothers and photographed in the calving area with calves. When the genetic profiles were done for the calves, at first the geneticists thought the samples had been reversed because the calves did not show genetic similarities to their mothers but when compared to the opposing mothers, did. The circumstances of the trade are not known but happened shortly after birth of each baby. This trading of calves will not happen again between these two females because unfortunately, a pregnant Stumpy, with a near-term fetus, were found dead in February, 2004 off Virginia Beach, killed by a collision with a vessel.

These sad stories are all too often in right whales and despite efforts to protect these whales, continue to happen.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Baldy's eighth baby

Baldy's eighth baby suffered through an entanglement in presumed fishing gear sometime during the migration from Florida to the Bay of Fundy. Already seen by the New England Aquarium research team, Quoddy Link Marine naturalist Danielle Dion ( provided me with photographs of what she thought was Baldy’s calf taken off Head Harbour, Campobello Island but we have discovered that these photos are actually of another young right whale that has not been identified as of yet that has also been entangled.

Right whales have been very close to Campobello this summer, beginning in late August. This area was used in 1980-1 but is more frequently used in October of most recent years with the most extreme occurrence of right whales in the fall of 2006. This occurrence near the beginning of the lobster season precipitated the Right Whale Mitigation Plan or Southwest New Brunswick, similar to the voluntary Code of Ethics for whale watchers, outlining methods that lobster fishermen can take to avoid entangling right whales and also avoid loosing their fishing gear.

Photos of a young right whale that has been entangled. Danielle Dion photographs.

Danielle has been shocked at the beat up nature of right whales, i.e. very badly scarred whales. Much of this scarring is the result of entanglement in fishing gear. Those not regularly watching North Atlantic right whales are often unaware of their badly scarred bodies. Over 70% of right whales carry scars from entanglement in fishing gear. Because right whales are stronger than many whale species (due to their method of feeding, filtering the water as they swim), when entangled they fight the lines which are anchored to the bottom and usually break free, taking lines with them. In their struggle, they often scrape the skin which when it heals appears white and makes it more visible. They also roll and complicate the entanglement by creating tight wraps. Some right whales carry entangling ropes for five or more years. Right whales also don't slow down when disentanglers are trying to remove the lines which makes it difficult to free them.

Thanks to Danielle for the great photographs of this young right whale.

Calvin and her second baby are in the Bay of Fundy

Calvin was spotted in the Bay of Fundy by the New England Aquarium research team September 2 with her second calf. Calvin and a number of other right whales were well above the Grand Manan Basin where they are usually located each summer and closer to Point LePreau. A number of mothers and calves have been identified by the New England Aquarium and the number identified rose to 20 on September 2 for this season with hopefully a few more to come after a record breaking calving season for right whales with 39 calves born. Not all right whale mothers bring their babies to the Bay of Fundy, some prefer offshore waters.

The right whales may start moving back into the Grand Manan Basin because it appears that the copepod biomass (zooplankton that right whales prefer) are beginning to build after being largely absent in August. Plankton tows done by our researchers on Thursday showed a higher level of copepods than in previous tows this summer. This lack of zooplankton in the Grand Manan Basin is the most likely reason that the whales are elsewhere but still in the Bay of Fundy.

Slash off the Wolves

On August 30 a courtship group of right whales was spotted off the Wolves, an island group between Grand Manan and Blacks Harbour, just off the ferry route. A number of right whales have moved in to that area, including several mothers and calves, because of a 10 m band of zooplankton concentrated between 80 and 90 m. The focal female of this group was a female with a beautiful white belly. White on the bellies and chins of right whales is only present on 30 % of the population. Because she was upside down, it took a while before she rolled over to breathe and the callosity patterns could be seen but just as she was rolling over, Slash’s very characteristic scar on her tail came in view and I could instantly identify her. The courtship group lasted for many minutes but broke up as a small calf approached the group. I presumed this was Slash’s calf coming to find its mother. During the summer and fall it is not unusual for mothers and calves to separate for an hour or more while the mother does deep feeding dives. Males listen to the calls between mother and calf and sometimes interrupt with their amorous attentions, even though the mother is still nursing and will be taking at least one resting year before possibly getting pregnant again. This may also be a reason mothers and calves are often by themselves or separate from the main group of right whales but courtship groups are very much a part of right whale social bonding and do occur throughout the year even though the females will not be getting pregnant until the winter.

