May 2009

25 May. Sadly, today marked the end of our right whale aerial survey season. To switch things up a little bit we surveyed a new area for us, Massachusetts Bay including the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. There were plenty of animals to see including humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, basking sharks, and ocean sunfish, but unfortunately no right whales were seen. Although we are sad to see them go, it has been an extremely productive season. Preliminary data analysis has revealed sightings of 189 individual right whales, and we still have more to match. This includes six of the record- breaking 39 mother/calf pairs that were documented in the southeast. Hopefully next year will be just as busy!

20 May. Although we had not seen any right whales on the past few flights, we flew our eastern tracklines again on Wednesday, in hope that some of the right whales reported in the Great South Channel may have moved into our survey area. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. However, we did have a good variety of marine life, including minke, fin, and humpback whales, along with dolphins and basking sharks. Basking sharks, the second largest fish in the world, can often be mistaken for great whites or other dangerous sharks, but are, in fact, harmless filter feeders, often feeding on the same tiny crustaceans upon which right whales feast. Greg Skomal, a shark biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries for Massachusetts, recently tagged basking sharks in Massachusetts waters to better understand where they go in colder months. His interesting results can be found here: http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/05/07/basking-shark-track.html

13 May . With no right whale sightings in Cape Cod Bay, the habitat team decided to direct its final cruise of the season (SW746) to sampling the Provincetown Slope, which included Wildcat Knoll. In past years, right whales have been seen feeding near areas of nutrient upwelling; however, on May 13th, no right whales were to be seen. The team did observe 17-20 humpback whales, 2 minke whales, 4 fin whales, 10-20 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 5 seals, and 1 harbor porpoise. Zooplankton samples were taken in the presence of slicks, which are oceanographic features that can concentrate phytoplankton resources (primary prey of zooplankton). Results from the sampling revealed that late-stage Calanus finmarchicus was the most prevalent calanoid copepod , however, the resource was limited. With a depleted resource and no right whale sightings in Cape Cod Bay or the surrounding area, it seems unlikely that the whales will be back anytime soon. And so it seems as though the whales have left almost as quickly as they arrived.

12 May. Having observed no right whales in Cape Cod Bay during our previous two surveys, we decided to spend Tuesday doing a survey of the tracklines east of Cape Cod. There had been reports of right whales in the Great South Channel, an area where many animals stop to feed, and we hoped to catch a glimpse of right whales in transit to the area. Our hopes did not pan out, however. No right whales were spotted on this survey, although we did document plenty of other marine life, including humpbacks, dolphins, fin whales, and minke whales.

May 2009 — Right Whale Field Notes

25 May. Sadly, today marked the end of our right whale aerial survey season. To switch things up a little bit we surveyed a new area for us, Massachusetts Bay including the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. There were plenty of animals to see including humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, basking sharks, and ocean sunfish, but unfortunately no right whales were seen. Although we are sad to see them go, it has been an extremely productive season. Preliminary data analysis has revealed sightings of 189 individual right whales, and we still have more to match. This includes six of the record- breaking 39 mother/calf pairs that were documented in the southeast. Hopefully next year will be just as busy!

20 May. Although we had not seen any right whales on the past few flights, we flew our eastern tracklines again on Wednesday, in hope that some of the right whales reported in the Great South Channel may have moved into our survey area. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. However, we did have a good variety of marine life, including minke, fin, and humpback whales, along with dolphins and basking sharks. Basking sharks, the second largest fish in the world, can often be mistaken for great whites or other dangerous sharks, but are, in fact, harmless filter feeders, often feeding on the same tiny crustaceans upon which right whales feast. Greg Skomal, a shark biologist with the Division of Marine Fisheries for Massachusetts, recently tagged basking sharks in Massachusetts waters to better understand where they go in colder months. His interesting results can be found here: http://dsc.discovery.com/news/2009/05/07/basking-shark-track.html

13 May . With no right whale sightings in Cape Cod Bay, the habitat team decided to direct its final cruise of the season (SW746) to sampling the Provincetown Slope, which included Wildcat Knoll. In past years, right whales have been seen feeding near areas of nutrient upwelling; however, on May 13th, no right whales were to be seen. The team did observe 17-20 humpback whales, 2 minke whales, 4 fin whales, 10-20 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, 5 seals, and 1 harbor porpoise. Zooplankton samples were taken in the presence of slicks, which are oceanographic features that can concentrate phytoplankton resources (primary prey of zooplankton). Results from the sampling revealed that late-stage Calanus finmarchicus was the most prevalent calanoid copepod , however, the resource was limited. With a depleted resource and no right whale sightings in Cape Cod Bay or the surrounding area, it seems unlikely that the whales will be back anytime soon. And so it seems as though the whales have left almost as quickly as they arrived.

12 May. Having observed no right whales in Cape Cod Bay during our previous two surveys, we decided to spend Tuesday doing a survey of the tracklines east of Cape Cod. There had been reports of right whales in the Great South Channel, an area where many animals stop to feed, and we hoped to catch a glimpse of right whales in transit to the area. Our hopes did not pan out, however. No right whales were spotted on this survey, although we did document plenty of other marine life, including humpbacks, dolphins, fin whales, and minke whales.

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A humpback whale breaches off of Cape Cod

11 May. Today we did another survey of Cape Cod Bay. After not seeing any right whales on our previous flight, we were keeping our fingers crossed that we would see some today. Sadly, that did not prove to be the case. Although we did see a number of humpback and fin whales throughout the bay, it seems as though the right whales have moved on to another feeding area for the season.

11 May . The right whale habitat studies team set out for SW745 with calm seas and good weather conditions. Despite observation efforts from the R/V Shearwater and the Skymaster (aerial survey plane), no right whales were sighted in Cape Cod Bay. There was a noticeable increase in the richness of early stage Calanus finmarchicus, which may have explained why there were several fish eating cetaceans in Cape Cod Bay (humpback, fin, minke and Atlantic white-sided dolphins). Sandlance or “sandeels” are the primary prey for several cetaceans in the Gulf of Maine and sandlance feed on calanoid copepods. It is possible that the sandlance were exploiting the Calanus resource in the bay. Although there was a rich supply of early stage Calanus, recent studies at PCCS suggest that right whales are less efficient at filtering early stage Calanus than late stage Calanus. It is likely that the whales have moved on to other feeding grounds to exploit larger and more energy rich prey resources. In the coming days the team hopes to conduct a survey near the Great South Channel, a critical habitat, to document the food resource and collect right whale sightings data.

8 May. On Friday, after several weeks in the repair shop, our Skymaster N1773Z was ready for its first springtime flight. Having heard anecdotal reports of right whales near Race Point, we decided to do our backside trackline first, followed by a bay survey in a north to south direction. Upon reaching the Race Point area, we were drawn to a series of spouts to the north, but upon closer examination, it turned out to be the tall spouts of three fin whales. Near the fin whales we also came across a number of humpback whales, some of which were feeding. Humpback whales often blow rings of bubbles to trap and corral their food. Unlike the North Atlantic right whale, humpbacks and fin whales tend to feed on small schooling fish, rather than nearly-microscopic plankton. Also distributed throughout the area was a pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins. As we left the larger whales to head westward, we continued to see dolphins along our northernmost trackline as well as to the south. Although no right whales were seen on our survey, we continued to see dolphins, humpbacks, fin whales, and Minke whales throughout Cape Cod Bay.

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