April 2010

April 21. We took off from Chatham toward the northern part of Cape Cod Bay where we picked up our first track line of the eastern survey along the back side of the Cape. It wasn’t very long before we spotted our first group of whales, some of which were traveling, feeding, or in SAG’s (Surface Active Groups). We continued flying east and found EGNO 1140, also known as Wart, who has been entangled for nearly three years in fishing gear. We took several photographs of EGNO 1140, documenting her entanglement and behavior, and notified the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies Disentanglement Team. While we stood by EGNO 1140 and waited for the disentanglement team to arrive, she stayed fairly close to the surface, breached a few times and rolled around a bit. Once the disentanglement team was on scene, we helped direct their boat to EGNO 1140. We stayed with the EGNO 1140 and the disentanglement team until it was time for us to refuel. After refueling, we continued on with our survey and found several more right whales in SAG’s, feeding, logging, or traveling. We also saw several humpbacks kick and bubble feeding, a couple of fin whales, and a few dolphins. It was quite a busy day, with nearly 8 hour spent in the air, several of which were spent with EGNO 1140. In total, we spotted anywhere between 25 to 30 individual right whales, pending photographic analysis. With April coming to an end, it will be interesting to see where the right whales go and if they will move on from Cape Cod Bay and the adjacent waters or stick around the area for a few more weeks.

April 20. The aerial survey team took to the air with clear skies and flat calm seas, giving good conditions for the second survey of Cape Cod Bay this week. We started in the south to give us a chance of spotting right whales earlier in the day and be able to give their location to our colleagues on the Research Vessel Shearwater, who were carrying out sampling of plankton in the Bay. We very quickly spotted our first right whale of the day within minutes of starting the most southerly track-line. This sighting was quickly followed by a group of nine individuals who were also showing feeding behavior. Included in this group was a mother and calf pair. The mother, known as Minus One, was skim and subsurface feeding. We spotted one more right whale in the extreme south west corner of the Bay, very close to shore feeding in shallow waters. Seeing so many of the whales so close to the shore makes you understand how right whales got named the urban whale. So with over ten whales in the first hour we all hoped for a busy day, but it wasn’t to be, they were the only right whales we were to spot all day! We did spot a number of fin whales in the Bay just off Truro, and numerous humpbacks around Long Point, both feeding on dense fish balls that we could spot from the air. We also spotted 2 minkes, one in the Bay and one of the eastern side of Cape Cod, and we had hundreds of dolphins on our most northerly track lines, which was great to see.

April 20. The habitat team set out under clear, sunny skies, mild temperatures, and light winds that made for excellent cruising conditions all day. Sampling efforts focused on the southwest quadrant of the bay, where surveillance teams have reported sightings of right whales over the past several days. Zooplankton was collected from the surface and the water column at four regularly sampled stations and at three additional stations close to the southern shore of the bay. A discrete-depth vertical pump sample was taken in the vicinity of a group of subsurface-feeding right whales in the southern part of the bay.

Preliminary analysis of zooplankton samples shows a sparse resource with small patches of zooplankton at right whale feeding threshold. These patches are dominated by mid-stage Calanus finmarchicus. Eight right whales were sighted during the cruise and were engaged primarily in subsurface feeding. Five fin whales and two humpback whales were also sighted during the cruise.

18 April. We took off from Chatham with a bit of rain on the windshield, but as we entered the southern part of Cape Cod Bay the rain had stopped, leaving us with clear sightings conditions. Throughout the survey we saw 17 fin whales, some of which were lunge feeding, as well as a few humpback whales, and several dolphins. Many of the right whales were still congregated in the eastern half of the Bay, feeding, traveling, or in SAG’s (Social Active Groups).