We didn't see Slash again but the calf stayed in the area for awhile. Slash is often difficult to photograph when she has a calf, doing a good job avoiding cameras. Her calves are not always adequately documented but hopefully this year will be different.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Where are the right whales?

It has been an unusual summer with few right whales in the deep waters of the Grand Manan Basin. Over the last few days, 40+ right whales have been found east of the southern Wolves, an island group that you pass on the ferry crossing, north of Grand Manan. The New England Aquarium research team has been surveying this area and also had another vessel out surveying an area to the southeast of Grand Manan where another group of right whales were found on Friday. Together with the whales we found on our whale watch, 80+ right whales are in the Bay.

The zooplankton tows done in an area where right whales normally occur have been coming up with very few copepods and hence the reason the right whales are not there. Off the Wolves, processed copepods, courtesy of herring, are floating at the surface in long windrows. Obviously the herring are also feeding on copepods in the same area as the right whales.

A few right whales have been found on Roseway Basin as well by another vessel with New England Aquarium researchers. They have been dodging hurricanes and tropical storms with the latest, Danny, working up the coast. Fortunately this second storm has never developed into a hurricane and will not be as damaging to the area. The first hurricane, Bill, moved mostly offshore, also reducing the storm damage but seas were high.

There is still a long way to go in documenting the right whale calves. We have seen very few calves, although did have a calf in the surface active group we were watching yesterday. It was difficult to tell who the mother was in the mass of pursuing males but hopefully I did catch her on camera.

It was great to see Gemini yesterday in a surface active group of about in a surface active group of 15-20 right whales.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Hurricane Bill

The Bay of Fundy has been very quiet with most of the effects of Hurricane Bill occurring along the Nova Scotia Atlantic coastline. Offshore the wave heights have been more spectacular with 10 to 13 m (30 to 40 foot) seas. These oceanic conditions are ones that right whales and all other marine mammals must deal with as part of their daily lives. It isn't any wonder why they like to nap at the surface on calm days. Heavy seas invoke higher surfacings, often involving breaching or tail lobbing. Timing breathing is important so the waves aren't crashing over the blowhole on the inhale. However, body surfing is not uncommon.

Seabird enthusiasts often head to the shore after hurricanes to see if strays may turn up that were carried by the storm outside their normal range. Similar events can happen with whales but not necessarily because of direct affect but because of strong wind and currents rearranging the zooplankton patches and fish schools. It is not uncommon for whales to spend more time feeding after a storm rather than socializing, replenishing energy spent during stormy conditions or because prey (food) is more spread out.

It will be interesting to see what has happened in the Bay of Fundy after 3 days of dense fog. The New England Aquarium research team is heading out to Roseway Basin for a right whale survey, delaying their departure because of the hurricane. They are hoping to find more mothers and calves because, although the Bay of Fundy should be full of mothers and calves, the number of pairs has been low given the 39 births. Part of their team will remain in the Bay and continue surveying.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

More right whales have arrived

The weekend had more right whales arriving in the Bay of Fundy, with an estimated 40 or more along a narrow stretch. Prior to this, the New England Aquarium had photographed and/or identified 33 different whales including seven calves since the beginning of August. The whales are close to Grand Manan on the western side of the Grand Manan Basin.

Zooplankton tows conducted by our researchers last week in the Grand Manan Basin showed low levels of copepods which is the major reason the right whales are not in the deep part of the Basin. Zooplankton tows were not done on the western side of the Basin where the right whales are now but it would be interesting to see the results and are planned.

This arrival of right whales is a bit later than some years but there is great variability in the arrival times of right whales in the Bay of Fundy. Development of dense zooplankton patches, availability of zooplankton elsewhere are possible reasons. The more whales, the more difficult it is to find mothers and calves who earlier almost had the Bay to themselves.

Hot, humid weather has also spawned more fog which makes finding right whales or any whales more difficult. If the sea conditions are calm, whales can be heard breathing and you can move slowly toward the direction where the sound is coming from but great care must be taken and slow speeds employed since sounds travel farther than the whales can be seen in the restricted visibility.

