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.