March 2007

A right whale lifting its chin and much of its head out of the water as it socializes with another right whale (foreground).

A right whale lifting its chin and much of its head out of the water as it socializes with another right whale (foreground).

31 March. Today’s aerial survey began with the southern-most track lines in Cape Cod Bay. Based on recent sightings, we believed that most of the right whales would be found in the southern part of the bay. We hoped to photograph most of the whales during the beginning of our survey while the team was fresh. As we worked our way to the north, we realized that the distribution of the whales in Cape Cod Bay had changed since our last survey. The whales were spread out across the Bay and found as far north as Race Point, Provincetown. While it not entirely known why the whales alter their distribution, we do know that food is very important to these large mammals. Dense zooplankton concentrations draw right whales into the bay each year. It is likely that the whales are moving around the bay, looking for patches of zooplankton to feed on. After photographing 13 individual whales, our day ended with a spectacular sighting near the beach at Race Point. As we approached the Race, one of the observers noticed a disturbance in the shallow, green waters off the Race Point Lighthouse. As the observer studied the area closely through binoculars, the black, broad head of a right whale broke the surface of the water and emitted its characteristic v-shaped blow. A few seconds later, two humpbacks surfaced just meters away from the right whale. These two species share the same habitat and are commonly seen in close proximity to each other in the spring. The truly amazing part of this sighting was that the whales were about 30 yards off the beach! Federal regulations state that it is illegal to approach a right whale within 500 yards. However, the proximity of these whales to the beach lends the rare opportunity to view these whales at close range while sitting quietly on the beach. Although three of the survey track lines weren’t completed today, the team arrived back at Chatham at 6pm elated by the day’s sightings.

27 March. The early morning fog had cleared sufficiently by mid morning to enable the team to find whales. Whales were plentiful in the bay this morning and seemed to be spending the majority of their time in surface active groups (SAGs). Individuals were seen swimming belly up, lifting their heads clear of the water, slapping pectoral fins and flukes and generally rolling around. Once again the team deployed the towed array, continuously listening and recording throughout their time with whales. Life on the water was significantly quieter by mid afternoon, with animals diving for longer periods of time, fewer SAGs and limited vocalizations. It was particularly obvious today that there was a clear correlation between vocalizations and the general behavior of whales in the bay. Relatively long diving, foraging whales barely made a sound but every time a surface active group was evident there was a steady stream of a whole range of vocalizations.

24 March. The weather was still nice enough today to allow for us to survey Cape Cod Bay. Again we started our survey from the south, still hoping that we might find the entangled whale early in the day, to enable the disentanglement team to get out quickly and help it. However, similarly to the day before we did not find the animal and now presume that it might have left Cape Cod Bay and we can just hope for it to be found and reported again in a not too far future. Again we saw many whales socializing and some also subsurface feeding in the south of Cape Cod Bay. While the northern part of the Bay again was empty of right whales, this time we found a couple of socializing groups of right whales off the back side of the Cape. Altogether we observed 37 right whales today, which, for this year, should be one of the highest numbers of individuals sighted in one survey day.

24 March. The focal follow team met a first light at the dock in Sandwich to make the most of the perfect weather conditions. There was barely a breath of wind, calm seas and good visibility, ideal for sighting right whales. Unbelievably, the first whale we encountered was the same one that had been tracked on two previous occasions. It was decided however not to conduct another focal follow with this individual but instead to increase our sample size and move on to a different whale. It was not long before several more right whales had been located in the southern part of the bay. There was plenty of social activity this morning amongst the whales. Several surface active groups could be seen at any one time and then the whales would split off, regroup and socialize with other individuals. The towed array was deployed as soon as these whales were encountered and this morning there were plenty of vocalizations. During the sags the research team heard several different sounds including contact calls (or “upcalls”), moans and also gunshots, which are thought to be produced mostly by males and are associated with sexual activity. It was difficult to assume focal follows of individuals during this frenzied activity with so many whales in one area, so instead we concentrated on recording the general behavior of the whales and spatial organization in relation to their vocalizations. During the early afternoon this social activity subsided sufficiently for the team to conduct a focal follow of an individual that was encountered earlier this morning in amongst a number of sags. This whale was followed for a number of hours and typically dove for 10-15 minutes at a time, often moving a considerable distance between dives (sometimes in a continuous direction and sometimes changing direction). It is thought that this whale was probably foraging (searching for food). Throughout this focal follow vocalizations were much less frequent although distant calls could sometimes be heard and indeed distant whales could be seen.

