February 2007

Researchers sample for zooplankton in Cape CodBay aboard the research vessel Shearwater.

Researchers sample for zooplankton in Cape CodBay aboard the research vessel Shearwater.

27 February. Today, on our fourth habitat monitoring cruise of the 2007 season, the partly sunny skies were a welcome to our wind-kissed skin. The sea was slightly choppy early in the morning, but as the sun climbed above the white clouds the seas became calm and almost flat. Just past noon we spotted an unmistakable V-shaped blow, and the R/V Shearwater changed course to investigate. As we approached, the team prepared to photograph and document the sighting, checking camera settings and finding standing positions that would not only be safe but that would provide stability for photographing from the rocking boat. We noticed a dark grey silhouette, from which a huge paddle-like flipper was suddenly raised out of the water – it was a female lying belly-up at the surface, demonstrating socializing behavior. Soon four more bodies were rolling about at the surface in a tight group, and we cautiously neared and then turned off the engine so as to not harm or endanger the whales. This can often be a stressful process, as all the bodies become intertwined when right whales socialize in a “surface active group,” or SAG. Keeping track of each whale requires concentration and good memory. The camera began to click away, the photographer announcing each whale and body part present in the frame while the recorder organized the data on paper and used binoculars to draw the callosity patterns (roughened skin patches on the head that are used for identification) of the photographed whales. Forty minutes later, while the whales actively continued to twist, turn, roll and touch, we were confident that we had successfully captured each whale in the SAG. The captain turned the engine back on and we moved a short distance away to conduct a few net tows to collect zooplankton in the area. By determining the concentration of zooplankton in the water (the quantity) and what zooplankton species are present (species vary in caloric richness, or quality), we can make predictions about where whales might move or whether they might stay to exploit a stable food resource. Although these whales were not seen feeding today, it is possible that they have found a small, localized resource, and so we towed nets at the surface and throughout the water column to investigate. On this day, unfortunately, our zooplankton samples don’t give any indication that there is a sufficient resource to support right whale feeding. We completed the remaining sampling stations and arrived at the Provincetown dock around 5:30 in the evening. The sky and water had become metallic silver in color with pink ribbon streaks lining the sky. In all, seven right whales were seen, two seals, and the typical winter avian species. It was a long and successful day, but the question remained: Will these right whales remain in Cape Cod Bay, and have they begun to feed?

27 February. We departed Chatham airport and headed east to start with our track line that follows the outside contour of Cape Cod at a distance of three miles. Once on track, we traveled north for about 5 minutes before the first right whales were sighted a mile or two to the East. Upon closer inspection, we found nine right whales surface feeding in more or less a straight line, in what must have been a very productive patch of zooplankton. Making sure that we’d photographed all whales, we again turned north to continue our survey. We made steady progress for about three minutes until more whales were sighted: two whales engaged in a Surface Active Group (SAG) were thrashing at the surface, with three more right whales quickly approaching to join the fray. Right after finishing with this group more blows were sighted further east. This time it turned out to be a couple of fin whales, one lunge feeding on its side, its throat distended with prey and water. Continuing north another SAG, consisting of three right whales was sighted barely a mile offshore of Head of the Meadow Beach on the Atlantic side of Cape Cod. At this point we had spent in excess of two hours in the air, most of it circling, and had completed about 1/8 of our survey. Once in Cape Cod Bay, the seas had laid down and the surface of the water was like a mirror, enhancing the crews’ chances of finding whales (in particular whales which are feeding subsurface). Before long, a SAG was located, with about five animals involved. One of the whales in the SAG was 1817, a whale which had been seen with her year old offspring in Cape Cod Bay just a few days earlier. While inspecting photographs from the SAG, we concluded that the yearling was initially involved in the SAG, but later broke off and was seen and photographed a couple of miles south of the SAG. While traveling south in the bay, the SAG was clearly visible for several miles and persisted for at least a couple of hours. A couple of solitary right whales were sighted about midway in the Bay, bringing today’s’ total up to 28 right whales! After 6 1/2 hours in the air, the crew landed happy but tired at Chatham Airport.

25 February. Today’s flight yielded the most amount of right whale sightings thus far this year! As in the past few days, all of the right whales were seen within Cape Cod Bay. The main concentration of whales, which consisted of 7 individuals, was sighted early in the flight, a few miles south of Wood End. While several of these whales were alone, four were engaged in a surface active group (SAG). Researchers define a SAG as two or more whales, rolling and touching at the surface. These groups can involve slow rolling and diving or they can be extremely energetic. A typical SAG consists of one female who calls males to her location. As males approach, she rolls belly-up and the males position close to her so that they can have a chance to mate when she rolls over to take a breath. These groups can consist of anywhere from two to fifty whales and the activity can go on for over twelve hours. After we photographed every whale in the SAG, we continued our survey. One more right whale was sighted as we continued surveying to the south.

