Field Notes April 2018
April 3, 2018
Weather has been unpredictable as of late (in a bad way). Besides last month’s Nor Easters, we’ve been facing constant fog, rain, hail, and high winds- none of which are conducive for surveying in a plane looking for whales. On the first Tuesday of April we had a very short weather window that we took advantage of to fly Cape Cod Bay and document any right whale activity.
Our survey team took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport at 8:00 AM to beautiful conditions. Right off the bat we encountered fin, humpback, minke, and sei whales off of Race Point, and circled them to record sightings data and verify that a right whale wasn’t hiding nearby. After that excitement we continued flying south parallel to the outer shore of Cape Cod and found our first right whale of the day- EGNo 3942.
This adult female is new for us this year, but is not an uncommon visitor to our area. She was born in 2009 to EGNo 1142/Kleenex, and has been documented by CCS nearly every year since 2011. Around 2012, she suffered an entanglement which has left lasting, severe scars on her peduncle and leading edges of her fluke; because of these scars her sightings are reported in real time to chronicle the healing process and assess her body condition.
We expected to be busy in the bay but were surprised at how quiet it was. Granted the water was turbid and the sea state picked up before forecasted, but we still thought we’d see more than the additional four right whales that we did. The next sighting was of two animals in a surface active group; this included one of our previously sighted whales EGNo 3946 and a new individual for the year: EGNo 2750, Haley.
Haley is an adult male who was born in 1997, and has been seen in Cape Cod Bay for the majority of years throughout his long sightings history. He is named for a scar on his head that is similar to the shape of a comet (i.e. Haley’s Comet). After that we saw one subsurface feeding whale (EGNo 3860/Bocce) and an additional one that was unphotographed. We finished the survey in a high sea state, and it was one of the shortest flights we’ve had this season thus far.
April has historically been our “busy” month when there is an influx of right whales into the bay that coincides with blooms of their favorite zooplankton- Calanus finmarchicus. The exact time frame has fluctuated over the years, and we’re hoping that this low number isn’t representative of what’s out there for the remainder of the season.
April 7, 2018
We were so hoping that April would bring us some calmer seas, but so far we have had no luck. We did sneak in an aerial survey on Saturday April 7th as the winds died down but survey conditions were tough. The sea state was higher, but we still felt that we would have seen any right whales if they were to have surfaced. In the end, we were only able to find one right whale, but we spotted lots of other species. With this is mind, we don’t feel that we missed any concentrations of right whales in Cape Cod Bay.
Ironically, the one right whale that we spotted was during the worst survey conditions. We could see the whale’s body just below the surface and broke our track to circle this individual. We circled and waited, for half an hour, but we never saw the whale resurface. Not knowing what lay ahead for the survey, we chose to leave this whale un-photographed and continue on.
Deep into Cape Cod Bay we noticed some weird splashing and broke our track to circle. It took us a few moments to realize that we were seeing two minke whales breaching. One would break the surface, and then the next. This was all happening very quickly so although we tried, it wasn’t possible to get any photos of these whales to share.
Early in the morning, we had had a report of possible right whales just north of our regular survey lines. Once we had completed our regular survey, we completed three additional track lines just north of Cape Cod Bay to see if we could confirm any right whale sightings up there. We spotted humpback whales and fin whales but did not see any right whales.
Where have all the whales gone? We don’t know. With the long dives we have been seeing recently and the turbid water it is definitely possible that we missed some individuals, but not that many. It’s possible that the high winds this season have changed the typical concentration of Calanus finmarchicus, the right whale’s favorite food, making them look elsewhere to feed, but we’re hoping that will change. April is usually our high season and it isn’t unusual to have a big influx of right whales into the bay in only a few days. The winds are looking better this week, so we’re hoping to get out and document any activity in the bay very soon.
