Field Notes – April 2021
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27 + 28 April 2021
Boy, are we exhausted. We flew back-to-back surveys to better document the whale presence that continues in State of Massachusetts’s waters. On Tuesday, April 27th, we flew another CCB survey, reversing direction from our previous survey. We started off in very high seas, but it didn’t stop us from finding a huge aggregation of fin whales before we even made it to our starting waypoint. We diverted to document, and couldn’t get over how many individuals we saw! They all seemed to be chasing schools of fish, which accounts why they were all together, but it just looked like pure chaos. Finding better conditions in Cape Cod Bay, but fighting winds while circling, made for a survey very much like Saturday’s flight.
We found many of the same individuals, including most of the mom/calf pairs. Another addition, increasing our mom/calf count for the season to ten is Binary (#3010) and calf. This is our first time sighting her so far this season, so it’s another one we can say has made the journey from the calving grounds successfully!
All in all, we found 81 individuals during this survey, very similar to Saturday’s flight so it appears they are sticking around while the food resource is good. After a long day in the plane, we landed and called off our plans to survey the following day when it appeared rain and low ceilings were going to be problematic all day. Luckily, we woke up the following morning to discover the forecast the night before was wrong and conditions, while cloudy, were good enough to survey.
The team rallied quickly, and we were able to survey the adjacent waters just north of CCB; Massachusetts Bay. It felt a bit like Groundhog Day with the same team in the plane on back to back days. The only variation was Brigid and I swapping side of the plane to give the cricks in our necks a rest.
With supremely better sighting conditions than on Tuesday’s flight, it wasn’t long before we were greeted with the sight of huge aggregations of skim feeding right whales. Much of the sightings were in a line following the western shore, northwards into Boston Harbor. Many individuals that were sighted on Wednesday’s flight are animals we haven’t seen since earlier in the season. Examples of these are Prescott (#2271), Arpeggio (#2753), Wavy Gravy (#1627), and Cairn (#1409).
We don’t know where they’ve been since we last saw them, but it appears they didn’t move too far away and were just waiting for the calanoid copepods to densely aggregate enough to push them all in a relatively small area. Unlike the behaviors seen earlier in the field season, when surface active groups (SAGs) were common, it appeared the only thing on the whales’ schedules is feeding. The question remains, how long before the food resource disperses or collapses due to the feasting. That is likely to factor into the timing of the right whale’s departure for their summer feeding grounds.
24 April 2021
Well, color us surprised. Our Saturday survey of Cape Cod Bay told us the whales are still around! Having heard from Canadian colleagues that the first right whale had been seen in Gulf of St Lawrence, some of us were anticipating an early end to our season here on Cape Cod. Alas, the whales, and their food, had other plans in store for us.
We took off out of Provincetown, and headed south to work our way north throughout the bay. We were expecting a relatively short weather window since wind gusts were high and increasing throughout the afternoon. We quickly found five right whales near an aggregation of feeding sei whales on the ocean side of Outer Cape Cod. Among these individuals was a long-awaited mom/calf pair of this year, Chiminea (#4040) and her calf of the year. Chiminea was first documented with this calf down off the Southeast US coast in early December 2020, and having calved so early, we were expecting her arrival around the time Millipede and calf showed up around here.
Seeing Chiminea with a calf was particularly special for the CCS team because as a 3-year-old, in 2011, she showed up in CCB entangled. Spotted and reported by our aerial team, the CCS Marine Animal Entanglement Response (MAER) team was deployed and quickly set to work freeing her. Their efforts were met with success and Chiminea was able to swim away gear free. Whilst we all know disentangling whales is not a realistic answer to saving a species, knowing our direct involvement with Chiminea’s case led to her surviving ten more years and now providing a continuation of her lineage, we can’t but revel in the knowledge that she’s continued thriving after her entanglement event.
