April 2017

Aerial Survey 4/3/17
Brigid McKenna, Data and Photo Manager

After having our last two flights cut short due to poor weather, we were excited to get a full survey of Cape Cod Bay in on the first Monday of April. The acoustic buoys along the shipping lane have been eerily quiet, and we took that as a possible sign that right whales were too far for their calls to be detected (e.g., in Cape Cod Bay). And we were right.

We took off from Chatham Municipal Airport at 10:30A for our survey flying from south to north, and did not land until 7:00P. We were busy documenting right whales all day from start to finish with individuals observed as far south as Sandy Neck and as north as Provincetown. We even had one on the backside near Chatham Harbor!

All in all we had 73(!) individuals including our first mom-calf pair of the season: EGNo 1012/Pediddle and her 2017 calf. Pediddle was first seen in 1978, so she is at least 39 years old. This is her eighth known calf and she is not commonly seen in Cape Cod Bay. When we came across them the calf was tail slapping wildly and rolling at the surface while Pediddle was subsurface feeding. Because of these behaviors we were able to document its genital slit and conclude that it’s a male! Earlier in the day the Army Corps of Engineers reported another mom-calf pair near the canal (EGNo 2614/Tripelago + calf), so two of the three calves have been brought to Cape Cod Bay, which is quite exciting.

We landed very close to sunset, and though it was an exhausting day we were all in good spirits that the whales have returned to Cape Cod Bay in such high numbers. From the next flight we will be able to discern whether this was the peak or if the numbers will continue to increase.

Aerial Survey 4/9/17
Alison Ogilvie, Observer

Today was a record breaking day, with 112 individual right whales tentatively identified in Cape Cod Bay! The next highest number sighted in one day was 96 back in 2014.Our estimate of documented individuals may end up increasing as we process photos!

The highlight of the day was finding EGNO 2614 (Tripelago), and her 2017 calf. This was the first time that our team had observed the pair, and the sighting conditions were ideal. Both whales could be seen clearly below the surface, as Tripelago fed and the calf swam nearby. This is her fourth calf, but the first time she has been seen as a mom in Cape Cod Bay.

There were groups of right whales scattered all over the bay, but the biggest concentrations were off of Race Point, on the east side of the bay, and in the south. Off of Race Point, the right whales were mixed in with fin whales, humpbacks, dolphins, and even the year’s first sei whale, making it one very busy scene. Thankfully our pilots helped us keep track of what was what and we circled our way up the track-line.

Not surprisingly, many of the right whales seen on today’s survey haven’t yet been sighted in the bay this year. We did find some of the regulars though. EGNOs 3401 (Tux), 4023 (Wolverine) and 1817 (Silt) were all seen again on today’s survey. We were also quite excited to find that EGNO 2360 (Derecha) a known female was back in the bay for the first time this season.

With so many whales on today’s survey, we weren’t sure if we would have time to finish all of our track-lines. Luckily, we were able to land back in Chatham just as the sun was setting. What an incredible day!

Aerial Survey 4/12/17
Brigid McKenna, Data and Photo Manager

Record day- again! We took off at 0930 despite varying forecasts of patchy fog, and found that visibility was decent and only got better.

Our first sighting of the day was a new mom/calf about 3 miles east of Highland Light. The mom in this previously undocumented pair was identified by NEAq as Eg# 1412 – a right whale that has only been seen seven times since 1984 and has not been sighted since 2003! This cryptic individual has only been documented on Jeffrey’s Ledge, and in waters off of Greenland and Iceland. She was subsurface feeding while the calf, the 4th one of the season, travelled alongside her. It was an amazing sighting that demonstrates how much more we have to learn about the North Atlantic right whale population and distribution.

The survey only got busier from there- we had a fin whale mom/calf pair, an entangled right whale, over 150 individual right whales, and much more scattered throughout the bay. There was so much activity everywhere that we were unable to finish it after 8+ hours due to daylight. It was a valuable flight for our team and the right whale community overall.

