January 2008

The PCCS 2008 Right Whale Aerial Survey Team

The PCCS 2008 Right Whale Aerial Survey Team

January 26. The aerial survey team waited patiently for the winds to die down on Saturday morning and then seized the brief opportunity of calm weather to get up in the air for a survey. An acoustic buoy had picked up right whale calls in Cape Cod Bay the night before, so we were eager to find and photograph the whale or whales in the area. Right whales are individually identifiable based on the callosity pattern on their head. Callosities are areas of raised cornified skin that become covered in cyamid crustaceans, often called “whale lice”. Aerial photographs of right whales can be compared to a catalog of known individuals curated by the New England Aquarium. Once a match has been made to the catalog, demographic information on the whale can be retrieved such as the age, sex, and recent sighting history. Unfortunately we did not have an opportunity to match whales to the catalog this weekend. The entire Cape Cod Bay was surveyed in absolutely beautiful sighting conditions, but no whales were seen.

24 January. Despite late-day predictions for snow, the PCCS right whale habitat team set out for its third cruise of the season. A slight breeze blew as we cruised out of Provincetown Harbor under wintry skies. As soon as we had left the harbor, passing the wood end buoy, we spotted a pod of 50 to 100 dolphins, whose species remains unidentified. Taking this as a good omen, we continued to our first plankton sampling station. We noted a number of groupings of gear, often consisting of paired buoys. We also sighted many seals, both gray (Halichoerus grypus) and harbor (Phoca vitulina), throughout the Bay. The plankton tows revealed relatively low densities of zooplankton, but increasing levels of phytoplankton, the vegetation of the sea. Phytoplankton are the bottom level of the food chain, serving as the basis for life in the world’s oceans. We spotted one whale, which remains unconfirmed, and finished our sampling efficiently.

As we approached our eighth and final station, a large pod of dolphins as well as a pod of harbor porpoise appeared. Amongst the leaping animals, a large marine mammal was spotted. We quickly confirmed that it was a humpback whale (Megaptera novaenglieae). It is unusual to have humpback sightings in late January as these animals are migratory and at this time of year, are usually en route to their tropical breeding grounds. With identification photographs, PCCS was able to identify this whale as Banjo. This was an important sighting, as Banjo was found entangled in fishing gear on May 14th 2007, and rescued by the PCCS disentanglement team. Happily, Banjo appears to remain gear-free. We returned to port excited by the day’s sightings, the increasing phytoplankton in the water column, increased numbers of marine mammals and anxious for the next right whale sighting

17 January. The Right Whale Habitat Studies Team set out for its second research cruise of the season on January 17th, mid-morning. Low winds and resulting calm seas made for comfortable cruising conditions. Before reaching the first sampling station, several commercial vessels and fishing gear markers were recorded. Vessel and fishing gear information is significant as they pose potential threats to right whales. Throughout the course of the cruise several slicks, or surface anomalies, were identified. After completing the first few samples the winds began to pick-up, as did the seas, resulting in a confused sea, with a swell traveling in one direction and wind driven waves traveling in another. By early-to-mid afternoon no whales had been sighted, but we did see the three dolphins. Although the species remains unconfirmed, Common Dolphins (Delphinus delphis) and Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins (Lagenohynchus acutus) are the most frequently seen dolphins in Cape Cod Bay and the North Atlantic. The team also noted numerous birds that frequent Cape Cod Bay in the winter. Throughout the day several groups of white-winged scoters (Melanitta deglandi) were recorded. White-winged Scoters are medium- sized diving ducks with large white wing patches and dark plumage.

During the cruise, all eight regular stations were sampled for zooplankton. Zooplankton in the Bay was dominated by small species of Calanoid copepods. These animals are not the preferred food of right whales, as they are not high in caloric content. Historically, energy-rich species such as Calanus finmarchicus, do not appear until later in the season, and we therefore do not expect to see right whales in the Bay for a while yet. The Cape Cod Bay Monitoring team also deployed a CTD (conductivity, temperature, depth) instrument to examine the water’s physical traits, Additionally, a Niskin bottle was used to collect discrete water samples at varying depths. We returned to the Provincetown Marina at sunset having completed a successful second research cruise. The team eagerly awaits the next cruise and the return of the endangered North Atlantic right whale.