After leaving these whales, and starting from our southern-most track line in CCB, we had a relatively quiet four track lines in the south. With excellent sighting conditions, this was leading us to believe that the whales were actually gone. We ended up documenting an extra 75 whales, mostly in the center third of the bay. These whales were mostly subsurface feeding, which means we could have definitely missed some, particularly as winds increased in the afternoon caused them to continue to feed further at depth.
Of note, we found a total of 8 mom calf pairs that day; after Chiminea we found Bocce (#3860), Nauset (#2413), Grand Teton (#1145), Millipede (#3520), Magic (#1243), Champagne (#3904), and #3720 all with their little ones. One last character we were so pleased to see was Gemini (#1150)! First sighted at an unknown age in 1979, making him over 42 years old, he’s an annual visitor to CCB. Having been the first time we sighted him this season, we are thrilled to know he was just busy scoping out other places before gracing us with his presence.
With so many whales around, we will likely continue flying each good weather day to document changes to see if we can pinpoint when they are going to leave for the summer.
20 April 2021
Some of our recent cruises have been derailed due to marginal weather, but on this occasion we had a beautiful day out on the water with great sightings conditions. Initially we were worried that we might have a challenging time finding right whales with the lower numbers that have been sighted in the bay as of late, but once we spotted one we were pleasantly surprised to discover that we had found a small aggregation.
One of those individuals was #2910, an adult male who was first spotted in 1999, and who visits Cape Cod Bay fairly consistently. We also found Nauset (#2413) and her 2021 calf! Nauset and her calf were seen several times earlier this season by our aerial team, but this was the first time that the habitat team aboard R/V Shearwater has gotten to see them.
Nauset was born in 1994 to #1013, and this is Nauset’s fourth known calf. Nauset had her last calf prior to this one in 2013; that female calf is now almost an adult and named Monomoy (#4313). Our aerial team has seen Monomoy several times in the bay this season, and we hope that maybe she will return with a calf of her own in the next few years.
Truthfully, we never know what we will see, if anything, every time we leave the dock. Over the last couple of weeks my “request of the universe” for each cruise has been to see a sei whale. On this survey we had a sei whale that was circling us while we were documenting Nauset and her calf! Although very little could be better than getting to spend time documenting a mother-calf pair, it was the sei whale that made my day.
The weather is looking promising for early next week, and we are looking forward to getting out and seeing who we find then!
19 April 2021
After a couple surveys of Cape Cod Bay where few right whales were sighted, we decided to survey Massachusetts Bay to see if and where the whales might be hanging out. It was a gorgeous day to fly, with calm seas and low winds in the morning. We took off from Provincetown Airport (PVC )at 9:30am, first making a detour to Humarock after receiving reports about a right whale sighted from shore that was acting strangely.
As we reached the reported sighting, we were relieved to find #1802 Legato high skim feeding very close to shore, in full view of beachgoers. We have not seen much high skim feeding yet this season, and understandably, this behavior could look a bit strange to anyone watching from shore who might simply see a whale’s head poking high out of the water while swimming.
As we transited along the northern edge of CCB to begin our survey, we took some time to document the right whales that were present, including two mom-calf pairs (#1145 Grand Teton and #3720, with calves in tow). We also took note that there were many recreational and fishing vessels out, and we expect the number to increase as the weather gets nicer. Several of these were very close to feeding right whales, and this might be a good time to mention that all vessels are asked to maintain a distance of at least 500 yards from any North Atlantic right whale.
In Massachusetts Bay, most of the documented right whales were subsurface feeding on the west side, just outside of Boston Harbor, including #3596, a right whale who has only been sighted three times total prior to this year (between 2005 – 2012)! Very little is known about this individual including its sex and age (and where it has been since 2012), so it was particularly exciting for us.
The eastern side of Massachusetts Bay had fewer right whales, but we encountered what appeared to be some very fruitful feeding areas for all the other whale species as well as groups of dolphins and gray seals. In total, we saw four sei whales (including a mom-calf pair), nine fin whales, 43 humpback whales, 9 minke whales, 93 Atlantic white-sided dolphins, and 52 gray seals!