23 March.. After the unsuccessful disentanglement attempt two days ago, this morning we were anxious to go out and survey again. We were hoping to find the entangled right whale again and give the disentanglement team aboard the Ibis another chance to help this unfortunate individual. Since this was where we last saw the animal, we started our survey in the south of the Bay. And soon enough, shortly after we had started our first track line, we spotted the first blows. The first two whales we encountered were old friends: right whale # 1817 and her calf from last year, whom we had seen together a couple of times since the beginning of the season were lazily logging at the surface. Next we came upon a SAG (Surface Active Group) of four animals. Here too we met familiar callosity patterns. One right whale involved in this group was the animal, whose big propeller scar on his right flank had shocked all of us a couple of days ago. However, today the animal seemed to be doing fine – socializing with other whales – which we took as a good sign. Making our way north in the Bay we came upon a few more socializing groups of whales and some single animals. Altogether we sighted 22 individuals in the southern part of the Bay. Exhausted from so much action we took a short break in Plymouth to refuel the plane and stretch our legs and then continued our survey of the northern part of the Bay and along the Eastern shoreline of Cape Cod. The second part of the survey proofed to be much quieter though with no right whales sighted at all. However, we did still spot some big blows off of Race Point. When investigating these a bit more closely, we found eight humpback whales and a couple of fin whales, who along with the Northern Gannets seem to slowly arrive to our survey area to feed. Happy about our whale sightings, though also a little disappointed that we did not find the entangled whale again, we returned to our home airport.

23 March. Once the early morning mist had cleared it proved to be another fine day out on the water. Right whales were located almost immediately after leaving the harbor in the south of Cape Cod Bay. The first whale we encountered just happened to be the same whale that we had followed previously from Race Point out into the shipping channel. The focal follow team again stayed with this whale throughout the day, observing her dive and surface time and small scale movements. This whale (#1968) spent the majority of the day on her own with just a few brief encounters with a couple of other whales, one of whom was “Piper” (a whale well known to the Center for Coastal Studies who had a calf last year). This time right whale #1968 did not travel very far and spent all day in the south of the bay in the same general area as many other right whales. The team were listening continuously via the dual hydrophone towed array for vocalizations and throughout the day there were many typical right whale calls.

21 March. After more than a week of being frustrated by the weather we took off from Chatham airport on Wednesday morning with clear blue skies and the promise of light winds easing through the day. We started our aerial survey tracks at the southern end of Cape Cod Bay and quickly found right whales. The first two whales we saw were easy to spot as they were thrashing around, chasing each other and making lots of white water. Having photographed both of them we moved on and quickly found three more whales close by. One of these whales was feeding just below the surface, showing off its huge curtains of baleen used to filter plankton from the water passing through its mouth. It was a good start to the survey, but it quickly turned sour. The next right whale we sighted was entangled in fishing gear, with line running across its back, through its mouth and apparently wrapped around both flippers. This was a whale which had been sighted earlier in the month by the NMFS aerial survey team and that we had looked for unsuccessfully in the Great South Channel to the east of Cape Cod. This whale would probably die if not freed from the fishing gear so we immediately contacted the disentanglement team at the Center for Coastal Studies. They mobilized very quickly in the disentanglement boat, Ibis, while we circled over the whale so that we could assist them when they arrived.. For the next five hours we stayed with the entangled whale while the crew aboard Ibis attempted to maneuver the boat close enough to attach a telemetry buoy to the line wrapped around the whale. A telemetry buoy helps the team keep track of the whale’s position and so gives them a better chance of disentangling it. Each time the whale surfaced we would radio the Ibis and try and direct the team to the whale. Unfortunately the whale just would not co-operate and rarely stayed at the surface long enough for the disentanglement team to approach as close as they needed to. Eventually, after seven hours in the air and with our fuel running low we had to abandon the task and head back to Chatham airport. It had been a very frustrating day and we had not achieved the result we had hoped for. Hopefully the entangled whale will stay in Cape Cod Bay long enough for us to locate it again so that the disentanglement team can have another attempt at freeing it.

21 March. The habitat team aboard R/V Shearwater once again headed out to sample the waters of Cape Cod Bay after a long hiatus of poor weather conditions. We left Provincetown harbor just before noon, under a bright sun and chilly winds. Starting in the northeastern bay we collected zooplankton samples at each station, our track taking us in a clockwise direction around the bay. We soon discovered that the zooplankton density in the water column was richer than in previous research cruises – a good sign that right whales may soon be found foraging in Cape Cod Bay. As we moved along the stations, we received a call from the aerial team that they had found whales in the southwestern portion of the bay. Unfortunately, just near one of our stations in the southern-central area of the bay, they had spotted an entangled right whale and were circling on the individual with the disentanglement team on R/V Ibis. R/V Shearwater was not needed and the habitat team chose to remain a good distance away from the disentanglement efforts so as to not interfere. The aerial team also communicated sightings of several right whales in that southern-central region, at least one of which was observed feeding. While our sighting effort was high with four observers on board, we were unable to locate any whales as we passed to the north of the area. Zooplankton samples from the southern bay revealed a resource that in some locations may indeed be capable of supporting right whale feeding, and it would likely take only a slight enrichment of this resource to encourage the formation of stable aggregations of right whales feeding in the bay. We returned to the dock around 1830 with no right whale sightings and a dense amount of plankton to count. The richer sources of plankton are a good indication that more food is coming into Cape Cod Bay. With this, we hope to see that right whales will soon be dining in our waters.