Aerial Survey 4/14/17
Brigid McKenna, Data and Photo Manager

What an exhausting but amazing week! This was our third long flight this week and numbers have only increased- therefore breaking more records. We took off shortly after 0800 and starting our survey going from south to north. Immediately after starting our tracks we had whales – and a lot of them- skim feeding Sandy Neck and off of Sesuit. In this aggregation we also found the fourth known mother-calf pair: 1711 and her 2017 calf. We observed mom feeding with the calf swimming alongside close. This adult female was born in 1987, and before this year was last seen in 2011 and is a semi-frequent visitor to Cape Cod Bay.

From there we had aggregations of subsurface feeding right whales scattered throughout the bay with another concentration south of Long Point. We even observed some in atypical locations like off of Manomet and close in on the backside off of Wellfleet. We were so busy that we had to refuel twice, something I have not done until now. In the end we documented about 206 individual right whales, which is close to 40% of the estimated population, and a lot of other species including 40 sei whales, 24 humpbacks, and 25 fin whales.

We finished our 10+ hour survey shortly before sunset and then took Easter weekend off to rest and prepare for the upcoming week.

Aerial Survey, 4/17/17
Alison Ogilvie, Observer

We continue to have record numbers of right whales in Cape Cod Bay! Today we documented 203 individuals, almost all of whom were either subsurface or skim feeding, taking advantage of the incredibly rich food resource present in Cape Cod Bay. Many of the whales we saw today had a visible buildup of copepods in their baleen making it look orange (the color of the copepods they feed on). It’s great to see these animals finding so much food.

The distribution of whales continues to be on the East side of the bay, and in the South. We noticed that the whales feeding in the south where it is comparatively shallow were skim feeding, but as we flew further north, they were almost all sub surface feeding. As we flew our track-lines further north, we found right whales on every track line, almost as if you drew a line from Race Point down towards Great Island in Wellfleet. This is clearly where the food is.

All three calves documented in the calving grounds this year were seen on today’s survey! Tripelago (EgNo2614), and her calf were seen towards the south, and were very close to EgNo 1711 and her calf. Both calves surfaced right beside their mothers. Further north, we found another calf but didn’t recognize the mother. Had we found another new mom? No, it was Pediddle’s (EgNo1012) calf traveling next to one of the other whales in the group! Pediddle hadn’t gone far though; she was busy subsurface feeding nearby. This is the first survey in CCS history where we have documented all of the calves seen in the south east in a single day.

It’s busy scene in the plane, as we are constantly finding more and more whales to circle. Back at the lab is no different and it seems that every whale we match is new for the season. With hundreds of individuals yet to be matched, we have no idea how many we have seen in total, but know that it certainly a record year!

Habitat Survey 4/18/17

Thanks to cooperative weather, part of the right whale vessel observation team (Stormy, Christy, Melissa, Adrianne, and our Captain, Marc) were able to conduct a cruise on the R/V Shearwater out of Provincetown Harbor. Though gray and overcast, the minimal wind and relatively calm seas allowed for a successful cruise.

The mission for the cruise was to document right whale locations and conduct plankton surveys in the areas where the whales were feeding. Soon after exiting the harbor, the team encountered a flurry of right whale activity. About ¼ mile southwest of Wood End, the team spotted a total of approximately 27 right whales. These whales were observed both high skim feeding and subsurface feeding. In this area, surface and oblique zooplankton samples were collected. The team then proceeded south to the Pamet area, then back north to Herring Cove to look for more right whales. On the way they encountered several of the same whales again, but no new individuals. Overall, it was a successful cruise.

Aerial Survey 4/23/17
Brigid McKenna, Data and Photo Manager

On this lovely Sunday we took off early from Chatham to do our Cape Cod Bay survey south to north. The most southern track line, off of Sandy Neck, is where we have had large aggregations of whales in recent weeks, but on this day we only counted into the teens. The distribution seemed to have shifted within the bay, and we were surprised to find animals feeding in the shallow southeast corner of the bay off of Eastham.  Whales were documented sporadically as we travelled north until we were about 3 miles southwest of Provincetown, where we found another semi-large aggregation of feeding right whales; there were even more closer to shore off Wood End and Long Point.