We documented five more right whales on our transit back to PVC – it appears that many of them are still moving in and around CCB and adjacent waters. The big question remains: is the food resource still ideal in CCB and how long will the whales continue to feed in the bay? Our habitat team will be surveying CCB tomorrow to provide additional information on the food resource, and we’re curious about who we’ll see on the next survey.
18 April 2021
During our last flight we documented a lower number of right whales than “normal,” but since we knew there were aggregations in adjacent waters we suspected they could return – and they did. We flew a Cape Cod Bay south to north on this Sunday, and off the bat we found 7 right whales about 2 nm east of Chatham. Once we were in the bay it was pretty quiet, until track line 11 where we found a lot of skim feeding right whales in a longitudinal formation spanning almost 5 nm. We found more off the northwestern corner of the bay, but these were more difficult to work since they were feeding at depth. This is slightly reminiscent of 2018, when there were many right whales close to shore on the western side of Cape Cod Bay and north.
All in all, we documented 49 right whales, including 2 mom-calf pairs: #3869 Bocce and #2413 Nauset. Most were individuals we have seen previously this season, like adult males #3951 Domino and #3623 Bongo, but we did find some new ones too. #4020 Nymph is an 11-year-old adult female born to #1620 Mantis in 2010. We first saw her in CCB in 2012, and since then we have seen her every year.
With weather being nice tomorrow we will survey Massachusetts Bay to see if the aggregations are still present or have moved. Unfortunately, weather doesn’t look great for a bit after that so we will fly when we can and see how this season plays out.
14 April 2021
After flying a near-double survey last Friday, the aerial team took the time to rest while weather conditions were poor and start to catch up on processing the data. On Wednesday, we took advantage of the good weather to survey Cape Cod Bay again. Like last Friday, it appears there are still relatively low numbers of right whales in Cape Cod Bay. We found Champagne (#3904) and calf. Unlike some of the calves sighted so far this year, this one looked much smaller and more dependent on Mom. Luckily, Champagne was subsurface feeding, signaling she’s replenishing some of those fat stores that have been depleted by supporting a calf these last few months.
Next we had some familiar faces: #1017, Wolf (#1703), and #4440 all coordinated feeding. They were swimming at a fast clip while feeding, as we saw them a half hour later steadily feeding still, but nearly 2 miles south. The rest of the time in the bay mirrored much of what we saw on last Friday’s survey. All was quiet in the middle section of the bay, and Echo’s 2020 calf, now a yearling, was feeding at depth near where she was breaching non-stop last week.
When we moved on to our final track, on the ocean side of Cape, we found eleven whales that we saw back there on our last flight, once again all feeding. Spoon (#3730), Harmonia (#3101), and Sirius (#3660) were still among them. Since again we worked our normal survey quicker than anticipated, we added two more tracks on the fly to slightly more north of the Bay, to see if we would find more whales. We found three more, but nothing near the numbers from last week. What remains to be seen is if these whales are leaving in April, as we saw last year, or if we can expect a mid- to late-April influx of feeding whales into the bay, similar to what we saw in 2018. With the strong winds expected over the next few days, we may just start to see our answer as soon as next week.
08 + 09 April 2021
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” On Thursday, April 8, the aerial team had high hopes to survey Cape Cod Bay (CCB). Taking off mid-morning, we had beautiful conditions to start. On our first track, we found #3520 Millipede’s calf breaching and tail slapping, and living a very independent life. We stayed in the area so that we could ascertain that Millipede was nearby and well, and luckily found her subsurface feeding some distance away.
We continued on our track and shortly thereafter, found five more subsurface feeding right whales, north of our track. These whales were moving swiftly in a small area, and turning to take advantage of a patchy food resource. It wasn’t long before we continued on our way but we ran into problematic weather conditions on our next track line. Initially flying through patchy fog, it soon became a widespread low cloud layer. We managed four more tracks bouncing in and out of areas of poor visibility before deciding to land to refuel early and assess conditions for the rest of the survey area. When we got back up, we saw the low clouds were even more problematic and decided to scrub the mission for that day.
