Right Whale Research – Winter 2019 Update

Dr. Charles “Stormy” Mayo
February 8, 2019

With funding from the CCS Right Whale Emergency Initiative/1,000 Friends of Right Whales campaign, and with support from foundations and individual contributors, our research teams began working earlier this season than in previous years.

With the right whale population estimated at 411 and in decline due to high mortality and low calving, it’s important for CCS research teams to locate the whales at times of the year and in locations not previously known so that they can be better protected from ship strike and entanglement (the principal causes of mortality).

We began our field sampling in November and continued on through December, surveying both Cape Cod Bay and Jeffreys Ledge (northeast of Cape Ann) from aircraft and boats, checking for presence of right whales during a part of the year seldom studied.

Our work paid off: The CCS air and vessel survey teams found 9 right whales in Cape Cod Bay on 11/12/18, a time of year that had not previously been documented as part of the right whale season and, hence, not part of the general Federal management scheme for the conservation of the species. The sightings in December resulted in NOAA issuing an alert for vessels to slow down and maintain lookouts.

Two right whales photographed by the aerial survey team in Cape Cod Bay on 1/12/19: Platypus (EgNo 3420) on the right and an unnamed whale (EgNo 4310) on the left. CCS image, NOAA permit #19315-1.

One particularly notable whale – EgNo 3420, Platypus – is a reproductively mature female that was originally photographed by CCS in 2004 as a calf in Cod Bay. She has been observed on more than half of the flights between 1/12/19 and 2/6/19, suggesting that she has been resident in the area for much of the early season.  Platypus has been observed in surface active mating groups this early winter inviting us to speculate that she will be a member of 2020’s mothers!

After a successful effort to find whales before the regular season, winter flights have continued to provide excitement with the season’s total at 32 and including several resting females, which we hope to see with calves in the spring of 2020 in Cape Cod Bay.

Vessel-based collection of zooplankton samples, the focus of CCS’s effort to understand the conditions that lure the whales into the bay, suggest that the basic oceanographic processes are similar to those of recent years – conditions that have resulted in more sightings of right whales than anywhere else in the whales’ North Atlantic range and that have made our work in Cape Cod Bay particularly important to the conservation of the species.

Click here to read the latest field notes from the aerial survey team.

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