January 2010

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2010 Aerial Survey Team

28 January. We knew that right whales had started to arrive in Cape Cod Bay over the last few days due to being alerted by the three listening buoys that are located in the Bay having detected their calls, so we had been eager to get up in the air and see if we could spot them. Unfortunately, the weather had not been favorable to allow for flying. We had a small window of opportunity to get up in the air this morning, and with the weather forecast to deteriorate again later in the day and for the next few days, we decided to take advantage of it. Our efforts paid off and we were rewarded with our first sighting of a right whale this season. While it was not being the most cooperative animal in allowing us to get photos to identify him, we did manage to get some that we are hopeful will let us figure out this whale’s individual identity. A lot of the work that we do in the office when we are not flying revolves around matching these whales individually, in some cases once we know who they are individually we also know their gender, age, and a bit about their sighting history.

Unfortunately, the predicted weather started to close in on us soon after this sighting, with the wind picking up and the sea state getting choppier, making it more difficult to spot whales. At this point, we decided to call it a day and headed back to Chatman, slightly disappointed to have not completed a full survey, but all very happy to have spotted out first right whale of the season.

24 January. The right whale habitat team set out on the R/V Shearwater for our second cruise of the season. Air temperatures above freezing, increasingly overcast skies, and seas around one foot made for comfortable cruising and excellent sighting conditions. A moderate westerly wind in the morning shifted to a northerly direction in the afternoon. Zooplankton was collected from both the surface and the water column at all nine regular sampling stations. Additional water and phytoplankton samples were taken by the water quality monitoring team.

21 January. We took off Thursday morning in our Cessna Skymaster and started with our trackline that hugs the backside of the Cape before heading into Cape Cod Bay. The weather was relatively good for surveying; we generally try to fly on days that are not very windy. One of the cues that we use to spot right whales are patches of white water at the surface, on windy days we will see more white caps which will look like a whale, and we can waste valuable flight time circling white caps that have been mistaken for marine mammals. Although, we did not see any right whales we are still optimistic that we will see our first one in the next couple of surveys. It is not unusual for us to go our first few flights of the season with out any whales in the bay. In addition to surveying when there are a lot of whales present, it is also important for us to learn when there are no whales in the area.

16 January. The weather broke today just enough so that the aerial team could get in our second flight. We were able to complete a full survey of Cape Cod Bay. One humpback whale and three fin whales were spotted during our flight today. Humpbacks are pretty easy to distinguish in the air due to their long pectoral flippers from which they get their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, which means “big winged New Englander”. All in all things were pretty quiet today, but we are still waiting anxiously for our first right whale sighting for the 2010 season.

14 January. The Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies’ right whale habitat team set out on the R/V Shearwater at mid-morning for its first cruise of the season. Air temperature was between 0-5ºC with a light and variable wind, calm seas, and excellent sighting conditions. The purpose of this cruise was to sample zooplankton, right whales’ primary food source, throughout Cape Cod Bay. The distribution, abundance, and species composition of zooplankton can be used to better understand right whale habitat use and to predict the whales’ presence and foraging behavior in the bay.

Zooplankton was collected from both the surface and the water column at nine regularly sampled stations throughout the bay. The highest zooplankton concentrations were observed in the northeast of the bay. Our samples in this area also showed an abundance of ctenophores (comb jellies), which is unusual this early in the season. The PCCS water quality monitoring team accompanied us on this cruise and collected CTD (Conductivity, Temperature, Depth) data and water samples at each of the stations.

Throughout the cruise, we were continuously on watch for sightings of marine mammals, birds, other boats, and fishing gear. Though we did not see any whales or other cetaceans, we observed several harbor seals during the cruise, mostly in the southern part of the bay. Harbor seals are particularly common in the bay this time of year as their larger competitors, gray seals, are generally pupping and hauled out on beaches. Few vessels, several buoys, and a small number of seabirds, including eider ducks and white-winged scoters, were observed.

Our samples showed a decrease in zooplankton since last week’s sampling. With such low levels of food in Cape Cod Bay, we predict that right whales will probably not aggregate here in the next week. Though we did not see any large cetaceans during the cruise, we observed one harbor seal in the early afternoon, and a pod of 10-20 unidentified dolphins (likely Common Dolphins, Delphinus delphis, or Atlantic White-Sided Dolphins, Lagenohynchus acutus) as we steamed back to Provincetown in the evening. Substantial shipping traffic was noted in the bay, as were several species of seabirds, including a small flock of razorbills (Alca torda).

13 January. After a busy week and a half of training and pre-season preparations we were finally ready for our first right whale aerial survey of the 2010 season. We took off from Chatham airport, and flew north along the back side of Cape Cod. As we got to just a few miles north of Provincetown we were happy to realize that our eyes, trained for spotting whales, still worked and we came across 8 fin whales. Each fin whale was charging beneath the surface. There was a great deal of bird activity in the area as well, which would most likely indicate a large amount of fish for the fin whales to be feeding on. After we took a few seconds to celebrate the first marine mammal sightings of the season we continued on our way. Unfortunately, the weather was not ideal to complete the survey. Nonetheless, it was good to wipe the dust off the plane and get a quick look at what might be around. Hopefully, the weather cooperates and we can stretch our wings again in the near future.

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