February 2010

28 February. We took off from Chatham airport heading along the back side of Cape Cod. We broke track for our first whale of the day, a long diving fin whale. We continued north, and came across a minke whale, as well as a humpback whale. As we moved further south we encountered our first, and only, right whale sighting of the survey. Three right whales were in a SAG (Surface Active Group). We have been able to identify these whales as 1821, M007, and 3340. Each right whale is given a catalog number that allows researchers, from various organizations, to easily talk about individual animals. Once given a number we can track the life history of these animals. 1821 is a male who was seen for the first time in 1988, since that year he has been sighted in Cape Cod Bay in four different years (including 2010). This is the third year in a row that we have sighted M007. 3340 is a male that was born in 2003, and is a frequent visitor to Cape Cod Bay. Researchers have been able to glean valuable information about migration, demographics of the population, reproductive status, and mortality rates, all by being able to identify these animals as individuals. A great deal of the work that the aerial team does while not in the air revolves around figuring out who these individuals are.

28 February. R/V Shearwater steamed out of Provincetown harbor for the Habitat team’s fifth cruise of the season. Light and variable winds and overcast skies in the morning deteriorated in the early afternoon as winds picked up and the sea became choppy. Temperatures remained just above freezing for the duration of the cruise and sighting conditions were good, other than a few short periods of snow and sleet.

Zooplankton was collected from both the surface and the water column at all nine regular sampling stations. The zooplankton resource continues to be dominated by the genus Pseudocalanus, and Centropages spp. concentration continues to decrease. Despite this shift to a food resource preferred by right whales, abundance in the bay remains too low to trigger feeding behavior. A high concentration of phytoplankton was observed in all samples. A harbor porpoise (Phocoena phoecoena) and a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) were the only marine mammals sighted on the cruise; no right whales were seen.

22 February. The weather proved to be much more cooperative today than yesterday, with sunshine and warming temperatures. We took off in the late morning to avoid some high winds, and we were anxious to see what lie ahead of us in the bay. We began in the south by Chatham, and gradually made our way north along our track lines. About half way through our survey, we spotted our first right whale of the day who turned out to be an adult male named Silver. Silver is an interesting whale because he is missing most of his left fluke from an unknown cause. After taking an adequate amount of photos of the individual, we continued along our track lines in hopes of more whales to come. Although we did not see another right whale, we did spot 2 fin whales. With such a high number of right whales sighted at the beginning of February, and the number of sightings tapering off toward the end of the month, it will be interesting to see what the rest of the season has in store for us as we enter the busy months of March and April.

22 February. The Habitat team set out on RV Shearwater around noon to avoid the morning’s rough seas and wind. Throughout the afternoon, clear skies and temperatures above freezing made for good cruising and sighting conditions. In the late afternoon, cloud cover increased and prevailing winds shifted from the northwest to the east and dropped from 8-10 knots to less than 5 knots.

Zooplankton was collected from the surface and the water column at seven of our nine regular sampling stations, and the water quality monitoring team took CTD casts and collected water samples at each station. Zooplankton density remains below that which would trigger right whale feeding behavior, but preliminary assessment indicates a shift from a Centropages spp.-dominated resource to one heavier in Pseudocalanus spp. There is also a slight increase in early-stage Calanus finmarchicus. These two species are the preferred food of right whales in Cape Cod Bay, but until their densities increase further we do not expect to see feeding aggregations of right whales in the bay. No right whales or other marine mammals were sighted on the cruise.

28 February. We took off from Chatham airport heading along the back side of Cape Cod. We broke track for our first whale of the day, a long diving fin whale. We continued north, and came across a minke whale, as well as a humpback whale. As we moved further south we encountered our first, and only, right whale sighting of the survey. Three right whales were in a SAG (Surface Active Group). We have been able to identify these whales as 1821, M007, and 3340. Each right whale is given a catalog number that allows researchers, from various organizations, to easily talk about individual animals. Once given a number we can track the life history of these animals. 1821 is a male who was seen for the first time in 1988, since that year he has been sighted in Cape Cod Bay in four different years (including 2010). This is the third year in a row that we have sighted M007. 3340 is a male that was born in 2003, and is a frequent visitor to Cape Cod Bay. Researchers have been able to glean valuable information about migration, demographics of the population, reproductive status, and mortality rates, all by being able to identify these animals as individuals. A great deal of the work that the aerial team does while not in the air revolves around figuring out who these individuals are.

28 February. R/V Shearwater steamed out of Provincetown harbor for the Habitat team’s fifth cruise of the season. Light and variable winds and overcast skies in the morning deteriorated in the early afternoon as winds picked up and the sea became choppy. Temperatures remained just above freezing for the duration of the cruise and sighting conditions were good, other than a few short periods of snow and sleet.

Zooplankton was collected from both the surface and the water column at all nine regular sampling stations. The zooplankton resource continues to be dominated by the genus Pseudocalanus, and Centropages spp. concentration continues to decrease. Despite this shift to a food resource preferred by right whales, abundance in the bay remains too low to trigger feeding behavior. A high concentration of phytoplankton was observed in all samples. A harbor porpoise (Phocoena phoecoena) and a fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) were the only marine mammals sighted on the cruise; no right whales were seen.