A number of small power boats travelling above 15 knots have been in the whale area in the last few days, whale watching. So far there have been no close encounters between the boats and the whales but slow speed is the more prudent approach to watching whales, particularly if the operators are inexperienced with whale behaviour.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Baldy's calf

Baldy was seen in the Bay of Fundy August 9th by the New England Aquarium research team during their regular surveys. Baldy's calf has been injured and has marks across the head and also on the tail stock. It is unclear at this time the cause of the injury but is of concern. This is Baldy's eighth calf and she has one of the larger documented right whale families.

Another calf, the calf of 2145, has a large shark bite on its side but although impressive, probably poses no long term problems for this whale.

Slash and calf

August 9th, the New England Aquarium research vessel found Slash #1303 and her calf in the Bay of Fundy during their regular surveys.

This is Slash's sixth calf. Slash last had a calf in 2005. She is often hard to photograph with her calf and many of her calves are not well documented. Slash is identifiable not only with her callosity pattern but also because of a tail injury from a propeller cutting through her tail.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Radiator entangled

We just learned from the Atlantic Large Whale Entanglement Network that Radiator was seen on July 18 towing a round yellow buoy south of Nantucket Island off Cape Cod, MA. He was seen from a charter vessel returning to shore after looking for pelagic seabirds (those seabirds that spend their lives on the ocean except when nesting). There were some photographs taken and the New England Aquarium identified the whale as Radiator.

Radiator is so named because of the propeller scars on his left tail stock. He also has scars from a previous entanglement on his tail. One of the photographs showed relatively fresh scrapes across his peduncle. The point of entanglement is not clear because he was not fully fluking up but keeping the left side of the fluke underwater. This is not normal right whale behaviour and he may have other injuries.

Because the report was not received until late in the evening, no response could be made to assess the entanglement and members of the Network are asked to keep a lookout for Radiator.

Entanglements are much too common in right whales and represent a significant mortality problem for them.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Right whale mothers and calves arriving

We have had two reports of mothers and calves in the Bay of Fundy, one report was on July 15 by two of our researchers while they were doing a plankton tow in the Grand Manan Basin. The other was on July 15 by Brier Island Whale & Seabird Tours from Brier Island, NS. We don't have an identification on either report and also do not know at this time if they were the same pair but quite probably could be two different pairs. Frequently early in the season, right whales are quite mobile, moving around the Bay of Fundy before staying in areas of high copepod abundance. Part of this is because the copepod patches (zooplankton that right whales prefer) accumulate and grow in size as the summer progresses, allowing more whales to feed in the same area. Mothers also seem to show their calves around various places probably teaching them likely migration routes and feeding locations.

There are still right whales in the Great South Channel and above George's Bank in the Gulf of Maine. Typically when these aggregations disappear, right whale numbers go up in the Bay of Fundy. Right whales may be slow to come in to the Bay of Fundy in some years even though copepods are abundant because copepods are available elsewhere without the commute.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Baldy, Mother of the Year

Photo caption: Mother and calf touching – While on the calving grounds off of Florida and Georgia,, calves and mothers are nuzzling, touching and nudging continually over the first couple months of life in touching displays of maternal affection. Credit: “Taken under a Scientific Research Permit issued by the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA.”

Tony LaCasse, Media Relations Director of the New England Aquarium, wrote in their Mother's Day press release:

This year’s standout right whale mother has the unflattering name of “Baldy”. She was seen with her 8th calf this season, which ties the known record. She has been giving birth to calves for at least 35 years. Also this winter, she had both daughters and granddaughters also give birth. As of this year, Baldy has been responsible for bringing at least 18 right whales into this world, which is nearly 5% of the entire population! That clearly shows the difference that a single mother can make and how important it is to keep these mothers safe from human-caused hazards including vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement.

The press release also went on to say:

  1. The Incredibly Long Swim to the Hospital - Finding a safe place to give birth is a concern for all mothers. Going well beyond the frenzied human drive to a hospital, right whale mothers make a hazardous nearly 1000 mile journey down the East Coast. The maternal strategy is a desire not to have newborn calves burning up valuable calories in cold, northern waters.

  2. Big Babies! - Right whales calves at birth are estimated to weigh about 2400 pounds and are commonly more than 13 feet long.

  3. Maternal Fasting - Right whale mothers essentially fast for four months while they are at the calving grounds and on the migration each way. Once out of New England waters, their preferred food of animal plankton is too low in density to make feeding worthwhile.

