March 2010

28 March. The aerial team has had a busy month, and we were able to get up in the air one last time for March. We took off from Chatham airport and headed north up the back of Cape Cod. This track line had far less activity then there had been during the last few flights. As we entered the Bay, we surveyed for a quite a while before we came across our first right whale sighting of the day. We began to circle a SAG of two right whales, and on the outside of our circle we could see a third whale approaching the SAG. Quickly, the SAG went from two to three animals. Often times, SAGs can be confusing to document for just that reason. The animals are constantly joining and splitting from the group making it difficult to determine just how many whales are present. After getting good documentation of this cluster, we continued further south. Our next sighting was of five right whales subsurface feeding. Some of the animals were coordinating their feeding behavior, or swimming alongside each other with mouths open, presumably to benefit in some way from the other animals efforts. Throughout the survey we had nine individual right whales and ten fin whales. We now have our sights set on April, which has traditionally been the busiest month of our season.

25 March. The wet and windy weather that had characterized the start of this week calmed down by Thursday morning to let us get up in the air and attempt a survey of Cape Cod Bay. We took off out of Chatham airport with clear skies and flat seas, providing great conditions for spotting whales, and started flying in a south to north direction. We soon spotted our first right whales of the day; we had three just to the north of the second most southerly track line. All three of these individuals were swimming just below the surface with their mouths wide open indicating they were feeding. A little further north on the eastern side of the Bay we had numerous fin and right whales aggregated in the same area. We had six different right whales in this area, all again showing feeding behavior, some individually and some feeding in coordinated pairs. Our next right whale sighting was difficult to miss, as the whale preformed a spectacular breach out of the water, which we were all lucky enough to witness. Unfortunately our productive day was cut short as the weather took a sudden turn for the worse, with the wind picking up considerably leading to rougher seas. When the sea state worsens and we start seeing a lot of white caps it makes spotting marine mammals much more difficult. It soon became apparent that the conditions where unworkable and was decided to call it a day and head back into Chatham airport.

21 March. The wonderful stretch of weather continued for the third day in a row allowing us to survey Cape Cod Bay yet again on Sunday. We began our survey heading north up the back side of Cape Cod, and it was not long until we had our first right whale sighting of the day. All in all, we ended up with at least 15 right whales sighted throughout our survey. At least one of which had been seen the day before on the eastern track lines, so it seems more and more whales are making their way into the Bay. We continued to have a number of whales skim and sub surface feeding. A few of these whales were just off of Race Point and Herring Cove. After such a busy weekend, we will be working hard in the office to get all the data done and whales identified so we will be ready when the next stretch of good weather presents itself.

20 March. The pleasant weather over the weekend allowed us to get up in the air for two days running; today we carried out our second survey of the season of the offshore track-lines to the East of Cape Cod. It was a beautiful sunny day and is definitely beginning to feel a little warm in our jumpsuits in the plane. We flew across Cape Cod Bay to start our survey at the most north-western part of the survey. We quickly spotted two right whales quite close in to shore, just off Race Point Beach. One of these was motionless at the surface of the water, a behavior referred to as logging, and most likely indicates the animal is resting. We also spotted a few minkes, fin and humpback whales in this area. Our next sighting of right whales was not until we where nearing the end of our survey in the south east section. Here we spotted some blows and were treated to the sight of one animal launching it self out of the water in a spectacular breach. In the end we spotted nine different right whales in this area, almost all of whom where subsurface feeding, and two pairs where exhibiting coordinated feeding behavior. We also spotted numerous humpbacks, fin and minke whales along with over 40 dolphins in this area. The concentration of marine mammals in this area, along with the feeding behavior observed, indicates the area was rich in food resources.

19 March. The aerial team took off from Chatham on a beautiful sunny day and headed toward the southern part of the bay to begin our survey. We spotted a few fin whales, as well as 2 right whales, within in the first couple of track lines. One right whale was subsurface feeding, while the other went on a fluking dive and was never seen again. We continued onwards in hopes of seeing some more right whales in the bay. We spotted 2 more right whales subsurface feeding together right along side one another. When right whales feed subsurface, they are skim feeding just below the surface of the water. From the plane, you are able to see the long baleen plates hanging down from the roofs of their mouths as they plow through patches of copepods, a group of small crustaceans that right whales feed on.