vesselinjury2007_00012 March. It was an early start for the focal follow and acoustics team who met the RV Eziduzit and skipper at the dock in Sandwich at 6:30 am. No right whale survey flights had been conducted for a couple of days and so it was not known exactly where the whales would be found. The team started searching immediately after they left port and by 9:30am had located their first right whale just off Race Point. This whale was followed for the entire day for a total of 8 hours. Throughout the day our track was obtained via the GPS connected to a palmtop computer which will enable us to examine the small scale movements of this whale. Dive and surface times were recorded for the entire day which will allow us to work out time budget and the percentage of time that whales are vulnerable to ship strike at the surface. The team listened for vocalizations on a towed hydrophone array but this whale did not make a single noise for the entire eight hours that it was followed. Photo-ID pictures of the whale were taken at regular intervals during the day to ensure that the same whale was being tracked. This whale was easy to recognize from the distinctive scars on the dorsal and ventral sides of the fluke. From an initial start position off Race Point, the whale gradually moved further offshore and away from Cape Cod Bay into the shipping channel, traveling just over 14 nautical miles in eight hours.

12 March. The aerial survey team headed to the Great South Channel this morning to search for an entangled right whale that was reported on Friday, March 9. While we found several right whales in this area, none were the one we were searching for. The Great South Channel is known to be an area that attracts a multitude of right whale with vessel injurywhales. During our search for the entangled right whales, we found humpbacks, fin whales, sei whales and two sperm whales!! As we usually survey close to shore we don’t often have the opportunity to see sperm whales which inhabit deeper waters. The whale’s enormous head, which makes up a third of their body and their single blowhole, located on the left side of the head make these whales unmistakable. While this was a truly amazing sighting, our day quickly turned sour as we entered Cape Cod Bay on our normal survey. Slightly west of Wood End in Provincetown, we sighted a right whale with a gaping wound on its right flank. The wound is a series of propeller marks deep enough that a shadow could be seen inside the wound. Several whales in this population have scars from propellers and have survived the trauma. Whether this animal will survive this injury is yet to be seen. Shipstrkes are currently one of the main causes of right whale mortality. A whale is so much smaller then a large ship that it is possible for a whale to be struck without the ship even knowing that they hit it. Researchers believe that restricting vessels to lower speeds in critical areas may reduce the amount of fatal ship strikes seen each year.

09 March. The wind was calm and the sky clear as our Cessna Skymaster lifted off from Chatham this morning. We began our survey heading north along the eastern shore of Cape Cod. Within the first twenty minutes a SAG (surface active group) was sighted, consisting of at least five right whales. We spent a half hour circling over this group, identifying individuals and making sure to have photographs of each whale. As the whales rolled and dove around each other, one white belly gleamed fantastically underwater. White bellies are common in this population. At least half of the catalogued individuals have some white pattern on their undersides. As we continued our flight, we found ten right whales within Cape Cod Bay. Most of the right whales found within the Bay were solitary and diving for 15-20 minutes at a time. The wind began to pick up in the early afternoon and soon white caps covered the Bay. We finished our tenth survey track in marginal conditions and headed back home.

03 March. Despite the forecasted deteriorating weather in the afternoon, the morning looked good enough that we decided to fly anyway. Good weather days are so spaced out this season that we have to take any opportunity we can to get a flight in. We decided to start our survey on the back side of the Cape and soon after we had left the airport in Chatham we found the first group of whales. It was a SAG of five animals socializing at the surface. While circling these whales and taking identifying photographs, we saw the second SAG to the north which consisted of about seven individuals, with more animals moving in as we observed. What an impressive encounter! It took us about an hour of circling to feel confident that we photographed each individual. But then the series of sightings didn’t stop just yet. A breaching right whale caught our attention just a couple of miles north of our last sighting. As we headed north we found a couple more whales, most of them by themselves or in small groups of two or three animals, some of them feeding. Up to this point we were fortunate enough to have good sightings conditions and a low enough sea state to observe and photograph whales. However, as we entered Cape Cod Bay from the north the sea state began increasing as the front of bad weather finally moved in. After we completed the first half of tracklines in the Bay in a seastate of 4 to 5 and one of our pilots had indeed managed to pick out one right whale amidst all the whitecaps, we decided that we couldn’t survey any longer and went home. Despite having to cut our survey short, we landed with photographs of over 24 whales in our camera!

01 March. There was a bit of haze to the East as the aerial survey aircraft lifted off from Chatham this morning. Our survey began off the eastern shore of the Cape and the observers were excited, knowing that 24 right whales had been sighted during the previous flight. The action started early, with five feeding right whales north of Race Point. The food resource must have changed since the last flight, as these whales were further north then the ones sighted on the 27 February. Several of today’s whales were feeding subsurface as well. While circling and photographing these individuals, another right whale breached just a mile from our current position. Breaching is truly an awesome sight, regardless of the species of whale involved. This particular right whale had a white belly that gleamed in the sun as it seemingly effortlessly lifted its enormous body out of the water. As we made our way from north to south across Cape Cod Bay, four more right whales were sighted. Several of these whales were on long dives, staying underwater for over 15 minutes before rushing to the surface for a breath. As we finished our survey, we wondered where the rest of the whales, which were sighted just a few days ago, have gone. Cape Cod Bay and its surrounding waters are dynamic this time of year however and the whales could be drawn back into the Bay any day.

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