  4. Have a Baby, Lose 10,000 Pounds – Even though mothers do not have the opportunity to eat in the birthing waters, calves are still hungry. Females convert body fat in to mother’s milk, and a right whale calf can gain hundreds of pounds in a week. Right whale mothers are literally transferring tons of body weight to their babies. Over the course of a year of nursing, right whale mothers can lose 10 - 30% of their average 50 ton weight or anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 pounds.
Why have right whale mothers been able to have so many babies in recent times?

Philip Hamilton, a senior whale scientist (at the New England Aquarium) said, “Everything points to the fact that the whales are in good condition physically. Many mothers are giving birth every three years which is ideal, and many young females are growing fast enough to become first time mothers at younger ages. The availability of food is probably the key factor.” Right whales primarily feed on krill-like animal plankton called copepods in New England and eastern Canadian waters.

For decades, North Atlantic right whales have remained among the most endangered whales in the world due in part to their very low reproductive rates. The entire population numbers less than 400 and in 2000 only a single calf was born. However, the recently concluded 2009 calving season saw a record 39 baby right whales born off the Florida and Georgia coasts. The old record of 31 was beaten by more than 25%!

This year’s baby boom is to be celebrated, but North Atlantic right whales still have a very long road to recovery. New England Aquarium whale scientists in Boston have been studying right whales and working toward their protection for more than 30 years.

Monday, April 27, 2009

The new Dr. Gillett

We want to congratulate Roxanne Gillett and her successful defense of her PhD. thesis from Trent University in Peterborough, ON, on April 15, 2009, on North Atlantic right whale genetics.

Roxanne was instrumental in putting together the family trees we use in our symbolic adoptions of right whale families. Roxanne studied in the Dr. Brad White lab at Trent.

We wish her success.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Whales force Royal Caribbean cruise ship to abandon port call in Maine

This headline was found online on the USA today cruise ship blog on March 3, 2009. They quoted the Herald Gazette of Rockland, Me, the port where the cruise ship was scheduled to visit in June:

"The news outlet says Royal Caribbean told officials Friday that the 2,446-passenger Grandeur of the Seas wouldn't be visiting as planned because of a recently announced federal restriction that limits vessels to no greater than 10 knots (11.5 miles) per hour in a protective area off Cape Cod. The ship would have had to transit the area to reach the town."

"The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced the new restriction in December as a way to reduce ship strikes with right whales. Only around 350 northern right whales exist and ship strikes are one of the leading causes of death for the animals.

The restriction runs from March 1 to July 31."

Obviously with any change in shipping rules and patterns there will be ramifications. I suspect slowing down through right whale habitat was going to cause scheduling problems with the cruise ship and they chose to skip one port. It is unfortunate that the merchants in Rockland and Camden will not benefit from the visit of this cruise ship but in the long run, it is hoped that these changes will save a few right whales from being killed after colliding with these large, fast moving vessels. There is only one reason right whales are endangered today, the unrelenting onslaught from whaling until they were protected. Their recovery has been slowed by deaths from collisions with vessels and complications from entanglement.

It is apparent, however, that some people are unaware that if a right whale is hit by a cruise ship, it will not be a "bump" as was posted by "mzdab3000" in response to this article. The whale would not survive, just as a person would not survive being hit by a fast moving tractor trailer.

This person also went on to say "the first endangered species that needs protection is the working men and women of this country. And worry about the protection of whales second." This is exactly what is getting the humans in deeper and deeper trouble and our actions are now grossly affecting the global natural environment. It is difficult with the current economic situation to loose this potential income but if we can not come to the realization that continual development is not sustainable, we are in for a much wider collapse than loosing one cruise ship visit to one port.

Royal Caribbean still intends to include Rockland in their schedule, but after the speed restrictions are over for this year. It is unfortunate that they could not promote this visit to Rockland during the speed restrictions as their part in potentially saving a right whale but in reality, the probability of a vessel strike is further reduced by eliminating this visit entirely when right whales are likely to be in the shipping lanes in this area.

The U.S. government should be applauded for instituting this speed rule on the recommendation of various groups concerned with reducing the number of right whales killed through collisions with vessels and not criticized.

Wart still entangled

As is reported on our AdoptRightWhales website, Wart was recently entangled. Here is an update on her status.