April 10 & 11, 2018
The right whales have returned to Cape Cod Bay! The winds finally calmed down this week and the aerial survey team was able to survey both Tuesday and Wednesday. Even with the low winds, weather continued to make things tricky. On Tuesday, we had to abandon our survey due to an April snow storm (yes that’s correct), and on Wednesday, low hanging fog over the middle of the bay forced us to land and wait for the weather to clear. Through it all, we did find that whales had returned to the bay, and were even feeding in the northern sections.
Not long after take-off on Tuesday, we spotted a skim feeding right whale. It’s been a while since we had any skim feeding whales, and it’s usually a good sign that there is more food around. Skim feeding whales are also much easier to document since their heads, the area we use to identify individuals, are consistently out of the water. Adding to the excitement of this sighting was that it was EgNo 3999, Braid, a young female who survived a ship strike in 2015. The ship strike likely happened in Cape Cod Bay as she was documented a few days apart, without injury and then again with scars across her left head and blowholes. We were initially very concerned about this individual, but she was sighted again and looked to be healing. Braid is a survivor, and she even gets her name from the succession of white scars from the ship strike. This was the first time we have documented Braid this year and we saw her on both Tuesday’s and Wednesday’s surveys.
Looking at the individuals we have identified so far, we have several whales that were seen on both days, and others seen only on one of the survey days. It’s possible that animals seen only on one survey were missed on the other, but we suspect that there is a turnover of whales coming into and out of the bay from aggregations noted for the last week up on Stellwagen Bank.
Having been previously sighted this season, EgNo 1706 was spotted feeding on both surveys. On Tuesday, she was coordinated feeding with EgNo 2753, Arpeggio, who had also been previously sighted this season, but had not been documented for some time. EgNo 1706 is an adult female that shows a penchant for Cape Cod Bay, returning here year after year. EgNo 3260, Skittle, another adult female, was also seen feeding on both surveys. Fun fact: Skittle is not named for the candy, but for the shape of her callosity that resembles a bowling pin or skittle.
We’re pleased to see that the right whales are finding food in Cape Cod Bay once again. We’re hoping to survey at the next weather window and will let you know what we find.
April 13, 2018
As mentioned in the most recent field notes, there has been an aggregation of right whales hanging out north of Cape Cod on Stellwagen Bank and we’ve been wondering if they would enter the bay. We were originally going to survey slightly north to locate the aggregation (and EGNo 1142/Kleenex) but after GPS issues and finding a group of feeding right whales outside of Plymouth Harbor during our transit, plans changed to fly Cape Cod Bay north to south and check out if they all came in.
We ended up documenting 31 right whales with the majority being in the northwest portion of the bay and off of eastern outer shore of Truro. Nearly all were singletons who were skim and/or subsurface feeding, and preliminary matching has demonstrated that at least 3 of these individuals are new for us for the 2018 season.
EGNo 3442/Armada was one of these newbies. Armada is an adult male born in 2004, to EGNo 1142/Kleenex, and was first sighted in Cape Cod Bay in 2008. He is named for birthmarks on his back that resemble a fleet of ships. Our team hasn’t seen him since 2014 and we are happy to have him return to the bay.
Another new whale we saw on Friday was EGNo 3660/Sirius, sighted off of Race Point. Sirius is an adult male born in 2006 to EGNo 2660/Gannet, and is named for a bright scar on his head that is reminiscent of the Sirius star. He is on our APB list because of a large wound on his back that was first observed this past summer in Gulf of St Lawrence. The exact cause is unknown, but given the size and location the leading theory is that the injury was the result of a vessel interaction. Since the August sighting the wound seems to have healed a good amount and overall Sirius appeared in decent shape. We are hoping that he is just on the up and up from here on out.
The final known new right whale is EGNo 1204. This adult female was first observed in Massachusetts Bay by CCS in 1982, and over her 36 year sightings history has only been seen inside Cape Cod Bay three times prior (that we know of) in 2007, 2011, and 2013.
It’ll be interesting to see if we’ve already reached our peak for the season or if it is still imminent. Bad weather has been a norm this year and hopefully we’ll get a better window in the near future to figure out which is the case.