Field Notes April 2018
April 3, 2018
Weather has been unpredictable as of late (in a bad way). Besides last month’s Nor Easters, we’ve been facing constant fog, rain, hail, and high winds- none of which are conducive for surveying in a plane looking for whales. On the first Tuesday of April we had a very short weather window that we took advantage of to fly Cape Cod Bay and document any right whale activity.
Our survey team took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport at 8:00 AM to beautiful conditions. Right off the bat we encountered fin, humpback, minke, and sei whales off of Race Point, and circled them to record sightings data and verify that a right whale wasn’t hiding nearby. After that excitement we continued flying south parallel to the outer shore of Cape Cod and found our first right whale of the day- EGNo 3942.
This adult female is new for us this year, but is not an uncommon visitor to our area. She was born in 2009 to EGNo 1142/Kleenex, and has been documented by CCS nearly every year since 2011. Around 2012, she suffered an entanglement which has left lasting, severe scars on her peduncle and leading edges of her fluke; because of these scars her sightings are reported in real time to chronicle the healing process and assess her body condition.
We expected to be busy in the bay but were surprised at how quiet it was. Granted the water was turbid and the sea state picked up before forecasted, but we still thought we’d see more than the additional four right whales that we did. The next sighting was of two animals in a surface active group; this included one of our previously sighted whales EGNo 3946 and a new individual for the year: EGNo 2750, Haley.
Haley is an adult male who was born in 1997, and has been seen in Cape Cod Bay for the majority of years throughout his long sightings history. He is named for a scar on his head that is similar to the shape of a comet (i.e. Haley’s Comet). After that we saw one subsurface feeding whale (EGNo 3860/Bocce) and an additional one that was unphotographed. We finished the survey in a high sea state, and it was one of the shortest flights we’ve had this season thus far.
April has historically been our “busy” month when there is an influx of right whales into the bay that coincides with blooms of their favorite zooplankton- Calanus finmarchicus. The exact time frame has fluctuated over the years, and we’re hoping that this low number isn’t representative of what’s out there for the remainder of the season.
April 7, 2018
We were so hoping that April would bring us some calmer seas, but so far we have had no luck. We did sneak in an aerial survey on Saturday April 7th as the winds died down but survey conditions were tough. The sea state was higher, but we still felt that we would have seen any right whales if they were to have surfaced. In the end, we were only able to find one right whale, but we spotted lots of other species. With this is mind, we don’t feel that we missed any concentrations of right whales in Cape Cod Bay.
Ironically, the one right whale that we spotted was during the worst survey conditions. We could see the whale’s body just below the surface and broke our track to circle this individual. We circled and waited, for half an hour, but we never saw the whale resurface. Not knowing what lay ahead for the survey, we chose to leave this whale un-photographed and continue on.
Deep into Cape Cod Bay we noticed some weird splashing and broke our track to circle. It took us a few moments to realize that we were seeing two minke whales breaching. One would break the surface, and then the next. This was all happening very quickly so although we tried, it wasn’t possible to get any photos of these whales to share.
Early in the morning, we had had a report of possible right whales just north of our regular survey lines. Once we had completed our regular survey, we completed three additional track lines just north of Cape Cod Bay to see if we could confirm any right whale sightings up there. We spotted humpback whales and fin whales but did not see any right whales.
Where have all the whales gone? We don’t know. With the long dives we have been seeing recently and the turbid water it is definitely possible that we missed some individuals, but not that many. It’s possible that the high winds this season have changed the typical concentration of Calanus finmarchicus, the right whale’s favorite food, making them look elsewhere to feed, but we’re hoping that will change. April is usually our high season and it isn’t unusual to have a big influx of right whales into the bay in only a few days. The winds are looking better this week, so we’re hoping to get out and document any activity in the bay very soon.