April 2007

A right whale lobtailing near Race Point on 26 April.

A right whale lobtailing near Race Point on 26 April.

26 April. We were well-prepared for a lot of action on this calm morning after yesterday’s busy whale day. Since the big group of feeding whales one day earlier had been around the northern part of the Bay we started our survey just there, surveying the backside of the Cape first. Sure enough before we even got into Cape Cod Bay we found several feeding right whales off the northern back side of the Cape. In the shallow waters offshore of the Head of the Meadow Beach we found a mother calf pair – the third one of the season! While these two were lazily swimming in the shallows, most other whales that we should soon encounter were busy feeding either with their heads above the water, skimming along the water’s surface and others feeding just below the surface. Since it was another very calm and bright day it was easy to observe and photograph both these behaviours. The whales were a little more spread out than the day before, however most sightings were made in the northern part of the Bay, while the southern Bay was almost void of cetaceans on this day.

26 April. The R/V Shearwater left the dock this morning with a tired but enthusiastic habitat team on board. The harbor enveloped in a low fog let little blue sky through and filled the air with a slight chill. The eerie calm was overcome by the exhilaration of a second amazing weather day here on the Outer Cape. With the excitement of the prior day lingering, the team was anxious to see if the zooplankton resource had sustained overnight. With a plan to survey the localized feeding area of the day prior, no typical Cape Cod Bay sampling stations were covered. Rounding Long Point it was evident that the blue sky and glassy waters would prevail over the foggy morning patch over the harbor. Throughout the day, while collecting and preserving zooplankton, the Bay was plentiful with activity. So close to shore, we could see people sitting in their cars at Herring Cove beach, watching the same activity we were now part of. The glassy calm water allowed for sightings not often seen with a rougher sea state. Harbor porpoises, which are often not seen in the wavy seas of the Bay, were observed in singles and groups, letting their popping sound of an exhalation go with each surfacing. The whoosh-and-kerplunk sounds of gannets bombing into the water to capture fish could be heard incessantly whenever we stopped to conduct net tows. The water was clear enough that at one station, as we sat with the boat’s engines off, we could see the tongue of a feeding right whale as the animal swam slowly directly under the beam of our vessel – amazingly, we could see this whale’s flukes on the starboard side and its head on the port side as it moved past! Fin whales were traveling not more than 300m off the vessel, their exhalations loud and deep as the rush of water passed quickly over their streamlined body. A surface active group (SAG) involving three individual right whales was loud with a moo-ing call, the splashing and rolling of bodies playful as the boat neared to obtain photo i.d. shots. The sight of a right whale tail stock and fluke constantly being slapped onto the waters surface and then flung high into the air was surpassed only by a different right whale that then began to breach not more than 2mi away! In all, while diligently collecting zooplankton samples the habitat team witnessed a plethora of activity – both sights and sounds – that spoke to the preciousness and diversity of the ecosystem right in our backyards. Indeed, after two days of back to back research cruises into the Bay, the team members are reminded why they love to work on the water with whales and plankton. The day, extremely successful, productive, and fun will continue to be a favorite memory of the season.

26 April. Today was a beautiful day out on the water for the acoustics team aboard the R/V Ezyduzit: sunny skies, calm water and barely a breath of wind and again there was an abundance of whales to the north of Cape Cod Bay. The team’s first encounter with a right whale involved a series of breathtaking breaches (see photo to the left) before the whale settled into a routine of subsurface feeding. The whale was followed whilst feeding along long slick lines throughout the northern part of the bay. Surface plankton tows were conducted behind the focal whale on three different occasions during the day to look at what the whale was feeding on. The first was carried out just as the whale had stopped feeding, the second when the whale was subsurface feeding and the third was during a skim feeding session. Not surprisingly, the skim feeding sample was considerably more productive than the other two with numerous zooplankton congesting the net. Once again our dual hydrophone array was towed for the entire day and no right whale vocalizations were heard.

