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.