Wart was seen entangled off Cape Cod Bay just over a year ago, March 6, 2008. On March 15 a disentanglement team from the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies were able to shorten one of the trailing lines that looped through her mouth, exiting on both sides and trailing behind her, but the rope remained in her mouth. There were no other sightings of Wart until February 25, 2009, when she was again found in Cape Cod Bay. The line is still through her mouth. Often with simple entanglements such as this, the rope will work its way out of the baleen but with over 300 long, stiff plates of baleen in the mouth of each right whale, rope can be held firmly in place and work up to the top of the plate where the plate enters the gum line. This an hold it in place unless there is some drag on the rope to help tug it out of the mouth.

We are keeping our fingers crossed that the rope will eventually work its way out and will not adversely affect her. She will continue to be monitored by the disentanglement network.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Will the number of right whale calves this year break the 40 mark?

As of March 3, there have been 38 right whale mothers and calves identified on the calving grounds in the SE U.S. and one dead calf not currently attributed to a particular mother. A few possible mothers are still in the calving area so the number could grow. This number of calves is beginning to reach what should be seen biologically in this population but historically has been much lower and certainly an incredible difference from 2000 when only one right whale calf was born. Over 200 right whales have been seen this winter on the calving grounds, another extremely high number where far fewer right whales are usually seen. Over 80% of these mothers may bring their calves to the Bay of Fundy which could make for a very interesting summer.

Unfortunately, Bridle, #3311, is still entangled and her condition appears to be deteriorating. Disentanglement attempts are planned in hopes that some of the lines can be cut and relieve this whale of a painful burden. She spent several days off Florida and Georgia when she was first seen entangled and then travelled as far north as Block Island off Rhode Island before turning around and heading back to Florida. A satellite telemetry buoy attached to the trailing lines has been providing the position data for her travels which greatly helps in planning an disentanglement attempts.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Dead right whale, February 25, 2009

On February 25, a dead right whale was spotted during an aerial survey by the National Marine Fisheries Service off Cape Cod in an area called the Great South Channel. The whale has been identified as #3103, the daughter of #1703. The cause of death is not known as of yet. There were no external clues but a necropsy (dissection) is usually necessary to determine cause of death.

Many efforts have been undertaken to reduce the likelihood of ship strikes in both Canada and the United States. In the U.S. the shipping lanes into the port of Boston have been shifted and a new speed reduction rule was passed which would see ships slow down in areas where right whales are present, but despite these efforts, it is still a dangerous coastline for right whales.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slash is a new mom!

This is the best birthday present for me today, I received the latest update from the right whale calving grounds this morning from the New England Aquarium.

On February 18th, Slash was seen with her 6th calf. It has been a couple of years since she has been seen (2006) which is not unusual and four years since she had her last calf (2005). I will now try to patiently wait until the summer when no doubt she will come for a visit to the Bay of Fundy. She is not always the easiest mother to find, preferring to avoid vessels after her close encounter with a vessel when she lost part of her tail. We will have a number of old friends and a number of our adoptive mothers in the Bay this summer with their new calves.

The official calf count is at 34! with one dead calf not included in this list. Unfortunately, Gannet #2660, appears to have lost her calf. This can happen for a number of reasons, problems during birth, birth defects, storms that separate mother and calf, entanglement and vessel strikes. As with all babies, the first year of life has the highest mortality.

There are still a few weeks left in the calving season and it will be exciting to see what this record breaking calving year will bring. Previously the highest number of calves born in a year was in 2001 with 31. This, of course, is over a 29 year period (1980-2009) during which right whales along the eastern seaboard have been monitored.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Why are whales "missing"?

It would be an ideal world if we knew where each right whale was located everyday, however, the reality is that most whales are not seen and it takes a tremendous effort from a few groups that spend hours on the water or in the air trying to find and identify individual right whales. In the winter most effort is concentrated in the calving area from the Carolinas south to Florida, although some work is done in the Gulf of Maine through aerial surveys and limited boat surveys. Winter conditions can be daunting in the Gulf of Maine with strong winds and cold temperatures. Wind is also a problem in the calving area during the winter and can limit the number of aerial surveys. In late winter, right whales are seen off Cape Cod and aerial and boat surveys are conducted. Right whales may remain in this area into July. Anyone without a permit, whale watchers, pleasure crafts, etc., are not allowed within 500 yards of right whales from Maine to Florida so much of the information about right whales along the eastern coast of the U.S. comes from dedicated research teams.