25 April. With a perfect weather forecast we took off from Chatham airport just before 9 am this morning. Off the eastern shore of Cape Cod we had seen several fin whales and humpback whales before we made our first right whale sighting off the Highlands. The whale was skim feeding, swimming along with its mouth open and its top jaw high above the surface. This is perfect behavior for taking good photo-ID shots of right whales, as the distinctive callosity is out of the water for relatively long periods of time. It wasn’t long before we saw our next whale, and our next whale, and our next whale…! In fact, starting on the northern side of Race Point, we saw a whole string of skim feeding right whales stretching into Cape Cod Bay. The tides and currents must have concentrated a huge amount of zooplankton in a relatively small area, which about 30 right whales had gathered to feed on. Unfortunately this amazing sight was tempered by something very distressing. In the same place as the concentration of plankton that was attracting the whales, there was a large slick of diesel fuel on the surface of the ocean. Where the slick was thickest, the skim feeding whales could be seen ploughing through a rainbow sheen, leaving a trail of clear water in their wake (see photo at right). This kind of pollution is just one of the many human impacts faced by North Atlantic right whales living on the doorstep of the highly populated eastern seaboard of the USA. All we could do from our airplane was alert the Coast Guard about the diesel slick and then get back to the business of photographing whales. With such a huge concentration of right whales around Race Point we weren’t surprised that the southern portion of Cape Cod Bay was very quiet in terms of whale sightings. Despite that, we landed at Chatham in the mid- afternoon having had a spectacular day during which we saw 40 right whales.

25 April. The focal follow team surveyed north through Cape Cod Bay but found no whales until we reached the Race Point area. Here the ocean was alive! There were numerous right whales feeding, countless gannets plunge diving, several harbor porpoise, humpbacks, fin whales and playful white sided dolphins. The team again managed to follow one individual right whale for the whole day. This whale was very distinctive as he has a string of propeller scars running down his right flank as well as obvious scarring on his peduncle. The focal whale did nothing but feed for the entire day – mostly on his own, but on occasion was seen coordinating his feeding efforts with either one or two other whales. The focal whale was seen skim feeding, subsurface feeding and also feeding on his side (where the whale rolls over with only one side of his fluke visible above the surface of the water). Very few vocalizations were heard during the whole day despite the fact that the team was listening via the hydrophone array for entire time. It is now becoming clear that right whales make very few sounds whilst they are feeding.

25 April.
The R/V Shearwater left Provincetown Harbor at 9am in the best weather conditions of the season. Only four days since the last Cape Cod Bay cruise, the habitat team set out in search of whales and zooplankton. Not far from Long Point a v-shaped blow was spotted, the unmistakable sign of a right whale. The blow can be seen when a whale exhales, with the hot air from inside the animal’s body condensing when it hits the cooler atmospheric air, much like our own breath on a cold January morning. This whale, moving along at the surface with its head slightly tilted, demonstrated the behavior we call skim feeding (see photo to the left). Excitement filled the boat because where there are whales feeding, there is zooplankton. As often as the team monitors the Bay, it is not always easy to predict where the food resource of these whales will aggregate. And, after four days of windy rainy weather, a resource can change dramatically. Often too, in the Bay the team will find a station to be rich enough to support right whale feeding, but sometimes there are no whales around. What does this all mean? The right whales are here to feed, so most likely they are in a place with a better and bigger resource available. On a day like today, where not just one but approximately twenty right whales are skim feeding within a small radius there is a lot of work to be done. Not only are the regular surface and oblique net tows run, but also zooplankton are collected using vertical and horizontal pump profiles. We sample in and across the paths of feeding right whales to quantify the dense patches (where they begin and end) in the area. We must also keep track of the marine species and the individual right whales in the area to comprise a complete picture of the whales, the other marine species, the location, and the resource. Almost thirty samples later, the team left the feeding whales to complete the four eastern Cape Cod Bay stations. Just before completing the last station, two more feeding right whales were seen near station 5N, our closest station just south of Provincetown Harbor. Overall, the day was a wonderful experience and a great opportunity to try and better understand the relationship between right whales, their habitat, and the food on which they dine.