22 February. As we had seen our first two right whales in Cape Cod Bay the day before, this morning we set out both optimistic and eager to find more whales today. We again had beautiful sighting conditions with a visibility of over 10 nm and a low sea state. We started our survey along the back side of the Cape and were surprised to find very little activity out here, where we usually see at least some dolphins, minke or fin whales. However, today everything was quiet in these waters directly adjacent to Cape Cod. Curious as to whether we would find the whales that we observed the previous day, we entered Cape Cod Bay from the north. And soon enough one of the observers spotted the characteristic V-shaped blows of two right whales. We circled these two whales, which were swimming lazily, staying close to the surface at most times and continued on our way once we had photographed both individuals. Just half an hour later and just a little to the south east we found another pair of whales. These two whales were staying very close together and after a couple of circles we realized that one of the whales was much smaller than the other one. Yet, judging from the size of this individual it was too big to be a calf from this year. Could this have been a mother with her yearling (e.g. her calf from last year)? Sure enough, when we came home that night and looked through the day’s pictures we found that these two whales match a mother/calf pair from last year. Right whales usually spent about 12 months with their offspring and tend to split off sometime in the calf’s second winter. Knowing this, we were surprised to observe the yearling diving below his mother, alternating sides as if it was nursing. This was an exceptional sighting for everybody in the plane. Those two animals were not the last two animals that awaited us today. We finished this day’s sightings with an observation of a surface active group (SAG), a typical social interaction observed in right whales. Three whales were engaged in this social activity that is associated with mating behavior. Continuing on our track lines we didn’t find anymore whales in the southern part of the Bay and returned happy, while a bit tired to Chatham airport.

21 February. We departed Chatham Airport and started our survey in the southern portion of Cape Cod Bay, working our way north. Not much was seen until we were several miles south of Wood End. Then one of the observers spotted blows about a mile and a half to the south. As we got closer to where the blows had been spotted, we found two right whales, separated by a few hundred yards. Both whales were engaged in fairly long dives, and would stay down for 15 minutes or more during each dive. After obtaining photographs of sufficient quality to later be able to match as individual whales in the Right Whale Catalog, we resumed our survey. Blows were again spotted a few miles northwest of Race Point. These turned out to belong to fin whales, one of which could be seen lunge-feeding at the surface, surrounded by a flock of gulls presumably snatching up disoriented fish from the whale’s meal. We rounded the Cape and continued our survey, traveling about three miles off the eastern shore of Cape Cod. A Minke whale surfaced briefly almost directly beneath the plane, with its telltale white stripes on the topside of its pectoral fins serving as a good species indicator. Nothing more was seen during the flight, and we returned to Chatham airport satisfied with our first right whale sightings within Cape Cod Bay for this year.

18 February. Sunday morning, 4am. When most people are comfortably sleeping, members of the PCCS habitat studies team are awake – restless, anxiously awaiting the next posting of the NOAA Cape Cod Bay marine weather forecast. Due to poor weather conditions, it has been twenty-seven days since the last zooplankton samples have been taken throughout the Bay. As a field scientist, the most frustrating part of the job can be uncooperative weather. For the habitat team the weather window is small due to the nature of our work (i.e., hauling nets and hanging oceanographic equipment overboard), and the winter months in New England thus far have not been lenient. Wind direction, wind speed and wave height are the top determinants in a “good to go” day versus another day in the lab. On this Sunday, the forecast calls for winds from the WNW at speeds of 10-15 knots, with a sea of 1-2 feet …plus an additional foot or two in swell leftover from several days of strong north winds. All told, these conditions are just within the margins of what we can safely accommodate, and so we decide to attempt a research cruise. By 9am we’re aboard the R/V Shearwater and leaving the dock. It takes approximately an hour to reach the first station in the far northwest corner of the Bay, and there are five people observing above the wheel house for marine mammals. The wind is bitter, our cheeks stinging, but spirits high in hopes of finding a right whale. Unfortunately, even with intense observation effort throughout the day, only three harbor seals and one grey seal were spotted. Avian species were also not as diverse as the two January cruises. White-winged Scoters and Long-tailed Ducks were seen in medium to large groups flying across the Bay. Single Red-breasted Mergansers and Common Loons were observed flying just above our heads. It was a great day to observe the plumage coloration of male and female Eider ducks, the male with a beautiful greenish patch on the back of its head and the distinctly different brown females. After a day’s work of successful zooplankton sampling that indicated right whales would likely not be seen feeding in Cape Cod Bay within the immediate future (due to species composition and density), the R/V Shearwater arrived back at the dock around 3:30pm. It had been a long day, but in the end, we were all happy to have cooperative weather for our first field day this month.