From July through to October, research boat surveys and whale watchers contribute photographs to the right whale catalogue in Canadian waters, primarily in the Bay of Fundy off Grand Manan Island and occasionally off the Scotia Shelf (off Nova Scotia) and in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

This leaves many places and many times where and when right whales could be but would go undetected. In fact, underwater sonobuoys (underwater microphones) can pick up the presence of right whales calling when people looking for right whales do not find them. This, of course, can be because of the amount of time right whales spend submerged when diving, weather conditions and the fact that visual surveys are limited to daylight hours.

Therefore, some of our symbolically adoptable whales may go several years without being seen. One of the longer gaps is with Catspaw, who went unphotographed for 12 years, seen in 1988 and not again until 2000. Kleenex was not seen between 2004 and 2009, Slash has not been seen since 2006.

And then we have sightings that are unusual. On April 29, 2005, Calvin and her first calf Hobbes, swam through the Cape Cod Canal from Buzzards Bay as she brought her calf up the coast from North Carolina. This short cut was built for shipping but has become a short cut for some whales as well. Only eight right whales, according to Philip Hamilton of the New England Aquarium, have been recorded using the Canal, the first in 1957 and the latest December 5, 2008, when the canal was closed to shipping until the right whale was clear of the canal.

When trying to follow generations of right whale families , it is easier to keep track of subsequent generations of females and their calves, than the progeny of male calves. The latter can only be done through genetics. Small skin samples are obtained with a biopsy dart and are analyzed at Trent University in Peterborough, ON.

It is sometimes further complicated by whether or not calves are adequately photo-documented in their first year when they are with their mothers. Slash and her calves have been a challenge to document because she is very leery of vessels and actively avoids them. This is understandable considering her history. At some point she was run over and the vessel's propellers cut through her tail, leaving it badly scarred and missing part of the flukes. Often it is known that Slash is in an area because her flukes are seen as she is diving. They have a unique shape and the long white scar stands out but getting close to her is usually not possible. Many of her calves are also males.

We will have a busy summer in the Bay of Fundy as the calf count as of February 10 stood at 31, tying the number born in 2001. Since 1980, that was the largest number of calves known to be born. It is suspected that this year will top that number since there are a few more weeks left in the calving season.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Ground hog day

There may be six more weeks of winter after the ground hogs saw their shadows today but the good news is that the number of calves has grown to 29 not counting the neonate that died off the coast of North Carolina in early December.

Baldy's family keeps growing with a new great grand calf to grand daughter 2503 or Boomerang, daughter of 1503 who is also a mom this winter. And of course, Baldy is also a mother, three generations with new calves. This brings Baldy's known family to 8 calves, 9 grand calves and 2 great grand calves.

Another bit of great news is that Kleenex has been seen with a new calf. She hasn't been photographed since 2004 when she had her last calf. This is unusual for Kleenex who prior to this had been regularly seen along the east coast. Who knows what exotic places she has been during this time. This brings the number of calves to eight that we know Kleenex has had. Kleenex family is also noteworthy because of a genetic mutation that has occurred in one of her calves, the first recorded for right whales.

The sad news last week was the death of a two year old male right whale who live stranded in North Carolina. The whale was very ill and was on the beach for several days before the whale was euthanized. A necropsy (dissection) was performed and the cause of the illness is being investigated. To see photos of the stranded whale and watch a news video from WNC local news click here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

The amazing things that arrive in the mail

I am always amazed when I go to the mail and find a letter from a child who has decided that instead of presents they want to help endangered right whales. Such was the case today with a 6 year old and her friends from Ottawa opting to symbolically adopt Calvin and Hobbes in lieu of a birthday present. I am hopeful we have a great generation in the making.

This is on a day when another six year old is fighting for his or her life, an entangled right whale off the coast of Georgia named Bridle #3311. This whale was born in 2003 to the now 22 year old right whale #1711 and as of yet the sex is unknown. The sex of a right whale can be determined through observation or by analysis of a small skin biopsy.

