Aerial surveys are conducted each winter in Cape Cod Bay in support of research on North Atlantic right whale population, ecology and human impacts. Aerial platforms allow researchers to survey the Bay more extensively in less time than vessel surveys would allow. Also, right whales can be difficult to see from a boat, even for a trained observer. Feeding right whales can swim slowly, mere feet below the surface for over twenty minutes. From the air, observers can see into the water and can track a subsurface whale until it emerges for a breath.
In order to document right whales and other species within Cape Cod Bay, the survey plane flies a series of east-west tracklines that are spaced 1.5 nm apart. The waters off the eastern shore of the Cape are surveyed with a single track that runs north to south along the shoreline. The entire survey covers approximately 300 nm of trackline. Surveys are conducted at an altitude of 750 feet and a speed of 100 knots.
The main objective of the observers on board is to locate and document right whales. When a right whale is sighted, the plane breaks from its current trackline to circle over the whale. The observers quickly record the position, how many whales are present, dive times and behaviors. Whales are also checked for signs of entanglement. One of the observers is responsible for obtaining identifying photographs of the whale. Right whales are identified by the patterns of callosities found on the top of the head. From the bird’s eye perspective of the airplane, the top of the whale’s head and a dorsal view of the body is easily photographed. Photographing the body is important as scars along the body and flukes can assist in identifying the individual whale.
CCS is a charter member of the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium and has contributed to its collaborative catalog and database for more than 25 years. Over 70% of the catalogued population has been photo-identified in Cape Cod and Massachusetts Bays at some point during their lives (Jaquet et al. 2006).
All right whale sightings are called in to the Sighting Advisory System, which informs mariners of the presence and locations of these highly endangered whales. Recreational boaters are also reminded that right whales are not to be approached within 500 yards. CCS also works closely with managers of Massachusetts waters to better protect right whales in our own backyard.
A catalog of North Atlantic right whales is curated by our colleages at the New England Aquarium, on behalf of the entire North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium. Researchers create composite drawings (see left) as part of maintaining the catalog. These composite drawings are used in the primary stages of matching a whale.
The photograph on the left was taken in 2004 by CCS. The composite drawing for this same whale is shown on the right. A close look at the callosity pattern found on the head, lips and behind the blowholes identifies this whale as #1310, a female nicknamed “Amanda”.