22 April. Today was another perfect day out on the water for the focal follow team. Again a focal follow of an individual whale was carried out, this time for 9.5 hours. Our whale began skim feeding in the early morning, in the same small area as a mum and calf and another individual, all of which were the same animals as those seen yesterday. Throughout the day this focal whale exhibited an entire repertoire of different right whale behaviors. After skim feeding, our whale spent a while logging (lying almost motionless at the surface, appearing to rest) and then postured several times (stretching the head and tail out of the water at the same time). The majority of the rest of the day was spent feeding just below the surface, the pale shadow of his baleen visible underneath the water. This feeding was interspersed with social activity which started shortly after a series of upcalls were heard via our hydrophone. The surface active group (SAG) involved our focal whale and the mum and calf who were all rolling around and thrashing about at the surface. Several more calls and a number of gunshots were heard during this frenzied activity. Our whale was involved in a slightly more sedate SAG later in the afternoon with just one other animal and they were seen very slowly rolling over and one swimming belly up underneath the other one. During the day we managed to collect fecal samples from this whale, the first ever collected in Cape Cod Bay. These samples will be sent to the New England Aquarium to be analyzed as part of right whale health and reproductive studies. Shortly before 5pm our whale again began skim feeding similar to its behavior yesterday.

22 April. The action started early for the aerial survey team on this calm beautiful Sunday morning. Just minutes after take off, one of the observers spotted several blows a few miles east of Nauset Light. Breaking from our track line, we flew over to find six right whales engaged in a slow moving Surface Active Group (SAG). While most SAGs are highly energetic, with whales rolling and quickly surfacing, this group was lazily rolling around, resting their chins on each other’s backs before diving beneath the group again. We quickly photographed all six whales for identification purposes and continued along the eastern shore of the Cape. Sighting conditions were ideal this morning, with a slight swell coming in from the north-east. These sighting conditions allowed us to see fin whales, minke whales, humpbacks and even a few harbor porpoise before entering the Bay. Six more right whales were sighted about two miles from Head of the Meadow Beach. These whales were dispersed and spent most of their time feeding just below the surface of the water. Their gaping mouths glowed white beneath the surface, a terrific sight in such calm conditions. As we entered Cape Cod Bay, we recorded several fin whales and harbor porpoise near Race Point. Five right whales were sighted about seven miles south of Provincetown. Half of these whales were subsurface feeding, including the mom of the mom-calf pair seen yesterday. As we photographed this pair again, we watched as the calf dove beneath the mom to nurse. Right whale calves normally stay with their mothers through their first year. This mom will begin to wean her calf during the fall of this year. The survey team was delighted by the day’s sightings and the survey conditions as we landed in Chatham shortly before 4pm.

21 April. Ten days of extreme winds, rain, and high seas seized and culminated into a beautiful day on Saturday. The habitat studies team could return to field work and enjoyed one of the nicest days this spring on their tenth cruise this season. The bay, hit hard by the recent weather, seemed to be settling as slicks, convergences, and varying blue hues covered the bay. With minimum cloud cover, the sun glistened off the almost flat seas creating almost perfect sighting conditions. Several fin and minke whales were spotted as the crew headed in the usually clockwise direction through the stations. The usual suspects, gannets, scoters, cormorants, gulls, and the red-breasted mergansers were present. However, there was a plethora of Common and Red-throated Loons observed sitting on waters surface. The team was excited by the diverse presence of avian species in the Bay, as it is always fun to see new species. Unfortunately, no right whales were observed during this cruise and no opportunistic sampling was completed. All eight stations in Cape Cod Bay were visited and an extremely diverse representation of species and composition was seen, indicating that the waters of the Bay are continuing to settle after the recent storms. In all, it was a fantastic day to be researching the zooplankton of Cape Cod Bay. The team is looking forward to spring weather conditions and hoping for right whales.

21 April.
The RV Ezyduzit set out from Sandwich at 6:30am and soon found a group of four right whales in the central eastern part of the bay. One of these animals was a mum (#2340), accompanied by her calf. The three adult whales spent the early part of the morning low skim feeding or feeding just sub surface. A focal follow was conducted on one of these whales for almost ten hours during the day. This whale spent the majority of the day feeding subsurface on his own and very few vocalizations were heard all day. One of the exceptions was when our whale met up with the mum and calf again in middle of the day. The mum and calf were split up when the three animals came together and for a while the calf came right over to our boat and sat just off our bow, a couple of meters away from us. During this time there were a few vocalizations, predominantly upcalls (which are thought to be contact calls) and also a couple of moans (including one moan which was audible above the water). This calling was assumed to be the mum and calf calling to each other, to enable them to be reunited. We continued to follow our focal whale who fed just subsurface for the rest of the afternoon. During this constant feeding period the young calf was seen breaching repeatedly in the distance. A welcome burst of excitement for the team! Late afternoon the focal whale swam back to a position one nautical mile from where we first saw it feeding this morning and again joined with the same group of whales. They again started low skim feeding with the occasional higher skim feeding just like first thing this morning.