As we were nearing 100 individuals with five track lines left we debated whether the right whales have left/were leaving and it would be a shorter survey, or they were going to be found on our remaining lines in the north and on the backside. Unfortunately we never found out because we came across an entangled right whale, juvenile female EgNo 4146, while circling close to Provincetown. We immediately called the Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team (MAER) who initiated a response promptly. We circled as support for close to 3 hours while MAER attempted to remove the line coming from the left side of 4146’s mouth but due to her evasiveness, the worsening sea state, and diminishing day light, they were not successful. The team doesn’t think the entanglement is life threatening so hopefully we’ll see her again and the MAER team can make another attempt to remove the line. She may also shed the line naturally as she feeds.

Aerial Survey 4/24/17
Alison Ogilvie, Observer

Today we set off to do an eastern outer shore survey. With so much activity in the bay recently, we were curious to see what was on the backside of Cape Cod Bay. We try to do these surveys on the calmest days, since the sea state is usually higher on the backside than it is within the bay. Today was perfect!

To get to out track lines for this survey, we transit through Cape Cod Bay. With so many whales in the bay recently, we were a little concerned that we may not even get to the backside, getting distracted by what we might find in the bay. Luckily, it wasn’t too much of a problem. We did find 17 right whales on our way including Calvin and Shackleton, EgNos 2223 and 2440, both of which have scars on their backs from previous propeller strikes. These whales are often seen in Cape Cod Bay, and are well known. We’re always excited to see them.

Today we documented the year’s first basking sharks! They were two individuals swimming close together. Basking sharks are a common sight in Cape Cod Bay, but usually arrive towards the end of our season. Basking sharks get a bad reputation, but are amazing animals. At around 25 feet they are quite large, but feed entirely on zooplankton. Similar to right whales, the basking sharks feed by opening their mouths and swimming through areas of high food concentration. We’re hoping to see more as the season comes to a close.

On the backside, we did find three right whales skim feeding but it was fairly quiet.  We found a few aggregations of feeding humpback, sei and fin whales, all feeding in tight groups. We were able to see the humpbacks bubble net feeding, and the sei and fin whales lunge feeding. TAtlantic White Sided Dolphins were feeding in the area as well.

It’s always interesting to see what we might find on the backside of Cape Cod Bay, but especially when we have so much activity within the bay. At the moment, the majority of the right whale activity continues to be inside the bay, but that could change at any time.

Aerial Survey 4/30/17
Brigid McKenna, Data and Photo Manager

After experiencing the weather described in “April showers bring May flowers” we finally had a brief weather window for a survey on Sunday. Winds were still blowing strong and the sea state was quite choppy, but we needed to get out and survey to see how many right whales were still in the bay and where they were.  We took off a little after 10AM starting from the north and heading to the south excited what we would find.

And what we discovered was that the bay was relatively quiet. Given the less than ideal sightings conditions and the short surface intervals we were observing it is possible that we did not document all of the right whales in the bay, however, it does seem that many of the right whales have left our survey area. In total we photographed 20 right whales all on the east side of Cape Cod Bay and all feeding.

Of these included EgNo 3999 “Braid”, who is memorable from her 2015 interaction with a vessel leaving scars over her blowholes from the propeller. She was seen in the bay last year as well, and it is encouraging witnessing her feeding and appearing healthy.

Another was EgNo 4140, a juvenile male born in 2011 that has visited the bay every season since his calf year. A few years ago he had gotten himself entrapped in a fishing weir off of Cape Breton and since then has had another interaction with gear resulting in distinct scars over his dorsal flukes making it look similar to the ventral fluke pattern of a humpback whale.

We also had whales that have yet to be identified and that we don’t recognize from earlier this season, meaning they might have just arrived. We also saw several that have been here for weeks, like EgNo 3802 “Portato.” All of these IDs are not only fascinating on an individual level but important for the overall data and catalog. As the season begins winding down we are looking forward to what we find the next time we survey.