We did have one right whale, 3520, also known as Millipede, that was subsurface feeding in the north western half of the Bay, an area where we rarely find right whales. Millipede is a 5 year old female who had been struck by a vessel, leaving a huge propeller scar along the right side of her body. Millipede may have lived to tell her story, but unfortunately many right whales are not so lucky. Do to their slow movements, time spent at the surface, and proximity to shore, one of the two major issues facing the urban whale along its migration corridor is collisions with ships, the other being entanglements. The 10 knot speed restriction rule for vessels 65 feet and greater from January to mid-May is just one step in reducing the anthropogenic impact on right whales. With a population of only 450 North Atlantic right whales in existence, every death is a blow to the survival of the species. Saving just two females a year could help this species on the brink of extinction, but saving more could put the North Atlantic right whale population on the road to recovery.

April 14. The habitat team steamed out of Provincetown harbor. Cool temperatures, clear skies, moderate winds, and seas around one foot gave way to calm seas and light winds by late morning. Sighting conditions were excellent throughout the cruise.

Zooplankton was collected from the surface and water column at all nine regularly sampled stations throughout the bay. An additional sample was taken from the surface in the vicinity of a pair of feeding right whales. Preliminary analysis indicates that the zooplankton resource in the bay has significantly decreased since Monday’s cruise. Only a few of the samples from the water column and the sample taken in the vicinity of the feeding whale approach right whale feeding threshold. This sudden decrease in the zooplankton resource may be due to intense grazing pressure by planktivores such as right whales, bait fish, and ctenophores observed over the past several days.

A decrease in right whale sightings was observed which likely corresponds directly to the observed decrease in food resources. Sightings of six right whales, including a mother/calf pair, 3 fin whales, 5 humpbacks, and more than 100 Atliantic white-sided dolphins were recorded during the cruise

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13 April. For the second day in a row the aerial survey team took to the air, we set out Chatham expecting another busy day after the large numbers of right whales spotted yesterday. We flew north up our track line that runs parallel to the eastern side of Cape Cod first, with slightly overcast skies but calm seas. The plan was to work down the Bay in a north to south direction. The first mass of whales spotted were humpbacks, many of whom where flipper slapping. We also had numerous fin whales around the mouth of Cape Cod Bay. We had completed over an hour and half of flying and were well inside Cape Cod Bay itself before we had our first right whale sighting. Over the next few hours we had many sightings of single individuals and some right whales showing coordinated feeding. We also were treated to the sight of a calf repeatedly propelling itself out the water with the mother skim feeding in close proximity. As we neared the last few lines of our survey to the south we had not yet seen anything approaching the number of right whales that the team had spotted the previous day, so we were starting to wonder where they had all gone! But then we came upon a dense concentration of right whales, every where we looked we seemed to see more of them feeding. From our bird’s eye perspective it looked like a mass of ants all moving around, it seemed incredible with the number of animals in the same area that they were not forever crashing into each other. With a lot of circling we believe we managed to get all the individuals in this area photographed to allow us to identify them back in the office.

12 April. We took off from Chatham on a beautiful Monday morning toward the southern part of Cape Cod Bay. It wasn’t too long into our survey when we spotted our first right whales, skim and subsurface feeding, and a mother and calf pair. Since it was a clear day and the sea state was decent, we could see the right whales feeding just below the surface, filtering copepods into their gaping mouths with their baleen.

Among those right whales, we saw EGNO 2440, also known as Shackleton. In December 1994, at just 11 month old, Shackleton took a one week detour up the Delaware River, wedging himself under a pier in an urban wasteland among oil blooms and pipes. With the help of local tugboats creating wakes and the local fire department on standby to use high pressure hoses, Shackleton eventually managed to free himself. As Shackleton was swimming downstream one evening toward the ocean, he was hit by a tugboat. It wasn’t until August 2006 in the Bay of Fundy, a year and a half after his last reported sighting, that researchers discovered Shackleton had indeed survived his brush with civilization, leaving him with a series of white propeller scars on his left side and a variety of other scars on his head and chin.