21 April. Over the preceding week, Cape Cod had been battered by storm force winds, high seas and torrential rain. The weather finally improved and Saturday morning was clear, warm and calm. Having not flown for ten days we were eager to see whether the large numbers of whales sighted in Cape Cod Bay on our previous flight had stuck around. With little to no wind, the sea in the Bay was very smooth, which made for excellent sighting conditions as we started our track-lines in the south of the survey area. We were soon racking up the sightings of harbor porpoises; small, elusive cetaceans which are normally quite difficult to detect. Our first right whale sighting, a mum and calf pair, came in the middle of Cape Cod Bay. The mum was #2430, the same animal that we had seen 10 days previously. Perhaps she had stayed in the relative shelter of the Bay during the storms of the last week to reduce the energetic requirements on herself and her young calf. On this day, she was skim feeding; swimming along, mouth open, with her top jaw breaking the surface, filtering plankton from the very top layer of the water column. We soon spotted two other right whales nearby, also exploiting the same patch of food by either skim feeding or feeding just below the water surface. We photographed all these whales and quickly moved on. The remainder of Cape Cod Bay was relatively quiet, with just a few sightings of fin whales and several more harbor porpoises. We sighted two more right whales on the outside of the Cape, also skim feeding, but that brought our total for the day to only six. On our previous survey the total number of right whales sighted was 39 – what a difference 10 days and a storm can make!!

11 April. Conditions in the morning were less than perfect, bigger seas than expected were rolling in from the north-west and the wind had not yet dropped. As the morning progressed the winds decreased and the sea subsided a little, making for much better sighting conditions. Aboard the Ezyduzit, the focal follow team struggled to follow a whale for a couple of hours in the morning, which was mainly feeding subsurface and proved tricky to track in amongst the whitecaps. The aerial survey team then alerted us to a large group of whales in the center of Cape Cod Bay that were all feeding and it was decided to move there. Conditions were significantly better further south and there were whales everywhere. The whales were criss-crossing in a relatively small area, either feeding just under the surface or very low skim feeding just at the surface with mouths clearly open. The team spent several hours here in the middle of a group of feeding whales but for the majority of the day no vocalizations were heard. A small number of vocalizations were evident when a couple of SAGs were sighted in the early afternoon. Later on in the afternoon one of the feeding whales was followed for a 3 hour period. This whale was very easy to follow as he was either just visible at the surface or a surface slick was visible when he was just below the surface for the entire time we followed him. This whale did not make a single sound throughout the focal follow. Just as the team were about to leave this whale and head for home he breached about 50m away from the boat. The whale leaped clear out of the water showing his white belly and providing a perfect ending for a good day’s research.

11 April. As Wednesday morning dawned bright and breezy with sea conditions a little rough for surveys in the northern part of Cape Cod Bay, we decided to start with our track-lines to the south. It wasn’t long before we sighted our first right whales, a group of three swimming along at high speed. Closer inspection revealed that it was a mum and calf (only the second that we have sighted in Cape Cod Bay this year) with a third whale making amorous advances towards the mum! Mum didn’t seem too keen on the extra attention however and was doing her best to get away from her suitor. Having photographed these whales we moved on and quickly had another very exciting encounter. Running north to south in the middle of Cape Cod Bay there was a very obvious front between two different water masses. The front was marked by a distinct line of foam and debris on the surface, and the water masses either side of the front were very different colors. These fronts often result in large concentrations of plankton and are favorite places for right whales to feed. Sure enough, there was a huge aggregation of whales in the area, with about 30 animals plowing up and down the front-line, mouths wide open, filtering plankton from the food rich seawater. When the whales reached the end of the patch of plankton they were concentrating on they would execute a surprisingly nimble U-turn and chug along the line again. With so many whales in such a small area and with their positions relative to each other changing constantly, it was a challenge to photograph them all. We spent more than two hours in the area circling over the mass of whales before we were finally satisfied that we had photographed as many as we could. With so many whales in such a small area the remainder of Cape Cod Bay was, not surprisingly, fairly quiet. We headed back to Chatham airport at nearly six in the evening having had a very long day but rewarded by the knowledge we had seen 39 different right whales, including a very healthy looking calf.

