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.