We saw many right whales throughout the eastern part of the Bay, feeding cooperatively and alone, along with some breaching from one individual, and a few SAG’s (Social Active Groups) with 3 to 4 individuals in each. There were also many fin whales, as well as several humpbacks kick and bubble feeding. Preliminary right whale sightings are between 60, to 70 individuals.

12 April. The habitat team set out from Provincetown Harbor with the goal of characterizing the plankton resource in the northeast quadrant of the bay, where surveillance teams have sighted large aggregations of feeding right whales over the past week. Calm seas, clear skies, and light winds made for excellent cruising and sighting conditions. Our first stop was at our northeastern-most regularly sampled station, where we collected zooplankton from both the surface and from the water column.

We then proceeded to areas where aggregations of right whales were sighted. 28 right whales were sighted during the cruise, engaged primarily in skim feeding behavior. Right whale aggregations coincided with dense zooplankton resources that were so highly concentrated that they were visible as orange streaks in the water column in some places. Also feeding on this dense resource were ctenophores and bait fish (likely herring), which in turn attracted large numbers of foraging gannets. Discrete-depth vertical samples, paired with samples taken along a transect across a dense plankton patch gave a detailed picture of the zooplankton distribution in the water column. Composed largely of mid- to late-stage Calanus finmarchicus, the zooplankton resource is now well above right whale feeding threshold.

08 April. Despite a bit of wind at the airport, we took off from Chatham toward Cape Cod Bay. The survey began in the southern part of the Bay where we had quite a lot of haze and some white caps. We were able to complete three of our sixteen tracklines before having to call off the survey due to the increasing winds and sea state. However, we did manage to spot three right whales and five fin whales amongst the waves. The right whales were skim and subsurface feeding, and we were able to obtain photo identification for two of them. Although the photo and data analysis from last week’s surveys are keeping us busy in the office, we are anxiously awaiting our next flight in hopes of spotting some new right whales in the Bay.

06 April. R/V Shearwater set out from Provincetown harbor under clear skies, light winds, and calm seas. Despite increasing cloud cover throughout the day, sighting conditions were excellent for the duration of the cruise. The habitat team was accompanied by Ruth Leeney, director of the aerial survey team. As we steamed to our first regular sampling station in the northeast of the bay, we came across a large pod of Atlantic white-sided dolphins feeding on dense aggregations of bait fish along with a few fin whales and a humpback whale. Dr. Leeney took this opportunity to deploy a hydrophone to record the dolphins’ vocalizations.

Zooplankton sampling focused on the eastern half of the bay, where surveillance teams have observed the highest concentrations of right whales over the past several days. There continues to be a dense food resource in the areas sampled, dominated by early- and mid-stages of Calanus finmarchicus. Eleven right whales were sighted during the cruise, the majority of which were engaged in feeding behavior. Other marine mammal sightings included six fin whales, eight humpback whales, 150-300 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and several harbor seals.

05 April. After finding a plethora of right whales during our last survey of Cape Cod Bay, we were anxious to see how many whales were in the Bay and if new individuals had arrived. We departed Chatham and started off along the backside of the Cape, where we found two right whales in a SAG (Surface Active Group). This was just the first of many right whale sightings for the day. The majority of the right whales were skim and subsurface feeding in the southern part of the Bay and we also saw another mother and calf pair. Among all the right whales, we also witnessed some great lunge feeding from fin whales, which were most likely feeding on herring, and humpback whales bubble and open mouth feeding. Humpback whales blow bubbles beneath the surface of the water in the shape of a net to herd their prey into a tight ball. Then, with the whale swimming upwards toward the surface, their prey is trapped and disoriented, allowing the whale to come up through the center of the bubble cloud with their mouths wide open. We were able to finish the entire survey, and landed as the sun was setting. We finished the day with approximately 37 right whales, 20 fin whales, 15 humpbacks, 2 minkes, and hundreds of dolphins. The aerial team will be extremely busy in the office over the next few days, trying to get all the data and photos analyzed from this weekend. Hopefully, this weekend was a sign of things to come for the rest of the month.