A small flock of White-winged Scoters (second from left is a female). Photo courtesy of Doug Coughran, who ably assisted with our sighting efforts during February.

A small flock of White-winged Scoters (second from left is a female).
Photo courtesy of Doug Coughran, who ably assisted with our sighting efforts during February.

11 February. We departed Chatham Airport in bright sunshine in our “new” Cessna Skymaster, 48WP. Comparatively low wind speeds and good visibility spurred cautious optimism among the observers and pilots – maybe today would be the day that we’d find our first right whale for the season! However, Cape Cod Bay yielded only a lone seal and a few fishing vessels. Undeterred, the aerial survey team pressed eastward, out towards the BD buoy and the Boston shipping lanes. Before long, the unmistakable sleek body of a fin whale broke the surface, its telltale falcate dorsal fin and bright white right jaw clearly visible from our elevated perspective. Several dolphins could be seen swimming along side and just in front of the whale. Once out by the BD buoy, we turned southeast to monitor the shipping lanes for the presence of right whales. After 15-20 minutes of travel above the shipping lanes, one of our pilots spotted a whale right under the plane – it turned out to be a right whale! This whale was uncooperative as it raised its flukes high for a deep dive almost as soon as we started circling over it. It dove for 11-14 minutes, and spend only about two minutes at the surface before diving again. After 45 minutes of circling, we felt fairly confident that we had enough photographs to be able to later match this whale and identify it. Soon after leaving this whale, two more blows were spotted to the West. These turned out to be two sub-surface feeding right whales. Even though the whales were swimming at around 10-15 feet depth, their open mouths could be seen through the water as faint light colored areas, and were basically our sighting cues as we kept circling above them. The duo apparently found a productive patch of zooplankton, as they could be seen manipulating frequent sharp turns in the same area, one whale right behind the other. These two spent even less time at the surface than our first whale – they’d come up for one or two breaths and then submerge again to resume feeding, seemingly unwilling to leave their feast even for a moment. After spending about a half hour circling over these whales, frantically clicking away on our camera as soon as one of them would break the surface to breath, we turned southwest to head back towards Chatham airport. Flying back, we passed over a couple of schools of dolphins which rounded out an overall great day.

10 February. This morning the persistent winds around the Cape finally calmed down, giving us our first good weather window this season. Before take-off we spent a couple of minutes to set up our equipment in the plane. During each flight we record track data using a laptop computer running specialized software. We then use a voice recorder to keep track of all marine mammals, vessels and weather conditions. Later, back at the Marine Lab, we transcribe this data into a database for subsequent analysis. All set up, we started this day in the southern part of Cape Cod Bay and were ecstatic to find a relatively low seastate of a Beaufort 3, which is characterized by small waves and occasional whitecaps on the water’s surface. However, despite good sighting conditions for most of the survey, we did not see any marine mammals within the Bay or along the Eastern shoreline. Satisfied with the fact that we were able to survey in favorable sighting conditions, we returned to the airport in Chatham. In our minds we were already planning the adventures of the next day to come.

07 February. Freezing cold winds greeted us at Chatham airport as we were setting up for today’s aerial survey. We started the survey south in Cape Cod Bay, traveling west on the 14th track line in bright sunshine. The sea state, which we measure using the Beaufort scale, was initially a solid four but was quickly upgraded to a five, with white-caps as far as we could see. Apart from a couple of fishing vessels, nothing was observed inside Cape Cod Bay. Once around Race Point, we turned offshore in response to a report from the Coast Guard of three right whales in the Boston shipping lanes. Once offshore, the sea state increased and the viewing conditions quickly deteriorated from poor to worse, at which point we aborted the offshore foray and turned towards the Cape and Chatham airport.

Contact Us

Entanglement Hotline: (800) 900-3622
[email protected]
(508) 487-3622
5 Holway Avenue
Provincetown, MA 02657
(508) 487-3623

Get Involved