We tried again the next morning, Friday, and had much better luck. Mirroring our plan from the day before we flew north to south, and found 25 right whales north of our first couple of track lines. Most were feeding a few miles north of Race Point, Provincetown. From there, sighting conditions continued to be spectacular, but all was quiet in the middle of Cape Cod Bay.
It wasn’t until we reached the southern portion of the bay that we stumbled across a two mom-calf pairs and a yearling. The moms of the year, Bocce (#3860) and Magic (#1243), were feeding below the surface while their calves swam nearby.
Meanwhile the yearling, the 2020 calf of #2642 (Echo), was a mile south of them putting on quite the display. Tail slapping and repeated breaching went on for close to an hour, of which Brigid, as photographer, got amazing shots. After leaving this small aggregation, we finished our track lines in Cape Cod Bay, albeit hours ahead of sunset. Having the fuel and the daylight to continue, we decided to take advantage of the superb weather conditions, and chose to forgo our final track line on the ocean side of Outer Cape in favor of attempting our traditional Eastern outer shore survey.
Crossing over Chatham, we started the southern most of the Eastern twelve tracks in a south to north direction and found huge aggregations of right whales. Among them were many familiar faces seen earlier this season within CCB. We also had sightings of a few new animals, who we’re relieved to see make it safely to northern waters. #3720 and her 2021 calf were our first animals sighted. The calf was swimming nearby while #3040 Aviator and #3720 were engaged in a surface active group. After leaving them we found another 46 right whales, all feeding up and down the coast of outer Cape Cod.
With the majority of the whales feeding in the nearby waters, adjacent to CCB, we are waiting to see if the weather over the coming weeks push them back in to Cape Cod Bay or of whales following the food to their northern, summer feeding grounds.
03 April 2021
Conditions have not been ideal for aerial surveys the past couple weeks, but we took advantage of a small window on Saturday to get up in the air. Although wind gusts and sea state conditions were a bit high, our aerial team still managed to complete a survey of Cape Cod Bay and document 63 individual right whales, including two new mom-calf pairs for the bay, bringing our mom-calf total to five!
We took off from Provincetown Municipal Airport at 9:30am flying north to south. We were immediately busy, with right whale sightings off Race Point Beach before we even started our first track line. A bit to the north, just outside of CCB, we were greeted by one of the older right whales alive in the population (EGNO #1017) actively breaching. #1017 was first sighted in 1980, making him at least 40 years old. He is regularly sighted to the north in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of St. Lawrence, so we were pleased to sight him here in Cape Cod Bay, breaching away. We hope we are as agile when we’re his age…
Nearby, we encountered EGNO #1145 Grand Teton with her calf in tow. This was an exciting spot for the team, as #1145 Grand Teton is also an “older” whale, first documented in 1981 at as an adult, and has not been sighted in CCB since 2010!
Once we got to the eastern part of the bay, we began seeing larger aggregations both subsurface feeding and skim feeding close to Race Point Lighthouse and Herring Cove. We have heard from several of our photographer and nature enthusiast friends that these whales put on quite a show, which lasted all day and were visible from shore.
More whales were spotted further south, towards the center of the bay, including three moms, who were all subsurface feeding with their calves nearby. We resighted #3520 Millipede, #3860 Bocce and their calves, and added #1243 Magic and calf to our list of 2021 mom-calf pairs.
Our southern track lines closer to Sandy Neck were more quiet this survey, but at the end of the survey, as we headed back towards Provincetown Municipal Airport along the eastern side of the Cape, we were surprised by five more right whales close to shore at Race Point Beach. It seems to have been a great weekend for beach-going whale watchers!
It was also a productive day for our aerial team, and we are curious to see who we will find on our next survey.