Field Notes – April 2020
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05 April 2020
Since the COVID-19 pandemic has become a reality our team, like everyone, has had to modify everyday life. We are working remotely from home, practicing self isolation, and trying to mitigate exposure while continuing field work. March and April are traditionally the peak of our season, so needless to say that going over two weeks without a flight is far less than ideal. However, out of the 18 days we really only missed one survey day since weather was so poor; day after day of rain and wind would have kept us grounded anyways.
Fortunately we were able to fly Cape Cod Bay on Sunday 05 April 2020, a beautiful Sunday with ideal sighting conditions. We were eager to see where the whales were, who they were, and what they were doing. We like to guess how many we will see on a survey- there is no real prize, it is just a fun thing to do while staring at water for hours on end. This day I proposed 102, Alison 78, and the pilots 52 and 39. We documented six, so technically Jeremy gets the “W.”
We flew out of Chatham due to ongoing construction at Provincetown, so began our north to south survey on the Atlantic side (track line 16). North of Truro, about 3 miles from shore, we spotted our first three right whales of the day in a surface active group, and a loner just outside of them. We identified an adult female EGNo 3940 “Koala” in the field, and later EGNos 3651 and EGNo4539. All three of these animals were new for the season. Koala was the focal female and was belly up, a common behavior we witness in SAGs, showing her black chin and belly. EGNo 4539 is the 2015 calf of 3139 “Diablo”, and unfortunately had new wounds around the blow holes that appear to be from a vessel strike. Diablo herself has not been seen since 2017, when she was sighted in not great health after donning new severe entanglement wounds on her peduncle and fluke. We hope EGNo 4539 fares better and does not deteriorate as much from another preventable anthropogenic injury. The loner outside was EGNo 4191, female born in 2011 who has yet to have a calf.
After this sighting we were hopeful that these were the first of many right whales of the flight. But we were wrong. The other two right whales were singletons on the western side of the bay (Marshfield and Plymouth, respectively), and were both travelling north. No individuals were visibly feeding, which is somewhat unexpected at this point of the season, but does explain why the bay was so empty. We do not know what the remainder of the season will bring, but do know that similar distribution changes have happened before. In 2018 we had many individuals present in February, and come end of March they started hanging out in Massachusetts Bay before returning full force in April. We had a big February this season and although no other team is currently flying we have heard opportunistic reports of right whales off Boston and the North Shore. Hoping to get back up this week and will update you on what we find. Hope everyone is well, self-isolating at home, and washing your hands.
07 April 2020
After having found very few right whales in Cape Cod Bay on Sunday, we were left wondering where they might be. We decided to survey Massachusetts Bay on Tuesday, where we had been receiving several reports of right whales. We had excellent spotting conditions, and found lots of other species, but only eight right whales. The right whales we found appeared to be self isolating, and were spread out across the area. Many of the animals were on long dives, swimming subsurface and surprisingly difficult to detect.
Today we found one of our favorite whales “Black Heart” who we had yet to document this season. “Black Heart”, #3540 is the 2005 calf of one of the most productive females in the population; #1140 “Wart”. “Black Heart” gets her name from the heart shape found in her bonnet (near the tip of her rostrum) where there would normally be callosity, but it has been left black with tooth decay. She looks very similar to her mother, as do many right whales. It’s a fun way to be able to tell that they are related.
We recognized the rest of the right whales from our surveys in Cape Cod Bay earlier this season. One of these animals was #4313, a female born in 2013 to #2413 “Nauset”. Whereas most right whales have two post blowhole callosities (one, two, three and four are all possible), #4313 has only one and it is very uniquely shaped. Her’s is very circular and it looks like a little hill, so we have been calling her “Mound”. It really helps to have given her a nickname, because now when we see her in the field we can remember “Mound” instead of #4313… a much more manageable task.
