Field Notes February 2018


Flukes of right whale EgNo 1706. Cape Cod Bay, 2/6/18.  NOAA permit #19315-1.

Ahh….. winter fieldwork! We have been eagerly awaiting our next flight for the past two weeks and with today’s relatively low winds, the aerial team was finally able to get up and have a look around. The day was full of excitement with finding a group of right whales involved in social behavior and having to pause our survey by landing back in Provincetown while a freak snow squall blew through. In total, we found 13 right whales, most of who were doing long fluking dives, and many of whom we hadn’t yet seen this year.

We got a great start to the day, taking off from Provincetown airport at 8:30 am and finding very good survey conditions. We flew south down the backside of Cape Cod Bay and then worked our way north from the Cape Cod canal. All was quiet until just north of the middle of the bay where we suddenly saw two right whales just below the surface! One of these animals was EgNo 1706, a known female and one of our most frequently sighted individuals. She was one of the animals seen on our first survey of the year and has apparently stuck around.

Three right whales in a SAG – EgNos 1708, 3020 (Giza) and 3245. Cape Cod Bay, 2/6/18. NOAA permit #19315-1

Today we saw our first Surface Active Group in over a year! We refer to them as SAGs, and they essentially involve two or more whales touching and rolling around at the surface. Initially we just saw two whales (a male and female), but then we saw another whale traveling directly towards the group (we call these “approachers”). The whales rolled around and over one another very slowly, with tails and flippers and heads all coming to the surface and then disappearing again. It was difficult to tell what was going on, but very exciting. After just over three minutes, the action split up, the whales fluked and we moved on.

Back at the lab, we realized that there had been four right whales involved in the SAG; three males, and a “focal female”. The female was generally at the center of the group, and often with her belly up, as the males moved around her. The males (EgNos 1708, 3191 and 3245) are all regulars to Cape Cod Bay, but the female (EgNo 3020) has never been documented either in Cape Cod Bay, or by the Center for Coastal Studies before. Her name is Giza and she has only had one known calf, which was back in 2008.  Interestingly, the calf has been seen in Cape Cod Bay on multiple occasions.

We love piecing together the stories of the right whales as we document them in the bay each winter and spring, and look forward to getting out again soon to find out more!

– Alison


This stretch of bad winter weather has been less than ideal for our aerial surveys. Since it had been a whole week since we flew we decided to try our luck with a very small weather window.

We took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport at 12:30 to pretty decent conditions- somewhat cloudy skies (which reduced glare) and an agreeable sea state (minimal white caps). We started our survey in the north to a quiet bay. Once we got to trackline 5 (about the same latitude as Highland Light), Amy saw blows 3 miles south. Given that the right whales go on very long dives this time of year, we decided to go for it while we could see it- that meant breaking track and travelling to trackline 7. It’s a good thing we did because they were not resighted when we flew our southern lines.

It took a while but we were able to document two right whales there but were only able to photograph one. About fifteen minutes after resuming track, the same scenario happened again (blows were spotted 3+ miles away), so we broke and there we found 5 more individuals in the western portion of the bay.

Unfortunately because we took off late to let the winds die down we were then fighting daylight. So once we resumed track from these sightings we decided to do every other line to get adequate coverage of the bay since we were not going to complete it. From there we found 6 more right whales off of trackline 10 (slightly south of Jeremy’s Point’s latitude). We finished this partial survey after flying our backside line and landed in Provincetown at 16:30.

Some individuals were recognized from previous flights, like EgNo 2271/Prescott, but there were quite a few new whales for the season. This included EgNo 1620/Mantis, EgNo 1425/Butterfly, and EgNo 1817/Silt- all adult females who we also had in the 2017 season.