January 2007

An aerial perspective of a mom right whale with her calf. (Photograph from 2005 field season)

An aerial perspective of a mom right whale with her calf. (Photograph from 2005 field season)

January 27. We lifted off from Chatham this morning in our Cessna Skymaster, hopeful to complete a survey before the snow moved in. For a successful aerial survey, good weather conditions are important: the wind needs to be below 15 knots (17 miles/hour) and the seas need to be relatively calm. While a few white caps across the Bay will not impede our ability to find marine mammals, sustained white caps make it hard to spot surface cues that indicate the presence of whales. A whale’s blow, persistent white water or a series of fluke prints often lead us to a whale. Our survey today began along the eastern shore of the Cape. As we flew over Race Point we encountered many dolphins and several fin whales. We took a few minutes to observe these enormous whales as they sleekly cut through the water, the right side of their mouths glistening white in stark contrast to their left side, which is muted grey in color. From here we only had time to finish a few more track lines before the impending snow made its way across the Bay, sending us home for the day.

January 24. After heavy snow falls overnight, Wednesday began as a beautiful crisp and sunny winter day. While the winds and weather had kept the aerial survey plane grounded for the first three weeks of the season, this morning’s winds were finally calm enough to survey Cape Cod Bay. Taking off from the Chatham airport, we enjoyed some beautiful views of the snow capped Cape. Since sightings of marine mammals were scarce in the southern part of the Bay, there was enough time to get adjusted to being in the plane again and to set up our survey protocol. This includes reporting environmental conditions, shipping traffic and fishing gear, as well as marine mammals. Once we arrived in the northern part of the Bay, the action began with several groups of dolphins, numbering over a hundred animals in total. Shortly after, west of Race Point, our first tall blows were spotted, a sure sign of a large whale. We headed over to investigate and found two lunge-feeding fin whales in the area, accompanied by about 30 dolphins. There were also a lot of gannets in this area, some of them diving steeply into the water to feed. What a great start to the season! Before continuing our survey, we spent some time circling on these whales, tuning our photography skills. While field work takes our observers to many different places, it had been almost six months since either observer had photographed while circling in a small plane. Our time with these fin whales gave our pilots a chance to practice circling over active whales while the observers readjusted to not getting airsick while looking through the lens of the camera. Five more fin whales were encountered on our way along the backside of the Cape. Tired but excited about our first flight, we returned to Chatham just in time to enjoy a beautiful sunset on our way home.

January 22. With the first research cruise of the season completed, the R/V Shearwater once again headed for the eight stations strategically scattered throughout Cape Cod Bay in search of right whale food. It was a calm morning in the harbor, with a light snow falling as the team loaded the vessel with the necessary gear for research. Last week’s zooplankton samples revealed that the Bay’s surface waters had higher numbers of organisms than have been seen in recent years, and so our science crew was anxious to see whether today’s samples would contain sufficient numbers of these microscopic creatures to attract hungry right whales. We towed our nets at all stations, and by the end of the day it was unfortunately apparent that the quantity of zooplankton hadn’t changed much in the past week. Nevertheless, we worked diligently to spot marine animals while transiting between stations. This task was complicated by grey skies and seas (not to mention the skin-reddening chill of northeast winds!), but a very calm sea helped to maintain excellent visibility. We were pleased to find several avian species present on the Bay, including razorbills, long-tailed ducks, thick-billed murres, white winged scoters, common loons and a large group of northern gannets. Marine mammal species sighted included common dolphins, a fin whale, harbor porpoises, and both grey and harbor seals. To date, no confirmed sightings of right whales have occurred in the Bay. The Habitat Studies team will look forward to at least one more day of January sampling, weather and seas permitting.

January 14.
Having been pounded by relentless winds for two weeks, today the waters of Cape Cod Bay were at last calm enough for our first research cruise of the 2007 season. Aboard the R/V Shearwater, the source vessel of the right whale Habitat Studies program, we left Provincetown Harbor this morning in light rain and fog. As the day progressed the rain became more steady, but we were nonetheless able to visit each of the eight regular sampling stations in Cape Cod Bay, towing fine-mesh nets to collect samples of the microscopic organisms, called zooplankton, upon which right whales feed. Two types of net tows, a surface tow and an oblique tow, were conducted at each station. The surface tow involves laying the net at the surface for five minutes and filtering zooplankton from the surface waters as the vessel moves forward. Similarly, the oblique tow captures a sample of the zooplankton throughout the water column when it is dropped to a depth of 19m while the vessel is stationary and then raised to the surface as we steam ahead slowly. The time spent traveling between stations is allocated to observation of the surrounding area for marine species, particularly right whales. Sighting conditions during the day were moderate to poor due to the precipitation, and unfortunately there were no right whales found in the Bay. There were, however, sightings of common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus), an occasional harbor porpoise (Phocena phocena) and many harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), and we returned to the dock soaked but satisfied at having completed our first research cruise!

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