11 April. The habitat studies team on the R/V Shearwater was determined to have a field day sampling the zooplankton of Cape Cod Bay. After a ten day hiatus in the lab, and one attempt on April 10 to sample, the team was anxious to see if they too could find the large number of feeding right whales reported by the aerial team earlier in the week. Moving along the stations in a clockwise manor, the team set out to the southern portion of the bay. The seas became rough and with some swell, making working conditions a challenge but as the day unfolded, the seas became calm. Fin whales and a small humpback were spotted while transiting to station. White-winged scoters were seen in large groups on the surface of the water. Diving gannets, alcids, and cormorants were also plentiful throughout the day. After several of the stations were complete, the aerial team called in a position for a large group of sub-surface feeding right whales in the central portion of the bay. This spot was not too far from one of the regular stations (6S), so we went in search of whales. We found a large group of right whales moving erratically, many traveling alone, others in the social groups. It was not apparent at first that the whales were sub-surface feeding, however, the plankton tow in the general area indicated a rich plankton resource. We took photographs of individuals in the area and then proceeded to collect samples on either side of a large slick the team had observed. This slick ran almost east to west in the bay and extended as far as we could see. This slick, also called a convergence zone is of interest for several reasons. The slick may mark the boundaries of two currents coming together, and can often result after a major shift in wind direction or storms. Furthermore, these areas tend to have high biological activity from microscopic plants to large right whales feeding on the zooplankton. The tows resulted in a rich source of zooplankton on one side of the slick and a low density resource on the other side. It was an extremely successful day for the habitat studies team as all stations were completed on this field cruise, whales were photographed sub-surface feeding, and we collected food at opportunistic sampling stations near foraging right whales. The weather looks bad for the next few days, but the break will give us time to count the samples and process data before heading back out into Cape Cod Bay.

07 April. While the winds were supposed to be calm in the morning, they were said to pick up around noon, bringing some snow with them in the afternoon. After some hesitation it was decided to give it a try and take off early this morning. It had been a week since the last flight so we were anxious to get out again. We started the survey in the south of the Bay, since that was where we had seen whales consistently over the last weeks. Yet no whales were sighted by either of the observers for the first half of the survey. Finally, as we entered the northern part of the Bay, we started to see right whales. We had a difficult time trying to photograph three whales that were subsurface feeding, as they were close enough to the surface that we could see them, but far enough below that their callosity patterns were distorted. The next group was easier to photograph. One whale was logging at the surface and after a couple of circles we were almost ready to leave it, when a second animal surfaced right next to the first one. The size difference between these two animals was obvious. We were looking at a mother-calf-pair! From a quick look through our pictures we determined, that this was whale # 1425 with her calf, whom we had first sighted in Cape Cod Bay on April 1st. After this encounter we went for a short break into Plymouth airport. Believing that the weather would hold only for another hour before the winds picked up, we did not refuel the plane. We were soon to find that this was a mistake. Once we continued our tracks and neared the northern tip of the Cape Cod Peninsula we started to see one right whale after the other! Most of these about 40 whales were skim feeding, which means that they skim along the surface of the water with their mouths wide open, filtering plankton in the upper layer of the water column. What an exciting sight! Some of the whales were so close to the beach, that they were easily seen by people walking the beach. For us this multitude of whales quickly became a bit confusing. With so many whales, it is difficult to keep track of who is who and whom we already photographed. But the time spent with so many whales was a truly exhilarating experience for everyone. Current population estimates show that there are 350-400 right whales left in the North Atlantic. Within one day, we saw over 10% of this population! We were also lucky in that the winds never picked up so we were able to finish our survey (with one short break in Provincetown to refuel the plane!).