There was lots of marine mammal activity out there today. We found a lot of humpback whales, fin whales, minke whales, Atlantic white-sided dolphins and even our first sei whales of the season! Sei whales and right whales enjoy the same food, but we typically only find sei whales when the food is very good. We’re hoping these sightings are an indicator that the food resource is about to pick up. The sei whales were already feeding, as were a handful of the right whales we documented. We nearly witnessed a multi species collision between one hungry sei whale and right whale #2541 as they were feeding in the same area. At the last minute, the two animals diverted, but Brigid was able to get a great photo of the two animals feeding on the same patch of food.
After today’s survey we are still curious about where many of the right whales have gone. We think that with the right whales being difficult to detect we likely flew by some of them while they were subsurface. We will be waiting a few days for another weather window to see where we might fly next. In the meantime, be like the right whales and do your social distancing.
*We would like to make a special shout out to Avier Flight School in Beverly Massachusetts. After 5 hours in the plane, we thought all was lost when the airport bathrooms were closed due to Covid-19. These kind folks were very welcoming and let us use their facilities. Thank you!
13 April 2020 – First 2020 calf has arrived!
On Sunday 12 April 2020 the first mom-calf pair in the northeast was documented: EGNo 2223 “Calvin” and her 2020 calf. Peter Flood, one of our major data contributors, photographed them shortly before 7 AM on Easter from shore near Race Point Lighthouse in Provincetown.
Calvin is one of ten known right whale mothers this season, and was first seen with her calf on 03 February off Georgia. Calvin was born in 1992, to EGNo 1223 “Delilah.” Delilah brought Calvin to the Bay of Fundy that summer, where she was unfortunately fatally struck by a ship. Calvin was not sighted near the carcass and researchers feared she may have perished too. However, she returned to Bay of Fundy the following summer as a healthy yearling. She was named after the character of the Calvin & Hobbes comic strips due to her independent nature after losing her mother at such a young age. Calvin is also the inspiration behind the “Calvineers”, a group of dedicated students in Maine who are dedicated to the conservation of, and educating others about, North Atlantic right whales.
This calf is Calvin’s fourth documented offspring; her first known calf was in 2004, and her most recent prior to this one was in 2015. She was not sighted in Cape Cod Bay with her 2015 calf yet he, EGNo 4523, has been spending time here every year since he was a yearling.
We want to extend our gratitude to Peter Flood for all of his sightings, especially this one, and his selfless dedication to the species.
14 April 2020 – Two more mom/calf pairs documented!
A week has gone by since our team has last flown, and over a week since surveying Cape Cod Bay, so we were eager to get up in the air and see what was happening. After days of high gusts there was a weather window late morning on Tuesday 14 April 2020, that we were able to take advantage of. We originally were going to take off at 10:30 from Chatham Municipal Airport, but delayed until 11:00 since winds were still strong. We began our survey off Sandy Neck Beach working our way north through the bay in sufficient sighting conditions.
Our first two right whales of the day were found on our second track line (TL 14) about 3 nm north of Corporation Beach in Dennis, and are two individuals that our contributor Peter Flood had photographed the week before off Race Point. They are EGNo 2753 “Arpeggio” and EGNo 1245 “Slalom”. Both are breeding females who were sighted in waters in the southeast this past fall and were potential mothers. We learned from Peter’s sighting that they unfortunately are not moms of the years, and we were able to further confirm no calves with them today. Interestingly enough, we know from our consortium colleagues that they have been seen together since a sighting in November 2019! It is very uncommon for right whales to form long term associations so it is fascinating that these two have possibly been travelling the Atlantic coast together for 6 months.
After sighting these adult females we continued on and almost immediately found another pair – a mom and calf! This would be the first of two for the day, making three out of ten known mom/calf pairs being seen in our waters; Peter Flood again had the important sighting of EGNo 2223 “Calvin” and calf over the weekend from Provincetown that we did not resight on our survey today.