Further north, we found a couple of humpback whales, 50 to 60 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and a mother and calf fin whale. Fin whale calves are about 14 to 20 feet long and weigh up to 2 tons at birth, while adult fin whales in this area can grow to lengths of 70 feet and weigh up to 50 tons. However, fin whales in the southern hemisphere can reach lengths up to 80 feet, which makes them second in size only to the blue whale, which is the largest animal on earth. Fin whales are the only known asymmetrically colored animals in the world. They have a white patch on the right side of their jaw, which is thought to be used to scare and school fish while they are feeding. Fin whales also have a distinctive V-shaped pattern of coloration on the right side of their body by their blowholes called a chevron. This pattern is used by researchers to identify individual animals, along with the various scars and marks on their body and the size and shape of their dorsal fin.

17 March. The habitat team’s eighth cruise of the season took place under clear skies, moderate temperatures and calm seas, making for excellent sighting conditions. Zooplankton was collected from the surface and the water column at eight of our nine regularly sampled stations. An additional collection of zooplankton from the surface water was taken in the vicinity of a group of two right whales. The zooplankton resource in the bay seems to have decreased since our last cruise, and is again well below threshold concentration for right whale feeding. The surface sample taken near the right whales showed a resource that was significantly richer than any of the other surface samples, and slightly richer than the other water column samples. However, this sample was still below the threshold for right whale feeding.

In addition to the two right whales sighted, observations of two humpback whales, two fin whales, three pods of dolphins, several harbor porpoises, and four harbor seals were recorded.

12 March. Early March has treated the aerial team nicely, allowing us to get in four surveys this week. While our bodies are recuperating from contorting ourselves into our small plane for so many hours, it has given us a clearer picture of what is going on in the Bay on a regular basis. We took off from Chatham airport heading in a north to south direction. We had not been on track for very long when we had our first right whale sighting of the day. Off the backside of the Cape we found a right whale skim and subsurface feeding. After circling for photo documentation purposes we continued along our track line. As we got closer to Provincetown we found four fin whales all within a couple miles of each other. Fin whales are actually the second biggest animal in the world, second only to the blue whale. They also move extremely fast, reaching burst speeds of up to 28 mph, giving them the nickname the “greyhounds of the sea”. Shortly after getting into Cape Cod Bay, we found two more right whales traveling together. We continued on again, finding a pair of humpbacks off Herring Cove, interspersed with 15-20 dolphins. Our final sighting of the day came when we were much deeper in the bay, and we were fortunate enough to see a right whale skim feeding along a slick. This whale proved to be a bit confusing continually doing hair pin turns while feeding. Since we are circling over these animals and often times cannot see them when they end up on the other side of the wing, we were thinking there were two whales heading in opposite directions. Eventually, we were able to sort everything out, and got the necessary documentation before having to land for the day.

10 March. The right whale aerial team took off from Chatham airport in nearly perfect survey conditions. Very little wind made for an ideal sea state to spot whales. We surveyed Cape Cod Bay in a south to north direction. Throughout the day there was very little life in the Bay until we got to our northern most trackline. We broke track and circled on a SAG (Surface Active Group) of two right whales associated with Atlantic white-sided dolphins. The dolphins were circling the SAG even when there were no whales at the surface. Atlantic white-sided dolphins can reach lengths of 5-8 feet as adults and weigh approximately 300-600 pounds. Atlantic white-sided dolphins are found from just south of New England to Norway, so they have adapted to colder water temperatures. One of the right whales in the SAG had a white belly which was glowing green beneath the surface of the water. Since the water off the Massachusetts coast is so rich with phytoplankton anything that is bright white beneath the surface glows a fluorescent green color instead.

10 March. The team set out aboard R/V Shearwater under clear, sunny skies. Temperatures in the 40’s and seas that remained under one foot made for comfortable cruising and excellent sighting conditions.

Shortly after leaving the harbor, a group of at least six Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus) was sighted. Ruth Leeney, PhD, director of aerial survey, took this opportunity to deploy a hydrophone, which records the “clicks” dolphins emit in echolocation. Zooplankton was collected at eight of our nine regularly sampled stations throughout the bay. In addition to regular surface and water column samples, discrete-depth vertical samples were taken at three stations in the south and northwest quadrants of the bay. While regular oblique tows through the water column give us a picture of the general concentration and species composition distributed throughout the whole water column, vertical samples pumped from known depths give a more detailed view of zooplankton resource composition and stratification.