22 February. The weather proved to be much more cooperative today than yesterday, with sunshine and warming temperatures. We took off in the late morning to avoid some high winds, and we were anxious to see what lie ahead of us in the bay. We began in the south by Chatham, and gradually made our way north along our track lines. About half way through our survey, we spotted our first right whale of the day who turned out to be an adult male named Silver. Silver is an interesting whale because he is missing most of his left fluke from an unknown cause. After taking an adequate amount of photos of the individual, we continued along our track lines in hopes of more whales to come. Although we did not see another right whale, we did spot 2 fin whales. With such a high number of right whales sighted at the beginning of February, and the number of sightings tapering off toward the end of the month, it will be interesting to see what the rest of the season has in store for us as we enter the busy months of March and April.

22 February. The Habitat team set out on RV Shearwater around noon to avoid the morning’s rough seas and wind. Throughout the afternoon, clear skies and temperatures above freezing made for good cruising and sighting conditions. In the late afternoon, cloud cover increased and prevailing winds shifted from the northwest to the east and dropped from 8-10 knots to less than 5 knots.

Zooplankton was collected from the surface and the water column at seven of our nine regular sampling stations, and the water quality monitoring team took CTD casts and collected water samples at each station. Zooplankton density remains below that which would trigger right whale feeding behavior, but preliminary assessment indicates a shift from a Centropages spp.-dominated resource to one heavier in Pseudocalanus spp. There is also a slight increase in early-stage Calanus finmarchicus. These two species are the preferred food of right whales in Cape Cod Bay, but until their densities increase further we do not expect to see feeding aggregations of right whales in the bay. No right whales or other marine mammals were sighted on the cruise.

21 February. We took off from Chatham with flurries hitting the windshield. There were patches of snow and rain along the backside of the cape, as well as in the middle of the bay, so we flew up on the inside and began our survey at the top of the bay by Provincetown. The weather began to clear as we flew along our track lines, however, there was little in sight other than the occasional boat. We got through 7 track lines, and a bit of one in the middle before the weather and sea state began to deteriorate again, so we decided to land for the day. Field researchers and the weather are at constant odds with each other, something we have dealt with quite a few times this year, and we are hoping that as spring approaches mother nature will prove to be a bit kinder and these stints of bad weather will be behind us.

13 February. After a stretch of bad weather, the aerial team took advantage of a break in the forecast. We have been anxious to get back in the air since our last flight to see if the abnormally high number of whales, for this point in the season, had stuck around. We departed Chatham airport heading towards Cape Cod Bay to survey in a south to north direction. The southern part of the bay was quite frozen, but really a sight to be seen. Our first right whale sighting came early on in the survey. We came across two SAGs (Surface Active Groups) each with two animals in them. The SAGs were rather close together, and after circling to obtain the necessary photographs we continued on. Throughout the day we had 12 right whales. However, most of them were going on longer dives that are more typical of right whale behavior for the month of February. Unfortunately, for the aerial team, this means a lot of circling trying to relocate them, and not always the easiest pictures to get for photo identification. After a quick look at the pictures last night, it does appear that there are some whales that we had on our last flight still in the bay. We will be eager to match the rest of the whales, and see just how many are repeats from earlier this month.

03 February. The Habitat team set out for its third cruise of the season amid light snow flurries, light and variable winds, and temperatures that remained close to freezing for the duration of the cruise. We sighted a single harbor seal as we steamed to our first sampling station in the northeast quadrant of the bay. Zooplankton was collected from both the surface and the water column in the southeast part of the bay at five of our nine regular sampling stations. Between 22 and 27 right whales were sighted during the cruise, and additional zooplankton was collected in the vicinity of a social group of whales.

Preliminary assessment of zooplankton samples show a decrease in zooplankton density since the last cruise and remain well below right whale feeding threshold. Though the number of whales in the bay is exceptionally high for February, nearly all the whales sighted were engaged in social SAGs (Surface Active Groups) and no whales we observed exhibited feeding behavior. We expect that this high concentration of whales will not continue unless there is a dramatic increase in food resources in the near future.

SAGs are often formed during a mating event in which several males compete to mate with a female whale. We observed this behavior in which a female floats belly-up at the surface while males compete for position under her, so when she turns over they will be aligned for mating. Several groups of seabirds were observed during the cruise, and a small number of vessel and gear sightings were recorded.

02 February. After a patch of unruly weather, we were finally able to squeeze in a survey just before an approaching snowfall. With the acoustic buoys still indicating there were right whale calls, we were anxiously awaiting to see what awaited us in the bay. We took off from Chatham and began the survey around the backside of Cape Cod. Our first baleen whale of the day was a fin whale, the second largest animal in the world, that was milling around and even blew a couple of bubbles before disappearing into the deep blue. We continued along our survey tracks for a couple of hours until we came upon our first right whale of the day! The whale brought its flukes into the air and headed down on a dive as we approached. We circled above that spot for about 10 minutes before the whale took its first breath at the surface. After snapping enough photographs of the whale’s head and body to identify the individual, we headed off further into the bay. We saw one other right whale before heading back to Chatham to refuel in order to finish up the last couple tracks of our survey.

We headed back out into the bay about an hour later and instantly spotted a couple of right whales just ahead of us. As we headed toward a group of about 4 to 5 whales, more whales started surfacing as we flew overhead—at this point we realized that right whales had officially made their grand appearance in Cape Cod Bay. The majority of the whales appeared to be in surface active groups (SAGs), groups of 2 or more whales socializing at the surface. Others whales were milling in the surrounding area, and even among all the excitement in the bay, 2 whales were logging (resting) close by. After a rough photo analysis, there were tentatively 27 individual right whales in the bay today. With an exciting and surprising start to our season, it will be interesting to see what the next couple of months have in store for us.

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