03 April. We took off from Chatham in beautiful spring weather and headed off to the northern part of Cape Cod Bay to fly the eastern track lines, which run west to east along the backside of the Cape. There were quite a few humpbacks and fin whales just around Race Point, however, we did not see our first right whale until we were a little further south on the eastern track lines. The choppy seas made it extremely difficult to keep track of this particular individual, especially since the whale was subsurface traveling for extensive periods of time. After spending nearly 40 minutes attempting to photograph this individual, we decided to get back on track because we were unsure of what lie ahead of us further south.

We spotted our second right whale soon after, who was also subsurface traveling. We did manage to obtain a few photographs of the whale’s callosity, as well as a scar on the right side of it’s body, while it was subsurface. The individual was EGNO 2223, who is also known as Calvin. This is the third time the aerial team has spotted Calvin in the past month. Calvin’s mother, Delilah, was struck and killed by a vessel in the Bay of Fundy in 1992. Calvin has also been entangled in fishing gear, but was successfully disentangled by the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies disentanglement team in 2001. With all that she has been through, Calvin was seen with her first calf in December 2004 and gave birth to her second calf just last year.

We continued with our survey, but unfortunately did not spot any more right whales along the backside of the Cape. Hopefully the weather will continue to cooperate and we will be able to survey in the next day or two.

02 April. Our first survey flight of April began with us taking off out of Chatham airport to clear skies and flat glassy calm seas. We started in the southern portion of Cape Cod Bay, unable to do our most southerly track-line due to the low tide. We quickly sighted our first right whales of the day, two animals subsurface feeding. These were just the first of many individuals we spotted, with over 30 different individuals spotted and photographed within our first hour of flying. Almost all these whales were skim and subsurface feeding, some individually and some in pairs.

The highlight of this exciting hour was when we spotted our first mom and calf pair in Cape Cod bay this season. North Atlantic right whale females give birth in the warmer waters further south just off the Georgia/Florida coast during the winter months. A total of 19 calves have been born this season. Calves spend around a year with their mothers before being weaned, and during this time they will almost double in size. It is amazing to get to see a mom and calf of such an endangered species, and gives us hope for the continued survival of these fascinating creatures. Before we had to land in Provincetown for fuel, we spotted around another 15 right whales, including 3 involved in a Surface Active Group (SAG). After such a busy time in southern part of the Bay, it was a bit surprising that we didn’t spot a single right whale in the northern part of the Bay after refueling. However, we did spot a number of fin whales and humpbacks. We where unable to do our tack line down the eastern side of Cape Cod due to the dense fog that was present just offshore which would have obscured our vision and made observing whales difficult. So, after finishing our track lines just to the north of Race Point, we headed back to Chatham after our busiest day of the season so far.

02 April. The Habitat Team set out aboard R/V Shearwater under clear, sunny skies, mild temperatures and calm seas. Zooplankton was collected from the surface and the water column at eight of our nine regular sampling stations. Additional surface and discrete-depth vertical samples were taken in the vicinity of feeding right whales at five locations throughout the bay. Vertical samples were paired with CTD casts to obtain information about the physical properties of the water column. This data, when integrated with the biological data obtained from zooplankton samples, gives a detailed picture of the water column at specific points in the bay.

Thirteen to fifteen right whales were sighted during the cruise and were almost exclusively engaged in feeding behavior. Right whale aggregations and the richest zooplankton resources were both found primarily in the southwest and northeast quadrants of the bay. The zooplankton resource has increased significantly since the last cruise and is dominated by mid-stage Calanus finmarchicus.

In addition to the right whales sighted, observations of two humpback whales, a fin whale, three large pods of Atlantic white-sided dolphins, one pod of unidentified dolphins, 4-7 harbor porpoises, and a harbor seal were recorded. Vessel and fishing gear sightings were also noted.

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