Preliminary analysis of zooplankton samples continues to show an enriched food resource in the water column approaching threshold concentrations for right whale feeding in the south and west quadrants of the bay. Vertical pump samples indicate that this resource is concentrated between 3-5m, and is composed primarily or the genus Pseudocalanus. Vessel traffic and gear sightings were reported, as were sightings of 8-30 Atlantic white-sided, 4 grey seals, 4 harbor seals, and 2 unidentified seals. No right whales were sighted on the cruise.

08 March. R/V Shearwater steamed out of Provincetown harbor under clear, sunny skies with temperatures between 40-50°F and seas around one foot in the morning that decreased throughout the day. Zooplankton was collected from the surface and the water column at all nine regular sampling stations and 11 acoustic buoys were deployed throughout the bay to monitor right whale vocalization.

Preliminary analysis of zooplankton samples indicates a significant increase in right whale food resources in the south and west quadrants of the bay, particularly in Pseudocalanus spp. in the water column. Though the zooplankton resource at the surface remains sparse, densities in the water column are approaching those predicted to represent an energetically beneficial food resource for right whales. These observations, and reports of right whale feeding behavior in the southern part of the bay by the aerial team, suggest that aggregations of feeding right whales may begin to form in the next week.

Vessel activity and gear sightings were recorded, as were sightings of two fin whales, 3-6 harbor porpoises, 5-20 unidentified dolphins, and one right whale.

08 March. The needed stretch of nice weather in the beginning of March allowed us to do our first Eastern Survey of the season. In addition to our track lines in Cape Cod Bay, we cover a separate survey that has track lines running in an east to west direction off the backside of the Cape. We began our survey on the northernmost track line where we found seven right whales that kept us busy for quite a while. Doing the eastern survey gave us our first look at surface feeding whales for the season. Three of the nine right whales were feeding at, or just beneath the surface. We got some great views of their wide open mouths lined with plates of baleen. Baleen hangs from the roof of the whale’s mouth with a straight edge facing outward and a fringed edge facing inward, allowing the whale to strain all of the water out and keep all the copepods in. Baleen is what was originally called whale bone and was used in making Venetian blinds, the stays of corsets, and the handles for brushes and combs. After having two successful survey days in a row, we are taking a day in the office to process some of the data. We hope to be back up in the air again in the next few days to see if the whales stick around for any prolonged amount of time.

07 March. The period of sunny and calm weather over the weekend provided perfect conditions for carrying out aerial survey work. The aerial team took advantage of it by getting up on Sunday to carry out the transect lines in Cape Cod Bay. We took off at Chatham airport and flew north off the east coast of the cape, spotting one minke whale in this part of the survey. The minke whale is identified by a distinctive white band on their flipper, and by being the smallest of the rorqual whales. Once in the Bay and heading back south, we spotted another minke and three fin whales. Fin whales are a much larger type of rorqual, and the second biggest animal in world after the blue whale. Rorquals are whales that have pleats on the undersides of their mouths and stomachs, allowing them to expand their mouths and stomachs while feeding in order to maximize the amount of prey they can ingest. We did not spot any right whales until we were nearing the end of the survey. All the right whales had congregated in the south eastern part of the Bay. We had some whales partaking in Social Active Groups (SAGs), some travelling together, and some that were just all by themselves. In this area we spotted 14 whales.

02 March. The aerial team was pleasantly surprised that the weather broke for a day, allowing us to get in another survey this week. We left Chatham airport and began surveying at our southern most trackline in Cape Cod Bay, and continued to survey in a south to north direction with very little marine life. Finally, we spotted our first right whale of the day, which took one breath and went down on a dive. This whale proved to be very difficult to photograph, only taking one breath before going on a dive for every surfacing. After 45 minutes of circling we decided that we had to continue with our survey. As we began to head back towards our trackline we noticed a second right whale in the area and began to circle. We quickly realized that this animal was the chronically entangled right whale #1140, also known as “Wart”. Wart was first seen entangled in Cape Cod Bay in the spring of 2008 and some of the line was removed by the PCCS disentanglement team, but there is still some remaining. Wart was also seen in Cape Cod Bay in the spring of 2009. After spotting her yesterday, the disentanglement team was notified, but unfortunately we were not able to relocate her. Wart was first seen in 1981, so it is unclear how old she is. Hopefully, the weather allows us another opportunity at disentanglement in the near future.

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