The first mom/calf pair that the Center for Coastal Studies has documented this season is EGNo 1970 “Palmetto” and her 2020 calf. They were observed deep within Cape Cod Bay about 1.5 nautical miles north of Mayflower Beach in Dennis. Palmetto was subsurface feeding while accompanied by her calf; their first sighting together was in early February off South Carolina making the calf about 2 months old. Palmetto was first seen in 1989, at an unknown age, making her at least 31 years old. This is her fifth known calf, and the only one she has been documented bringing to Cape Cod Bay. In fact, she has only been seen in Cape Cod Bay twice throughout her sightings history, making this an even more special sighting.
The second mom/calf pair was observed about 1 nm east of Manomet: EGNo 3101 “Harmonia” and her 2020 calf. In August 2019 a fecal sample was collected from Harmonia in the Gulf of St. Lawrence by the New England Aquarium team; subsequent analysis indicated she was pregnant and it was confirmed in January when she was seen with her calf off Georgia.
In our recent sighting Harmonia was subsurface feeding and heading north when the calf seemed to notice the red nun and headed directly at it. It was interacting with the channel marker by rolling beside it and hitting it with its tail when Harmonia approached and retrieved her calf to continue travelling north. They were re-sighted an hour later travelling about 1 nm northeast.
Harmonia was born in 2001, to EGNo 1701 “Aphrodite,” and is an adult female commonly seen in our waters. This is her third known calf (her most recent prior was in 2016) but the first she has brought to Cape Cod Bay to our knowledge. Her first calf was killed by a vessel strike as a yearling, and her second (now named “Gully”) suffered a major entanglement in 2018. Though Gully’s wounds are severe she survived and was seen as recently as this winter south of Nantucket by our team as well as the team at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center. Hopefully this one fares better than the previous two and avoids human-caused injuries.
Many other species were sighted on this flight as well, including: 12 fin whales, 38 humpback whales, 7 minke whales, and 70 unidentified seals (hauled out). We observed a lot of feeding, especially on the Atlantic side of Cape Cod Bay, and finished the survey after about 5.5 hours of continuous flying.
Since the onset of social distancing measures the CCS Right Whale Ecology Program (RWEP), like the rest of the world, has had to reconfigure daily operations and adjust to working from home. Additionally, we have lost some funding for our field operations and therefore have to spread out the remaining hours we have left over the next month, which is typically the busiest time of our season. This is especially disconcerting because we are the only team still surveying for right whales during their traditional peak time period but we will continue doing as much as we possibly can in these uncertain times. We are hoping to complete at least three more flights between now and mid-May and will keep you updated throughout.
25 April 2020
It has been a very windy April! We have been watching the weather closely, as always, but have had very few breaks where we can get out and survey. On Saturday, our opportunity finally arrived, and having not surveyed in over a week during April (typically our busiest time of year) we were very curious to see what was going on. Despite excellent survey conditions we only found five right whales in Cape Cod Bay, including 2 mother calf pairs and one right whale that was never re-sighted. Our survey was over so quickly that the decision was made to do an additional survey on the eastern side of Cape Cod. Despite continued great conditions, and many other marine mammal sightings, no right whales were observed on the east side.
Shortly after having started our Cape Cod Bay survey, we spotted our first mother and calf. They were very easy to see above the surface, and we were excited to identify EgNo 3101 “Harmonia” and her 2020 calf. If you remember from our last survey on April 14th, we had documented this pair, and the calf diverted course to interact with a channel marker. “Harmonia” was skim feeding today, with her calf following closely behind at the beginning.
Brigid, who was the photographer, mentioned that the calf had its mouth open, and we realized that the calf was likely mimicking its mother as she was skim feeding. The calf was sticking its entire head, mouth wide open, above the water and attempting to follow along behind mom. This looked like a very awkward position to maintain and the calf quickly began to sink and lag behind its mother. Mimicking mom is of course how calves learn to feed, but this one had yet to master the technique. To capture food, the calf will eventually learn to have at least part of its mouth below the surface. As we watched, the calf repositioned and continued to mimic its mother several times. We had to move on, but feel pretty lucky to have gotten to watch this calf learning how to feed on its own. It will get it right one day.