January 17. The aerial survey team departed the Chatham airport bright and early this morning, and headed eastbound. We flew thirteen tracklines east of Cape Cod Bay, approximately fifteen nautical miles offshore, in search of right whales. The weather was perfect for a survey, with low winds, great visibility, and enough cloud cover to keep the water’s surface free of glare from the sun. We saw quite a few humpback whales and got a really nice look at a fin whale. Fin whales have a very distinctive chevron pattern on the side of their body and the view from the air was quite a treat. We completed our survey and headed in without sighting any right whales. Even though we knew it was unlikely to find EGNO 2645 again today (the entangled right whale seen Saturday), we couldn’t help being a bit disappointed as the weather would have been ideal for a disentanglement attempt.

IMG_0043crop12 January. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies’ (PCCS’) right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) habitat team set out at mid-day on the R/V Shearwater for its first cruise of the season. Temperatures were relatively high for the month of January, and the winds were light from the northwest, dropping off to a very light breeze by dusk. The purpose of the cruise was to sample the eastern and southeastern portion of Cape Cod Bay for zooplankton, right whales’ primary source of food. At this time of year, sampling of zooplankton is done to gain an understanding of the baseline plankton community. The “baseline plankton community” refers to the number and types of plankton found in the Bay, before they increase in concentration due to seasonal changes in the environment. By observing the locations and concentrations of zooplankton in the presence (positive data) and absence (negative data) of right whales, we hope to improve understanding of right whale habitat use, and our ability to predict where they will appear.

20080112_0030_Entangled_EGNO2645_000We collected plankton at four of our eight regular sample stations using mesh net. Right whales feed by opening their mouths and allowing zooplankton-packed water to flow over their baleen. The small organisms get caught and ingested, while the water flows back out. We completed a surface and oblique plankton tow at each station. During and between stations, we also scanned visually for signs of whales, other marine mammals, gear, vessels, birds, and sea surface anomalies called slicks. Slicks appear smoother then surrounding water, and usually indicate a convergence of two different water masses. Oceanographic processes that can aggregate plankton often accompany the meeting of these waters.

We had completed our final sample at station 6S, no whales had been sighted and R/V Shearwater was headed into port, when we received a report of an entangled right whale (#2645). Each whale identified with photographs is given a number as a name. With the help of the aerial team, we were able to locate and approach the whale. Unfortunately, she was extremely elusive and remained at the surface for only 30 seconds or less before repeating approximately ten-minute dives. We remained until dark and had to abandon the whale, leaving her untagged and entangled. Otherwise, few buoys and vessels were sighted, as well as a small number of seabirds.

January 12. The aerial survey team was able to find another window of opportunity when low winds on Saturday permitted a survey flight. Three humpback whales and one minke whale were spotted during our initial trackline east of Cape Cod. We nearly completed the entire survey of Cape Cod Bay without spotting any whales inside the bay. In late afternoon we came across an entangled right whale! Unfortunately entanglement in fishing gear is a common problem encountered by right whales, and is the second leading cause of known mortality (the first being ship strike) in this highly endangered species. We immediately contacted the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team who coordinated efforts with our nearby research vessel, the Shearwater. Unfortunately, daylight was fading fast and the disentanglement team members aboard the Shearwater were unable to attach a tracking buoy to the whale before dark. We were later able to match our photographs of this whale to the database of known individuals. The entangled whale is an adult female, known as EGNO 2645. She gave birth to a calf in the Southeast last winter and was also seen in the Bay of Fundy this fall.

Photo credit: Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies. Image taken under NOAA Fisheries permit 932-1489, with the authority of the United States Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act.

January 05. The first aerial survey of the 2008 field season was completed today! Winter on Cape Cod is frequently blustery, but we were able to take advantage of the calm winds today to get up in the air to test our equipment and survey protocols. Taking off from the Chatham airport in a twin-engine Cessna Skymaster, our survey team was able to cover the entire bay before sunset. No right whales were seen, but the team did spot a large fin whale!

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