A team of volunteers are trying to remove tightly wrapped rope from fishing gear that is through the mouth, around the rostrum (the area on top of the whale's head in front of the blowholes, actually part of the upper lip since the nostrils have moved to the top of the head) and cutting into the lower lip on the left side. The left flipper is probably also wrapped in rope. A satellite buoy was attached to the trailing rope allowing this whale to be tracked at night and during bad weather making finding the whale faster and easier.

These entanglements can be life threatening, particularly when tightly wrapped and cutting through the skin. This leaves the whale's skin open to infection, can impair the whale's ability to feed and can lead to death.

It is hopeful that the disentanglement team will be able to remove enough of the rope to help release the pressure and eventually get all the rope off the whale. Unfortunately, unlike several other whale species, right whales are not often cooperative in these disentanglement efforts.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Another great calving season

The right whale calving season started in December in the U.S. Southeast (primarily Florida and Georgia waters) and has been amazing with at least 22 calves born by the middle of January. Since 2001, the right whale population has been experiencing a baby boom with more than the average number of calves (~11) being born each year. The highest year was 2001 with at least 31 calves born, however, this is still below the biological potential for the population, i.e. there are still many females who are not having calves. It is quite possible this calving year might exceed the high in 2001. This is exacting what this population needs to recover to a more sustainable level. Right whales remain critically endangered with an estimated population of about 400.

Females typically space their calves by three years (unless their calf dies and then they may have a calf within two years), are on average ten when they have their first calf (youngest four, oldest twenty), and only have one calf at a time. Nursing a rapidly growing baby that weighs a ton at birth is very energy consuming, particularly when the females are fasting for the first few months. Female right whales need a resting year to regain weight before getting pregnant again.

Of our adoptable whales, so far:
  • Baldy, #1240 was seen with her eighth calf (last calf in 2005)
  • Calvin, #2223 was seen with her second calf (last calf in 2005)
  • #1503, daughter of Baldy, was seen with her fourth calf (last calf in 2006)
  • #2145, daughter of Grand Teton #1145 and Gemini #1150, was seen with her fourth calf (last calf in 2007 but calf died)
  • Couplet, #2123, grand-daughter of Kleenex #1142, was seen with her fourth calf (last calf in 2006). Her mother is Drippy-nose AKA Sonnet #1123
  • Shenandoah, #1266, mother of one of Baldy's grand-calves with son #2140, was seen with her seventh calf (last calf in 2004)
Another mother of note is Mavynne #1151. She was involved in the only known case of adoption in right whales in 1989 when she swapped her calf with the calf of Stumpy #1004. No one knows the circumstances, but presumably the two mothers gave birth close to each other and for whatever reasons, their calves ended up being exchanged. The association was discovered through genetic analysis of skin samples from the calves and comparison with their mothers. This is Mavynne's sixth calf. Unfortunately, Stumpy was struck and killed by a ship in 2004. She was missing the right fluke tip on her tail and hence her name.

The right whale catalogue is an invaluable source of information about individual right whales. It is maintained by the New England Aquarium's dedicated right whale team.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Calvin is a mom again

On December 30, 2008, Calvin #2223 was spotted by the University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) aerial survey team on their way back to the airport. She was about 10nm offshore and was not alone. A small new born calf was seen near her head. The two were photographed and as the plane was circling a small skiff approached the pair. The crew tried to contact the people in the skiff via VHF radio to no avail. It is illegal to approach to within 500 yards of a right whale in U.S. waters from Maine to Florida. This law was enacted to give these endangered whales some space as they conduct their daily lives in an often crowded ocean, particularly when they are close to shore.

The survey team headed to shore and double checked with the right whale catalogue, maintained by the New England Aquarium, and confirmed this was indeed Calvin and the small calf was her second. Calvin was seen in 2005 in almost the same spot, on the same day with her first calf. Most right whale females give birth off the Georgia and Florida coasts but a few do use other areas. In fact, Calvin's mother, Delilah, also used the Wilmington area as a calving area in 1992 when Calvin was born. Calvin was Delilah's first and only calf. Delilah came to an untimely death in the Bay of Fundy off Grand Manan in 1992 when Calvin was only about eight months old. Calvin managed to survive being orphaned and is now the mother of two calves, her first calf being named Hobbes.

It is expected that Calvin and her new calf will eventually make it to the Bay of Fundy, a traditional nursery area in the summer and fall for many right whale mothers, although the journey is fraught with dangers, including collisions with vessels and entanglement in fishing gear.