Our pilot Jeremy spotted the second mother and calf pair nearby while we were circling “Harmonia” and her calf. This pair was also familiar to us from our last flight; it was EgNo 1970 “Palmetto” and her 2020 calf. “Palmetto” was also skim feeding, but her calf was swimming closely by her side. The calf dove towards its mother and each time it surfaced, it popped up on the opposite side. From this behaviour we can infer that the calf was nursing. Based on sightings from our colleagues in Florida and Georgia who documented these pairs when they were on the calving grounds, we know that “Harmonia’s” calf is older than “Palmetto’s”, and it is possibly older by up to a month. This is supported by a visible difference in size, and could explain the independence and spunk that we have seen in “Harmonia’s” calf.
Having found fewer right whales than we expected in Cape Cod Bay, we refueled in Marshfield and after finishing our bay survey and we immediately began a survey of the eastern shore of Cape Cod. The calm conditions continued and we spotted a lot of other marine mammals. We found several feeding sei and fin whales in the north, but the south was dominated by feeding humpback and minke whales. We documented 94 humpback whales, most of whom were bubble net feeding, some in groups of 8 or more! We also found 38 minke whales which is a lot for our surveys. Many of the minke whales were feeding as well, some ending up upside down while lunging and displaying their white bellies. There were lots of marine mammals out there, but no right whales that we could find.
We remain very curious about where most of the right whales have gone, but it’s helpful to have surveyed both areas in one day and know that right whales are not gathered in either location. With the current pandemic, we are the only team left surveying for right whales in northeast waters. We will likely be exploring other areas on our next surveys to see if we can find an aggregation of right whales somewhere else.
29 April 2020
On our April 25 flight we documented five right whales including two mom/calf pairs. There was a small aggregation reported off Boston earlier this week, so when we were able to survey Cape Cod Bay on Wednesday we were curious if those individuals came in and what we would find in general.
We took off at 10:30 from Chatham Municipal Airport and started our survey in the south. We surveyed in very suitable conditions (beaufort mainly 2-3 with low swell) and only sighted a minke whale, three fin whales, and one humpback in the bay.
The humpback was an interesting sighting because it was in Provincetown Harbor, just inside Long Point. Other CCS research vessels reported the sighting to us, and since the body condition looked somewhat poor we spent extra time documenting it and making sure there wasn’t an obvious wound or entanglement. This small humpback was not at the surface much (8-10 minute dives with 2-3 breaths), but we were able to photograph three surfacings and document both sides of the mouth and the peduncle without anything abnormal seen.
We continued on our survey and on our eastern track there was a lot of activity: 9 fin whales, 11 humpback whales, 6 minke whales, and our one and only right whale of the day. The humpbacks included a mom/calf pair, the first we have seen this year! We share our non-right whale photographs with other researchers, and our Humpback Whale Studies team identified the pair as Abrasion and her 2020 calf.
As for our right whale, it was about 3 nm east of Chatham and was travelling north. Alison identified it as EGNO 4511, a 5 year old juvenile male who we last saw exactly four months ago, 29 December 2019, south of Nantucket. EGNO 4511 is the calf of EGNO 1611 “Clover,” and he has been documented in Cape Cod Bay or adjacent waters every April except in 2016. Clover is also a common visitor to the area but we have not seen her yet this season.
We finished our survey a little after 15:00 and landed back at Chatham to process our day. There seems to be some potential flight days in the near future, but we don’t know if and where we will survey next because of a combination of the pandemic, weather, and funding. Hopefully because we are one of the only teams still flying we can survey other areas where the right whales could possibly be. We try to post our field notes and images the next day so follow the Center for Coastal Studies on Facebook for updates.