01 April. In order to cover the survey track lines that weren’t completed during yesterday’s flight, we began today’s survey off the eastern shore of Cape Cod. As we headed north, staying three miles from the coastline, one observer called out that he had seen the glint of whale’s back as it dove. The survey plane broke from the track and circled over the area in which the whale had been sighted. Within minutes, a minke whale surfaced. A minke whale is a small whale that reaches a length of 25 feet. Minke whales surface quickly and don’t raise their flukes when they dive. From the air, the single white stripe on each flipper glows underwater as the minke surfaces for a breath. As we continued our survey, 7 more minke whales were sighted. As were rounded Race Point, we sighted two humpbacks to the north and a couple of fin whales near the Race, but no right whales were visible. The first right whales sighted today were seen on the north-western side of the Bay. These whales were seen feeding subsurface, their gaping mouths glowing white as the sun reflected off their baleen. 20 other right whales were sighted, spread out from east to west across the middle of the bay. A few of these whales were engaged in SAGs, while others were solitary. As we approached a solitary whale swimming slowly below the surface of the water, a calf suddenly surfaced beside the larger whale! The first mom-calf pair has arrived in Cape Cod Bay. This mother had been previously sighted with her calf off of Florida earlier this year. She is one of the 18 right whales to give birth this year. Right whales give birth in the waters off the south-eastern US. While they begin to nurse their calf in the south-east, the mothers do not feed until they complete the long journey to the waters off of Cape Cod. For many mothers, Cape Cod Bay serves as an important feeding ground. Mothers with calves tend to remain in the bay longer then solitary right whales. Upon leaving Cape Cod Bay, most mothers bring their calves to the Bay of Fundy. The Bay of Fundy is the body of water between northern Maine/Canada and Nova Scotia. This is another important area for right whales, as they feed here in the summer and fall. The Bay of Fundy also serves as a right whale nursery, as most mothers bring their calves its waters.

01 April. Today was a beautiful calm and sunny day out on the water. Right whales have consistently been found in the mid south of Cape Cod Bay recently, so the team set off from Sandwich at first light for this area and were working with their first whale by 7:15 am. This whale proved pretty difficult to follow, constantly changing his dive pattern, both in duration but also direction of travel. He would spend up to 20 minutes under the water and then would surface anywhere within a half mile or so from the boat. Luckily for us the sighting conditions were near perfect. Later in the morning this whale headed towards two separate Surface Active Groups (SAGs). The focal whale was lost in the midst of the action but instead we stayed with a SAG of two who remained active for the entire time that we were with them. We turned the engine off and sat with this group, taking photographs, recording vocalizations and behavior for over two hours. The white bellied male right whale was seen consistently swimming belly up underneath his partner for long periods of time. Gunshots and moans were heard often and a number of other right whales were seen attempting to join the pair. None of the outsiders were very successful however and the pair continued to roll and thrash at the surface on their own.

01 April. The R/V Shearwater and crew headed into the bay in calm conditions and moderate temperatures. Marine birds such as eider, cormorant, long-tailed duck, gannet, and gull were plentiful while leaving the harbor and passing Wood End. In the last few days, right whales had been spotted throughout Cape Cod Bay, suggesting that the aggregation of zooplankton in the southern portion of the Bay was no longer large enough to sustain large groups of right whales. With guests from Cornell on board, the team headed in a clockwise direction in hopes of finding active right whales and lots of zooplankton. After several stations – right whales were spotted. The Cornell group decided to put a hydrophone into the water, to see if they could hear the sounds that right whales make to one another. This required turning off the engine of our research vessel. Topside, the crew listened for the blow of a whale. Not too long after the silence of water lapping against the hull, the loud whoosh of a blow was heard off the port side. Two right whales appeared and engaged in a lackadaisical effort to be active, by slowly rolling and touching. After observing and filming the whales for a period of time, the crew headed for the remainder of the sampling stations hoping to find more right whales. Sightings of feeding right whales were reported by the aerial team, but unfortunately the habitat studies team did not find them. However, the team did collect two samples from that area to see what the whales were eating. All stations were completed in the bay, but preliminary data suggests that the nutrient-rich Calanus copepod is yet to emerge in the form of protein-packed right whale food. April should bring good weather and lots and zooplankton sampling. In total the vessel sighted 5 seals, one small pod of common dolphins, 2 fin whales, 1 minke whale, and at least 5 right whales.

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